|Students serve hot meals at the Marin County Rotating Emergency Shelter
By Christopher L. Schilling
On Friday, January 25 a group of students, faculty and staff from San Francisco Theological Seminary entered into a cold church kitchen at First Presbyterian Church in San Anselmo. However, the chilled air didn't last for long. Almost immediately, the kitchen began to warm-up with stoves cooking homemade stew and ovens warming-up freshly made breads. The spirit of excitement began to resonate in the church kitchen as volunteers readied themselves for a very special event.
San Francisco Theological Seminary once again co-hosted a night at the Marin County Rotating Emergency Shelter program called “REST.” The program, run by St. Vincent DePaul Society of Marin is a collaboration between churches and synagogues that hosts men and women during the winter season in Northern California. For the past four winters, First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo has been hosting on average, 40 men in its Duncan Hall. This is the second year that the SFTS community has co-hosted a night at the shelter. SFTS students, professors and staff set up the hall, cook and serve meals, and wash dishes. And while all these tasks are important, the most valuable gift SFTS community members provide is human interaction and a sense of community with the men at the shelter.
Joy Snyder, coordinator of the shelter at First Presbyterian, said the purpose of the shelter is to provide a warm meal and a safe place for the homeless men to sleep, and an opportunity for volunteers to help the homeless feel less invisible.
“One of the more important things the REST program affords the guests are several groups of people who literally recognize them on a nightly basis,” Snyder said. “Personally, I remember everything from one guest who said, 'this evening [in the Shelter] we can at least pretend for a few hours that everything is OK.'”
While the students, faculty and staff of SFTS believe that making and serving food at the shelter are important, it’s the time they are able to spend with the men that impacts them the most.
“I was touched when we gathered during the prayer circle,” said Alexander Wendeheart, a first-year Masters in Divinity student. “It was not so much the prayer circle but the community that I saw around the circle. Even when one of the men had difficulty maintaining his attention, the group retained their unified attention and no one hassled him. I could tell that he felt safe among them. I appreciated that they were not individualistic but a collective of men who were their own community.”
Serving as co-hosts at the shelter is a great way for SFTS faculty, staff and students to share their many culinary gifts and talents with others. Joining the talented SFTS team this year is Laura Nelson, a fourth-year Masters in Divinity Student who made polenta and baked bread. “I volunteered to help with the shelter because feeding people is part of who I am,” said Nelson. “While I have supported shelters like this in other ways, I have not been on hand to cook dinner and eat with the guests before. This was a great opportunity for me.”
Snyder shared that she was amazed by the energy and the spirit that filled Duncan Hall, boasting it as a fine example of tabletop ministry. “Once the meal was served, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I saw volunteers engaged in conversation with our homeless guests. After dinner, the camaraderie in the kitchen throughout cleanup was palpably spirit-filled. And then, the "good-byes" were lingering and heartfelt.”
As the evening came to a close, members of the SFTS community were already talking about ideas for the next winter shelter they will co-host. For the seminary community, working at the shelter allows them to have worship and conversation with the shelter guests over homemade cooked foods. And working at the shelter allows them to give back to others in a special way.
"See a need, fill a need," stated Wendeheart. “It is a silly quote from a Disney film, but volunteering is a chance to give back to the community.”