Invite the Poor

On the day after Thanksgiving, New York City lawyer Hunter Carter paid $1,000 to do something he had never done before: share a meal with a group of homeless people.

The opportunity came via Fare Share Friday, a first-time fundraiser at his church, St. Bartholomew’s in midtown Manhattan. He was among the 167 New Yorkers who paid $100 per plate to have a fine dining experience side-by-side with 257 of their most vulnerable neighbors. For one night, rich and poor engaged each other as equals and savored the experience.

“Nothing I’ve ever done or experienced as a Christian compares to what I felt sitting there at Fare Share Friday,” Carter said a few weeks later. “If I ever thought Jesus could walk in and be among us, it was there.”

By all accounts, the evening had the air of a special night. Tables had white tablecloths. Servers brought salmon and other gourmet dishes donated by the Waldorf Astoria and Palace hotels. Homeless guests spiffed up for the occasion and donors wore come-as-you-are casual, to the point that one could hardly tell who was homeless and who wasn’t. They passed bowls and serving plates around family style. It all happened just a few steps from the altar.

Table conversation was awkward at first, but soon people were sharing stories. Carter’s mother broke the ice by asking guests directly: “How did you become homeless?” One young man explained that he had come from a Southern state to find work in New York. When his dream did not pan out, he could not afford to return home. An older man summed up his story: many years of homelessness had stigmatized him. Now no one wants to hire him, so he’s stuck.

Carter choked back tears when he told about the man at the table who did not dare dine.

“Rather than eat with us, he put all his food in a to-go box and looked nervously around, like, When can I leave?” Carter recalled. “He was telling us how he couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten a Thanksgiving meal and how good it was. He just didn’t want it to pass. He wanted to hold on to it. He was afraid that it would run out, or that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.”

Fare Share Friday was the idea of the Rev. Edward Sunderland, associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s. He’s also executive director of Crossroads Community Services, a soup kitchen, food pantry, and shelter founded by St. Bart’s.

He had sensed an opportunity as Thanksgiving approached. Staff at neighboring hotels, which regularly donate food to Crossroads, asked how they might do something special for the homeless. Sunderland suggested a special meal be served on a day when people in need often feel forgotten: the day after Thanksgiving. And why not invite people of means to join them?

“The Church can be a place where businesses can come together with people who are interested in solving the problems of hunger and homelessness, along with the people who are living the problems of hunger and homelessness,” Sunderland said. “What an amazing benefit that is — not only for the world, but also for the Church.”

Fare Share Friday was the first fundraising event for Crossroads, and it proved a smashing success. Plate receipts generated $16,700. More than $70,000 poured in from donors who did not dine but wanted to support the event. After expenses, net proceeds from the night came to $70,000. That’s enough to cover about 18 percent of the Crossroads budget for the year.

Sunderland plans to offer Fare Share Friday again in the week of Thanksgiving next year. He hopes to publish a kit to help other congregations follow the model and stage their own Fare Share Friday events.

“We’re hoping that next year we’ll be able to get some buzz going about this,” Sunderland said, “and really take more ground in terms of changing the place that our church, soup kitchen, shelter, and food pantry have in the national dialogue about this by trying to replicate this across the country.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald

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