By Jennifer Colosimo
Back in the 1960s, Hampton Baptist Church started a soup kitchen to serve the local Hampton, Va., community in need. As more than 50 years have passed and mindsets have evolved, organizers wanted to show that the program had done the same. Volunteers were doing much more than serving a meal. They were also doing things in a way that was a whole lot different, a way that was empowering for the people it served, and surprisingly, for the people who serve, too.
In 2015, the soup kitchen became SAME, an acronym meaning So All May Eat. It was now a new organization concerned with much more than one hot meal every week.
Yes, that complimentary Monday meal is still the meat and potatoes of what they do; but it laid the foundation for a place where people could visit to feel welcome, cared for and lifted up on both sides of the buffet line.
It now includes a clothing closet that invites community members to shop, boutique-style, for clothing and accessories. Clients make their own style choices, and can solicit help or express their own opinions.
A monthly mobile food pantry lets families pick out the groceries they want and, in that partnership with the Virginia Peninsula Foodbank, they include a delivery service for those who don’t have transportation.
“When we rebranded, we wanted to try to be more inclusive of people, and help them feel less patronized,” said Amy Witcover-Sandford, coordinator for SAME. “We wanted to step away from the idea that you visit a soup kitchen and get whatever they put on your plate to more of a welcoming place, a place where people could sit down with family and talk and relax. We want them to feel comfortable, and want them to enjoy coming here.”
She remembers her first time at the clothing closet as something akin to Black Friday at Walmart. This meant they were doing their guests a major disservice, putting them in a position to perceive scarcity and that they would have to fight for what they could get. That’s exactly the experience they wanted to counter and the mindset they wanted to shift.
“We have created a place where people are accepted and loved,” Witcover-Sandford said. “We don’t look down on people because they’re hungry, or because they’re addicted, have mental issues or because they’re out of a job, or because they just got out of jail, or because they’re working three jobs. We want to take ourselves out of the dualist view of people who are in need and people who have, because in God’s eyes we’re all the same.”
“We care about sharing Jesus with people,” added Andrew Garnett, pastor of Hampton Baptist Church. “But we have an understanding that the Gospel is about more than that. It’s about the whole person. We’re doers, and we’ve got a diverse congregation, theologically and socio-economically. It makes us willing to open our doors and be welcoming of people when we see in ourselves how different we are from each other.”
The handful of volunteers from which SAME originated has grown well into double digits, and continues to inflate several times a year to welcome part-time volunteers from the community. On Mondays, around 20 volunteers help run the lunch service and additional volunteers work throughout the week with the clothing closet, the food pantry, and stocking trucks for the food delivery service, among other tasks.
“As our program has grown, so has our volunteer base,” Witcover-Sandford said. “Our Hampton Baptist group has welcomed youth groups from the area, local businesses who want to pitch in, and other organizations to make an even bigger impact for the people in this community. We’re all over the place with our belief systems, but we’re all there to love our neighbors. We all agree that people need to eat and people need to be treated with dignity, respect and love. Together, we experience God in a way that you can’t do just sitting in a pew.”
“This is really one of the most powerful aspects of the program—that we can be here and be doing the kinds of things we think Jesus would do,” Garnett added. “To be loving people and caring for people in Jesus’ name, and to be doing it with a much larger group of people who maybe don’t have a church or don’t go to our church. The fact that we can partner on something that we all agree on can be very powerful.”
Not only is it a place for people to come for lunch, shop for clothes and sign up for groceries, but it’s also a location to register to vote, meet with the health department or social services, get help with transportation issues and more.
In 2021, they met nearly 1,000 different people, serving more than 4,000 lunches, giving away more than 6,000 articles of clothing and delivering enough groceries for families to cook 16,000 meals.
According to Garnett, its impact goes even further, making a difference not only in the guests but also in the church members, giving them something that challenges them and stretches their mindset and something to be proud of and rally around together. It’s transformative for both sides, he said.
“Monday is my favorite day of the week,” Witcover-Sandford added. “I don’t go in there thinking that we’re going to teach people about God or tell them about Jesus. I go in there realizing that God is present. Jesus is present. And I have as much to learn from the people who come and get food as they have to learn from me. In fact, I think I learn a lot more about God’s love and grace from our guests than they probably learn from me.”
“In the bigger picture, something like this is really important right now,because we seem to be more polarized and more tribal as a society. We stick with our people,” Garnett said. “To me, church is one of the few opportunities we have in our country today to go and sit by somebody who is a different socioeconomic class than you or a different political party than you. We just don’t have that too much anymore; and if we don’t have that, then we can’t have really good, honest conversations anymore. This is a place where we are mixing different ethnicities, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, trying to put everyone on something of the same playing field, treating them as equals—like I think Jesus would have wanted us to do. To be able to offer that right now is a powerful witness to what society could be.”