PBS NewsHour special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports from the Rev. Margaret Kelly’s ministry food truck, called Shobi’s Table, in this Religion & Ethics Newsweekly report.
Nine out of 10 Americans say they believe in God and two out of three say religion is an important part of their daily lives. However, this does not translate into regular attendance in a house of worship, where surveys have concluded that perhaps a third of Americans actually show up once a week.
There are probably several reasons for this discordance but for the demographic the Rev. Margaret Kelly is trying to serve in St. Paul, Minnesota, the reason is pretty obvious: They are simply too poor.
“If you have someone with limited access to money, church is the last thing that you can expect someone to use that limited resource” for, she says.
Earlier this year, Kelly, 33, began taking the church to the street in a food truck, expanding the notion of congregation, communion and charity in the Lutheran tradition in which she was raised, ordained and still serves. Every Thursday, Kelly and a group of volunteers gather in the solidly brick and mortar basement of St. Paul’s Gustavus Adolphus Church to roll out hundreds of meat- and cheese-filled calzones, to be loaded and baked in her food truck and distributed along with bottled water at their weekly noon time service.
“We’re doing our charity rather than simply handing it out,” Kelly says of the volunteers’ effort to prepare the meals. “We’re cooking ourselves and building a community.”
A loyal group is waiting as the truck arrives in front of a dollar store on Payne Avenue, in the city’s struggling east side neighborhood. For many, Kelly says, this will be their healthiest meal of the week. The lack of access to freshly cooked food is a major problem among the poor, she says, aggravating common conditions like diabetes, obesity and some mental illness. The calzones aren’t exactly health food, Kelly admits, but at least they’re made from scratch and minimally processed compared to the store-bought frozen staples for many who live on the margins.
For congregants at this gathering, there’s clearly more hunger in body than soul. Of the dozens of people who pick up their meal, only a handful sticks around for the service that follows. Some street preachers will often hand out freebies only after their services but Kelly finds that approach disrespectful and distasteful.
“People are hungry and I’m not trying to hold people hostage with the Bible,” she says. “God speaks for God’s self and I am simply here to share that message.”
In her ministry, Kelly sees a church shifting to become relevant to more people’s lives. Amid all the world’s chaos, the wars and epidemics, she draws comfort from the shifts she’s seen in her mainline Lutheran denomination, whose 105- congregation Twin Cities synod supports her. She cites a growing partnership her ministry has with a suburban congregation as one example of this shift.
“Less than 10 years ago they might never have given this church money, because of who I am, because I married a woman,” she says. “So I see those things, and I think God’s pretty good, because these are relationships I never would have expected. And I don’t mean that to sound trite, because those are just small relationships in the world. But it gives me hope that we can move to places where we are not beheading journalists, where we are not shooting young men, where we are not doing these things, because we are attempting to build relationships across socio-economic divides.”