Room For All

It is 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon. The kitchen at Church of Our Redeemer is bustling. Onions are being chopped, spices are being laid out, the pots are steaming and the kitchen smells delicious. The volunteer cooks are dressed in white chefs’ jackets and I can hear the conversation between them.

“Should I cut the cilantro finer?”
“This will make the chicken juicier.”
“Maybe a little more salt?”

These careful preparations are for Lex Eat Together, a free dining experience that takes place every Wednesday evening at Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington, MA. Open to anyone from the community in need of a nutritious meal and companionship, this service is run entirely by volunteers who desire to share food and time with those in need. Every week, people from around Lexington join in the church’s Great Hall to enjoy a delicious meal, complete with desserts and fruit, at beautifully set tables served by volunteers with love.

Just a few years ago, however, this would not have been possible. The Great Hall at the Church of Our Redeemer was in need of a massive renovation. Used for a variety of different programs and activities over the years, the wear and tear had become increasingly visible. The Rev. Kate Ekrem, Rector of Church of Our Redeemer, explained “Our church was built in the 1950s, and our hall, in particular, had had no work done since that time! We also felt that although we were a warm and welcoming community, we held our coffee hour in a space that was cold and bare, and this didn’t reflect the personality of the congregation.” And so the congregation started dreaming of what it would be like to have a truly welcoming Parish Hall, one that reflected their mission and identity.

The first step the congregation took was discernment. This included conversations with all the key stakeholders who used the space, to determine what changes would make the experience better for them. The food pantry, Sunday school, Alcoholics Anonymous, and widow-support groups, among others, all contributed their ideas. At the same time, the church was housing and supporting several homeless families in the community. There were playgroups for the children and dinners for the families in the hall, and the congregation felt they could be better hosts to everyone if the space was improved.

A capital campaign was clearly needed, and the church entered the process prayerfully and deliberately. After interviewing many consultants, they decided that Leslie Pendleton from the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) was the right fit for them. “She really got us and understood the culture of our community”, Kate said.

ECF Capital Campaign consultant Leslie Pendleton said “When I got involved with Church of Our Redeemer as their ECF capital campaign consultant, they had already conducted a thorough discernment of their own over the previous year. I was impressed by their committed lay leaders who had engaged the community and built real excitement over what the Great Hall could mean for their common life and mission. Before I arrived they had already expressed their vision for the space: ‘A revitalized Great Hall space that will serve as a place for nourishment, support and renewal in our community, and will help us to serve as Christ’s presence in the world.’ Not only did they succeed, I think they exceeded their dreams. The Hall is truly ‘a place for nourishment’ for parishioners, neighbors, newcomers, students, and other worshipping communities. It was an honor to be a part of this transformation.”

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The rest, as they say, is history. With a congregation this driven and determined, it was a given that the campaign would be immensely successful. While their goal was to raise 800K, they exceeded that and ultimately raised 900K for repairs and restorations to the parish hall, including the addition of a state-of-the-art elevator which made the hall accessible to all visitors.

One of the main priorities for the church was having the highest level of hospitality for their guests and their community. Their campaign logo was Room for the Spirit, Room for All and this desire to open their church to everyone around them in a loving, nourishing way was the impetus behind the whole campaign. Nowhere is this spirit more apparent than at the Lex Eat Together meals every Wednesday night. On the very first Wednesday about 18 months ago, 35 guests showed up to eat together in community. Today, the program feeds close to 80 guests each week.

A true community program, the cooks, servers and hosts are from both the congregation and the Lexington community at large. People sign up online each week to volunteer and there are now 250 people of different faiths and backgrounds giving of their time and service to Lex Eat Together.

It’s the little things that make a difference. There are fresh flowers every week on the tables. It’s not a buffet line; instead, a server shares the food options for the evening and once guests have made a choice they are served at their table. “This level of care and attention to detail really makes people feel valued, and that is what we’re trying to do – we want to show God’s love to people, and that we love and value them,” Kate shared.

This attention to detail was also critical when considering how to make the space more accessible. Across the street from the church is Douglas House, a recovery home for people with brain injuries. During one Advent concert and cookie reception, the church invited the folks from Douglas House but because many had large, motorized wheelchairs, they couldn’t fit in the old elevator to access the hall for the reception. This sparked the need for a new elevator and ramps, but the campaign committee really thought about how the elevator would be used, where to place it (that it was centrally located and not off to one corner), so that guests could use it with dignity and without any assistance. The resulting elevator is large enough to fit motorized wheelchairs, and guests from Douglas House who now often join the weekly meal, can use it without any help because of the location and construction. George Murnaghan, the Capital Campaign Committee chair noted “The space has allowed us to have the outreach ministry we want, so that all the different groups that use this space can truly feel at home.”

As the tables are being set for this Wednesday’s meal, Harriet Kaufmann, one of the founders of Lex Eat Together, is matching the napkins to the flower arrangements. “It’s like a party!” she says with a smile, as her swift hands continue working. A guest from Douglas House who arrived early asked Bruce Lynn, Head of Food Operations, if he could lend a hand, and soon was bagging fruit for guests to take home after the meal. The menu was put up front at the entrance, and greeters took their places near the door. As the tables started filling up, I noticed one extra table, prepared but not laid out with cutlery – just in case there were more guests than usual.

As the tables began filling with people, old friends greeted each other and new guests introduced themselves. At my table, I met Maura from Douglas House, who said “The food in Douglas House is good, but I come here to meet people. There is a closeness.” A significant Chinese community joins the program each week. I hear that they once brought delicious dumplings for everyone to share.

It’s amazing how a capital campaign, if done right, can transform not just a space, or even a church, but an entire community. The ripple effects are far and many fold, and from the looks of it, there certainly is “Room For All” at Our Church of the Redeemer.

Charis Bhagianathan is ECF's Senior Communications Coordinator, and Editor of ECF Vital Practices. She focuses on strategic internal and external communications, branding, and social media. While Charis has always enjoyed working in marketing and communications, her heart lies in new media and writing.