Serving the Love of Jesus on a Plate

Community meals in the Loaves and Fishes Café

Every week for almost two years, a small church in Arklow, County Wicklow, has cooked and served at least 100 meals for people in their community - free of charge and no questions asked. This inspirational project is a wonderful example of how a small community of believers can make a big impact!

The Loaves and Fishes Café has become a lifeline in this post-industrial town of 13,000, which was devastated by the recession. And people receive so much more than just a meal.

People receive so much more than just a meal.

Pauline Hughes is one of the coordinators. “Recently, I went to hug someone and they were so taken aback,” she shared. “They said it had been years since anybody had hugged them!”

Bridge Christian Community was established in 1999. For years the church struggled to find places to meet, moving from hotel room to hotel room. “We soon realised there was a need for a community space with facilities not just for the church, but for the wider community as well,” shared Pastor Robert Holden.

Eventually in 2011, the church bought the former YouthReach building in the town centre, refurbished it and turned it into a church-cum-community centre. The Bridge Centre is in a townland known locally as the “Sheepfold,”
which seems apt!

Then in 2014, through a series of speakers and chance encounters, people in the church felt God was calling them to “feed people”.

“We took a group of teens on a mission trip to England and helped out on an allotment, which was growing food for the homeless. That inspired us,” Robert shared. “We had three conversations on the same day in which people encouraged us to start feeding people in Arklow. One person said. ‘I see you getting surplus food from supermarkets.’”

At the time, Robert thought such a thing was impossible but he came home and the very next day, the church received a call from “Food Cloud” a charity which aims to eliminate food waste by putting charities in touch with supermarkets that are throwing away surplus food.

“They told us our local Tesco had come on board,” Robert said. And with this first little miracle, the “community meal”
became a reality.

Once a week, every week the centre is opened up between 4.30 and 6.30pm for anybody who wants to come in for a hot meal. And the team also cooks and serves a meal on Christmas Day!

“We all eat together, volunteers and guests alike,” Robert said. “Some people come because they are hungry and a lot of people come because they are lonely. Some take ‘takeaways’ so we are feeding people we’ve never even met. We set out to serve the love of Jesus on a plate and we have stuck with that!”

The Loaves and Fishes Café uses food surplus from two local supermarkets (Tesco and Aldi) thanks to Food Cloud, and the church grows its own vegetables on an allotment - so the project is both cost effective and environmentally friendly! “We are serving about 100 meals and they could cost anything from 20 cent to 80 cent a meal. We’ve gone through a bucket load of money but we do it very economically,” Pauline explained.

And the food itself is extremely tasty too! Pauline added, “It is just ordinary people who are doing the cooking. They cook as if they were cooking for the family and then multiply the quantities. But we have never had a meal that didn’t taste good!”

It didn’t take much publicity to launch. Working hand-in-hand with Social Welfare and the local council’s Social Inclusion network as well as charity, St. Vincent de Paul, word soon spread.

“The first time someone comes in is a big deal,” Pauline said. “People can feel embarrassed but it helps that they see that we are eating with them. People come in for all sorts of reasons.”

The café has a play area for little ones and a homework room for older children, so whole families can come in.

People in the church provide home bakes every week so after the cooked meal, there is always a cuppa and cake to finish off. Everybody in the church has become involved and they now have a “bank” of 40 eager local volunteers, many of whom had no previous connection with the church.

It is hard work but a lot of fun too. “Yesterday, we were so filled with joy, we were waltzing around the kitchen,” smiled Pauline.

If Jesus were still walking the earth, He would be sitting at one of those tables talking to people.

OPEN DOORS AND OPEN HEARTS
“There is a massive community spirit in Arklow and when people see a good thing, they get behind it,” Robert added. “We had been praying for years about how we could reach this community. Somehow the barriers have come down. It has taken years and years of work and lovely local people who have been praying and praying and praying for this community.”

Since launching Loaves and Fishes Café, the church members have found more and more opportunities to pray for people and invite them to services. With positive newspaper articles and fund-raising support from a range of local community groups, the project has opened doors and opened hearts.

“You are very kind. I haven’t experienced a lot of kindness in my life,” one man told the team, as he showed them photos of his children.

“It really is a miracle that such a small church has been able to do this,” Robert said. (There is a core of about 12 people in the church.) “The way God has blessed us has been amazing. We’ve had other churches in the town donate gifts to us. Our church helps out at the local Presbyterian church’s children’s camp each year and then out-of-the-blue a Presbyterian church in the North sent us a large donation that went towards our industrial cooker.”

As a result of the café and the church’s popular Parent and Toddler group, people are beginning to come along to special church events and Sunday Services. But it is often in the one-to-one chats over the dinner table that the most profound opportunities take place.

“If Jesus were still walking the earth, He would be sitting at one of those tables talking to people,” Pauline said.