I just began a new ministry here in Connecticut as the chef at the Thomas Merton Center (a day shelter) in Bridgeport which is one of the poorest cities in the state. I am so happy to be back in a kitchen doing what I love most after experiencing two years of novitiate. The Thomas Merton Center is housed in what used to be St. Joseph’s church in a rundown neighborhood characterized by unkempt and abandoned houses cordoned off by chain link fences. The center still looks like a church from the outside even though the stained glass windows are covered with bars, and inside the pews were removed to make way for almost two dozen tables. The altar and the vestibule are now the kitchen and store rooms. Having my new kitchen housed in a room that is still reminiscent of an altar, gothic arches and all, has been a unique experience. It is a challenge for me in two ways, first because the program has not been kept up for quite some time and its rundown condition troubles me. It saddens me to see a kitchen and food, both of which are spiritual experiences for me, treated in such a thoughtless way. The second challenge comes with my desire to live up to these auspicious surroundings. I have often experienced food and the art of cooking as a spiritual exercise both in its connection to creation and the God of Creation, as well as in the art of cooking and eating mindfully, which is to say in such a way that enjoying the food becomes a meditation.
We are fed in many ways and just so my ministry to feed the hungry goes beyond filling empty bellies; it is filling starving souls. Many guests come to the Center, or any soup kitchen, just for a meal; however, just as often guests come because they are alone and isolated by their poverty, addiction, or illness. I think one of the reasons humans gather, whether it’s for a meal or to be around the table of the Eucharist, is to be reminded that we are not alone. My ministry as chef is to facilitate the gathering and as such I can think of no better place for a day shelter’s kitchen then an altar.