CHESTNUT HILL, Pa. — Before she opened the door at St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Judy Howard had been inside a house of worship only a few times in her life.
She had gone through what she calls “one of those transitions we all hate.” Her partner had died. So she walked into nearby St. Martin’s — not for church, but for Supper.
“I was standing there with my plate, probably looking a little bewildered, and somebody said, ‘Come sit down,’ ” said Howard, a psychotherapist and mother of two adult children. “It was just so easy. Everybody understands sitting down to eat.”
That simple sharing of a meal has led Howard — who eventually joined St. Martin’s — to a community in which she has found connection and friendship. It is an outcome that member Debra Roberts didn’t expect when she conceived of Supper eight years ago to help food-insecure families.
The program provides a free meal five times a month at St. Martin’s and at three other Episcopal churches in northwest Philadelphia. There are no strings attached: no qualifications, no requirements to sit through a sermon or to participate in anything religious. Two of the churches don’t even say grace before the meal. Visitors need only pick up a plate, walk through the buffet line and eat.
Since 2012, attendance has totaled 20,000 for meals at St. Martin’s (on the second and fourth Wednesdays); Christ Church and St. Michael’s in Germantown (the fourth Saturday); Church of St. Alban in Roxborough (the second Tuesday); and Grace Epiphany in Mount Airy (the third Wednesday). Dinner — always an entrée, salad, fresh fruit, bread, and dessert — is dished up for an hour starting at 6 p.m., except at Christ Church and St. Michael’s, where it begins at 3 p.m. and ends at 5 p.m.
“The first year, it was really about the food, thinking we needed to help people enjoy a free meal with no stigma,” said Roberts, an executive experienced in running area philanthropic organizations, including the Ronald McDonald House and Gift of Life Family House. “But along the way, I learned so much about community and the need for connection, and how powerful (that is).”
At any Supper meal, the social worker next door may be sitting across from the harried mom, kids in tow, who’s taking a break from cooking for the family. The professor who is recovering from an illness may be chatting about family with the food-insecure senior who really needs a free meal. They may be Christian, or not.
“You can sit down, people start talking to you, and you don’t feel like you’re crashing someone’s party,” said Jack Slawson, 77, a retired social worker from Elkins Park who is divorced and drives to Chestnut Hill for Supper.
Roberts, 70, of Wyndmoor, began thinking about the nuances of food insecurity in the aftermath of the 2008 stock market crash, which crushed so many families — even in old-money Chestnut Hill, where houses were lost to foreclosure. She heard about one family living in a car while the children attended a nearby private school, trying to maintain an image that everything was OK.
In June 2011 she approached the Rev. Jarrett Kerbel — rector of St. Martin’s and dean of the Wissahickon Deanery of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania — about offering free meals at St. Martin’s to the community. The following February, church members served their first meal of beef and vegetarian chili (there’s always a vegetarian entrée option), green salad, corn bread and brownies.
More than 40 enjoyed Supper that evening. But soon, diners began attending as much for the camaraderie of breaking bread with fellow church members, neighbors and strangers.
Eventually, Kerbel recruited the three additional churches, which have developed their own unique dining ambience.
St. Alban’s includes an arts and crafts table for all the children dashing around the room, a measure of the young families moving into the neighborhood.
St. Martin’s, whose diners are among the most culturally and ethnically diverse, presents a 20-minute, post-meal concert of plainsong and chant called “A Nightcap for the Soul.”
Grace Epiphany, which also offers music (any neighbor or attendee can sing or share a talent at Supper), has guests of so many different faiths that no grace is said.
At Christ Church and St. Michael’s, whose meals are run by two former school teachers, a winter giveaway of donated books and a summer youth reading challenge are part of the Supper experience. Dining music is provided by jazz keyboardist Eugene “Lamb Chop” Curry.
Erin Mooney of Mount Airy brings her husband and three children, ages 4 to 13, to Supper at St. Martin’s.
“What’s amazing is you meet members of the community you’d never talk to, and get to know them in ways you never would otherwise,” Mooney said. At Supper, she added, her son Sullivan, 13, has found acceptance of his autism in ways he hasn’t at other places.
St. Martin’s maintains a volunteer kitchen crew of 25, who prepare lasagna, chili, corned beef and cabbage, sloppy joes, tarragon chicken, and salmon with dill, gathering early in the day to chop, slice, sauté, and bake. The bonds they’ve forged last long after dessert.
“We’ve gone through weddings, babies, divorces, and cancer treatments,” Roberts said of her St. Martin’s cooks. “We are there for each other.”
Renee Coleman, of Christ Church and St. Michael’s, describes the preparation and serving she does with coleader Rose Muriel Rains as a community outreach that makes her feel like a “shepherd doing God’s work.”