Friday Night Supper: The Meaning Behind the Meal
by Matthew Cooke
None of us are intended to live life alone. We all strive for friendship, for community, for a person or a group with which we might identify ourselves. When a person avoids such things, it is a sign of distrust. In Southeastern Ohio, as much as 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty level (CEOGC, 1990). Among these people, loneliness and isolation run rampant. Poverty for the most part means immobility. The geography of Southeastern Ohio is a vacation paradise for some, but for others it can contribute to separation in a physical sense: rolling hills, farms and wooded areas become confines, prisons and compound walls. Helplessness and hopelessness creep up on those who are isolated. Apathy, depression and the loss of social skills begin to break people down.
Over the last several years, we at Good Works have been able to draw a connection between the breakdown of personal relationships and the occurrence of homelessness. In every person’s life there are times when, without the kindness and support of those around us, we would end up in a bad position. For those without a community of support, homelessness can become a commonplace occurrence. The Friday Night Life Program is one of the ways that Good Works strives to reach out to the surrounding community, a difficult task given the unusual and segregated social setting that Athens often affords.
It is true that on Friday evenings we eat a meal together; but that is not the focus of the program. In reality, the majority of those who come on a Friday evening could find food elsewhere. There is one element that the people are hard-pressed to find, however: community. Everyone who comes to Friday Night Supper comes through the same door. In my mind that door is a figurative portal; a coat-check where each person sheds the defining jacket of their life. For two or three hours on a Friday evening, perhaps the only such hours of the week for some, each person is stripped of their culturally-imposed definitions; those of social and economic standing. Homeless individuals, college students and community members sit and eat together at the same table. All of them talk to one another as if this intermingling is a commonplace, everyday happening. People who might walk by each other on the street without so much as a glance become friends. College students and residents of the Southeastern Ohio landscape end up as long-standing pen pals.
Sponsors of the Friday Night Supper Program are responsible for coming and preparing a meal. But if they come and go straight into the kitchen, prepare the meal and immediately begin cleaning up, they substitute efficiency for the value such a program holds. Some mistakenly believe that they come as sponsors to serve the needy. In reality, the program is as much of a service to those who prepare it as it is to those who attend it. Those sponsors who come and “fellowship” with those who attend, those who include the “regulars” in the preparation and clean-up process often find that they leave having received more than they have given. This is nothing to fear; in every true community setting the individuals receive more than they ever give.
Come to a supper. Sponsor a supper. Sit, eat, make a friend. Receive a gift.
(Matthew Cooke served with Good Works as a volunteer prior to coming on staff as a part-time night shift supervisor. In 1997, Matthew took responsibility for developing the Friday Night Supper)