The smell of breakfast wafted down the breezeway before I ever stepped through the door. I greeted the staff gathered there, my eyes surveying the dining hall. Tables were decorated in banquet fashion, and Christmas décor adorned the walls. A beautifully decorated tree stood in the corner.
“What’s on the menu?” I asked the male staff busy cooking in the kitchen.
“Scrambled eggs, steak, hash browns, and biscuits and gravy,” John answered, a smile plastered across his face.
Men in the kitchen cooking always makes me smile. This wasn’t your typical kitchen and these weren’t typical men. It‘s a commercial kitchen and these men were staff at Teen Challenge, a Christian residential facility helping those with life-controlling addictions.
Every year we set aside one day before Christmas to shower the fifty men in the program with holiday cheer that encompassed the whole day. It always started with breakfast prepared, served, set up and cleaned up by the staff, something normally done by the men in the program.
Our group of staff lined up as the men in the program began to file in. We clapped, cheered, and shouted Christmas greetings as this motley array of men, some hardened, grinned from ear to ear, some blushing at the exuberance of our welcome. Some staff grabbed plates and began serving the men, others grabbed pitchers and carafes of coffee, orange juice and milk and started filling cups and glasses.
I always enjoyed this day, but this particular year was especially poignant. After nineteen years, this would be my last year on staff of this wonderful ministry. My smile was forced as I blinked back tears with each, “Coffee? Orange juice? Milk?” that I offered, warmed by the men’s heartfelt appreciation.
After everyone was served, the staff lined up and sang Christmas carols or told humorous stories. I stood to the back as memories of this dining hall and kitchen washed over me.
I was filled with reflections that morning. I remembered the move in 1994 from the smaller facility on Monroe Avenue to this larger, abandoned hotel that allowed us to increase the number of men we could take in. It had been trashed by the homeless population. It took months of renovations, performed by the men in the program, staff, MAPS workers (retirees that travel the nation donating time and materials to repair and renovate churches and ministries), and a group of devoted men and women from Texas.
It was the women’s touch that made this kitchen as efficient as it could be while maintaining Health Department standards. It was MAPS workers and those good Texas folks that cooked some of the first meals in that kitchen.
For years we did a Friday night chapel service for the homeless, followed by a delicious meal. Different churches and organizations took turns preparing and serving meals out of the kitchen for this event. More important than the meal was what happened around the altars at the close of the chapel service. The homeless came for the meal but were required to attend chapel first. Only eternity will show the lives that were touched and ministered to.
I remember all the outreaches to the impoverished children in the community. These kids came every week to hear about Jesus and get snacks, sack lunches and treats. Then there was the group of firemen that came and served hotdogs to the children that came for our Back-to-School Backpack Outreach.
There were many mornings when I arrived at work to see teams of teenagers from youth groups around the nation swarming out of the kitchen. They came as a mission endeavor and helped with passing out flyers to the community that told about Teen Challenge and our outreaches. They also did chapel services and helped with our children’s outreach.
I thought of all those Christmases when churches, organizations, local firemen, policemen and military brought in toys for the children of the men in the program and the needy children in the community. Local businesses donated donuts and coffee served to the volunteers that came for these events.
That morning in 2010, I knew that more than anything, I would miss the clanging of the large metal bell three times every day that signaled breakfast, lunch or dinner was ready, and hearing the pounding of dozens of feet as everyone headed to the dining hall to eat.
That kitchen served more than meals. It served love, concern, compassion and the Good News of Jesus Christ.
**True story. Teen Challenge is a worldwide ministry helping individuals and families since 1958.
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