The Pay-What-You-Can Cafe

Who Do You Say That I Am? Lenten Series Post #6

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me. … I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!

Matthew 25:35-36, 40

A few days ago, I arrived in Raleigh, North Carolina for a conference. A client had recently told me about a pay-what-you-can cafe there where anyone is welcome to dine regardless of means, and she spoke highly of it. Seeing as I had arrived several hours earlier than my hotel check-in time, I decided to drive straight to the cafe — A Place at the Table — and enjoy a long lunch.

As I navigated Raleigh’s downtown in search of the cafe and of parking, I realized I was approaching this experience with a high degree of cynicism. My thoughts ranged from “I bet it’s just a bunch of rich, white people eating, volunteering, and feeling exceedingly good about themselves for it,” to “I bet the food sucks.” If I’m being honest.

I found parking directly in front of the cafe and was stunned. What I saw was nothing like what I expected. At half a dozen tables outside, there were professionals on their lunch break, clergy members, a group of college-age students, and several individuals experiencing homelessness. People from all walks of life were dining—together.

The story was the same inside the restaurant. Staff included a mix of those giving their time because they wanted to and others who volunteered in exchange for a meal. I purchased a meal token as a donation along with my own veggie sandwich and cappuccino, and the man behind me in line used it to “purchase” his lunch.

I sat down at one of the outdoor tables, tore into my insanely delicious sandwich, and once again tracked my thoughts. 

I was annoyed at the man who had with him what appeared to be all of his belongings—

including a radio which he chose to play loudly. I found myself hoping that another especially chatty man who was visiting each table would skip mine. I discovered that minutes after I had prematurely judged this establishment for failing to extend dignity to all, I was withholding dignity.

I had forgotten that to feed those who are hungry here is to feed Jesus. To smile and chat with those who are lonely is to smile and chat with Jesus. To bob my head and sing along in appreciation of the music is to extend kindness to Jesus. How much I have to learn.

The judgment continued, however; this time turned toward myself. From my car to the checkout counter to my table, my reactions and thoughts had fallen far short of the person I want to be, the person I believe I am. I was disappointed in myself so, as I often do, I buried myself in shame.

Until, blessedly, about half way through my meal—a miracle. I remembered that sometimes I, too, am the least of these. That I, too, sometimes need to extend kindness and gentleness to my own self. And that in doing so, I am extending those same gifts to Jesus.

Some days, the least of these look like the man behind me in line who used the token I had purchased for his meal. Some days, the least of these look like me. But no matter the day, we all look a whole lot like Jesus.

— Christen Kinard

Food Lent Spirituality

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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