Food Biz

How One Church in Harlem Feeds the Hungry on Thanksgiving—with Dignity

November 24, 2016

Public awareness of the many barriers in access to healthy, hearty food tends to swell around the holidays, with a real uptick in drives and campaigns that seek to quell hunger for the marginalized. Yet this can result in some good-hearted, misguided efforts to rectify longstanding food insecurity. The prosaic understanding of volunteering during the holidays tends to evoke Dickensian images of do-gooders ladling gobs of soup into makeshift bowls for the needy for a few hours—something that can be humiliating for those on the other end of the volunteers' goodwill.

For the past decade, the First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem has tried to redress this very tension. Every Thanksgiving, the church has transformed its pews and hallways into a restaurant outfitted with white tablecloths, for the express purpose of serving local residents of homeless and domestic violence shelters a robust, restaurant-style Thanksgiving meal with home-cooked dishes from congregants. It's got restaurant-style table service and menus, with dishes served by waiters and hosts in uniform. Their charity, too, extends to delivery service for bodega workers, barbers, and anyone else in the neighborhood who's working on the holiday. This gesture is predicated on a simple idea: restore dignity to a practice that can lack it.

“He sort of felt [the typical soup kitchen] lacks dignity,” Jillian Youngblood, a representative for the church, told me of Rev. Michael A. Walrond, Jr. ("Pastor Mike," as he's known), the man who initially conceived of this project a decade ago. “You show up and the volunteers don’t have training, or they only have training that lasted twenty minutes. It’s part of a larger program that’s something sloshed together for the needy,” she explained. “That’s nice, but it’s not enough.”

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Since its inception ten years ago, the event has blossomed in popularity and scope: Last year, the church hosted over twelve hundred people. This year, they’re expecting upwards of fifteen hundred. The aim of this project is to host an event wherein the guests are valued as individuals. “We want to welcome you here,” Youngblood told me. “We don’t want to make you feel like you’re isolated in some corner eating off a tray.”

The training process for volunteers—of which there are 200—is accordingly intense, involving an hours-long pre-Thanksgiving meeting of all the volunteers wherein they run through the game plan and hospitality. The event's organizers give the same pointers that any restaurant manager would to new employees: smile. Be polite and welcoming. Talk about what’s on the menu. Check in every few minutes to see if there’s anything else you can do. A great number of these guests haven’t been to a nice, sit-down meal in a long time, and so the volunteers are prepped to make guests feel genuinely welcome, rather than mere bodies in a charity queue.

The menu will be composed of the expected Thanksgiving staples—turkey, string beans, collard greens, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and peas and rice. One crowd favorite, Youngblood told me, is Jalylah Burrell’s smoked mac-and-cheese. It includes two kinds of pasta, penne and chiocciole; seven kinds of cheese, mozzarella and fontina and asiago and provolone and Monterey Jack and cheddar and pecorino; half and half; white pepper; hickory-smoked salt; and liquid smoke.

When I asked what the event's organizers have been most worried about for this year's go-around, Youngblood commented that the pain of working out logistical kinks hasn't eased with time. "Well, timing is really a challenge," she said. "Everyone just needs to be doing their job. All of the food needs to be there in time. Everyone needs to be in uniform. All those details need to fall in place. It's like planning a wedding," she laughed.

I wanted to speak to Pastor Mike himself about his experience seeing his project grow over the years. I’d been courting him for a fifteen minute conversation for days. He’d been all over the place in the planning process, and I ultimately couldn't get a hold of him to ask him more about what it took to pull an endeavor of this magnitude off—he was too busy.

Are there similar initiatives around where you live? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.