As Mother’s Day approaches, a tribute to the women of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, who have provided motherly support and daily breakfast to homeless people from Ballard and beyond.
Every Friday, Nancy Rogers opens the battered, former cream-puff box with the hole cut out of the lid, sits at a plastic-covered table at the back of the room and reads the prayer requests that have been slipped inside by the homeless people who come for breakfast five days a week.
“They’re for housing,” she said of the requests. “They’re for jobs. They’re for a relative who is sick. They’re for getting along with each other.”
Rogers and her colleagues at the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church feeding program bow their heads and pray for all those things and more.
Then they get up and start lunch for the more than 100 people who will come in off the streets of Ballard and beyond — the sixth and last meal of the week made by this army of older women who have never stopped being mothers.
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Food is the great unifier, and, as any mother knows, a way to show love and caring.
So with Mother’s Day approaching, I went over to St. Luke’s to pay homage to the women who have been serving unconditional love to the homeless for 27 years. Breakfast each weekday morning and lunch on Fridays. That’s 3,300 meals a month, 12 months a year for 27 years. Well over 1 million meals.
When I arrived at 8 a.m. one day last week, there was a line out the door. Inside, two tables were covered with serving dishes: a bowl of hard-boiled eggs, a plate of bacon, piles of bread for toast. Sweet rolls and oatmeal were warming in the kitchen and there was something on the stove for the vegans, because you always have to have that.
“They do a Godly act just by serving us breakfast,” said Eric Bergstrom, 51, a day laborer who came to Seattle three years ago from California.
“Their dedication and their labor of love, to come here every morning and provide food for people in transition,” he said, then paused.
“Mind if I chow on my bacon?”
Please, I said. Eat.
I turned to Louis Thomas, 35, who was sitting across the table. He was born in Rio de Janeiro, and lived in New York before coming here. He’s been out of work for four months and described himself as an anthropologist, a field reporter and “King of the Underground.”
“It’s a banquet,” he said of the weekday breakfasts. “The patience, the care, the tenderness, the knowledge, the respect … It’s more welcoming than a five-star-hotel breakfast. I’m still trying to understand.”
So was I. So I went back into the kitchen to ask what raised these women out of bed to cook whatever they had for a group of people they didn’t know.
“Well, I’m a Christian, so maybe you don’t want to hear it,” said Susan Young, 68. “Only an idiot would do it, and nobody could pay me enough to do it. Nobody. But I do it because the Lord has asked me.”
Rogers, 83, was there at the start. She was part of a St. Luke’s Bible study group that wanted to start a feeding program. They checked out others in the area, got themselves on the list for deliveries from Food Lifeline (then Northwest Harvest), showed up at 7 a.m. and started cooking.
At first, only 35 people came.
The other day, volunteer Rose Dorbin, 77, counted 135 plastic plates after they had been washed, then recorded the number on a calendar as required by Food Lifeline.
“People are hungry and I am a Christian and I believe this is what Christians do,” said Rogers, who has four children, eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. “The more you give, the more blessings you get.”
Phillip Jones, 42, in a tattered, neon-orange vest and pants, asked me why I was there. I’m writing about these women for Mother’s Day, I told him.
“I might have a (greeting) card right now in my cart,” he said, then disappeared to the back of the room, where he had stowed his belongings. “Mother’s Day should be every day.”
Back in the kitchen, Young listened to what just happened and gave me a rueful smile.
“We have no illusions,” Young said. “We’ve seen it all. What I loved is the guy who took my hand, sincerely, to thank me, while trying to wriggle the ring off my finger.”
Rogers has never been scared. If an argument breaks out, it’s often enough for her to go out and scold people. Like a mother.
“There is something about being a little old lady,” she said. “There have been kerfuffles. But most of the people would fight for us.“
The Rev. Canon Britt Olson realizes that some neighbors are tired of the homeless gathering every weekday morning.
So when the campus was cleaned up last year and parishioners planted a “Giving Garden” of more than 20 raised beds of vegetables (they use them in the kitchen and donate to the Ballard Food Program), they were sure to plant flowers and herbs free to neighbors. There’s a weekly “St. Luke’s Kids” program, and the church hosts the Ballard Speaker Series and rents space to the Suzuki Institute to help cover costs.
Olson considers the feeding program “the heart and soul” of the church, and sees a connection between the tables downstairs and the one on the altar where communion is served: “I feel like I’m in touch with where God really is.”
Robert Loomis just left Seattle for North Carolina, where he is living with his half-sister, who found him on Facebook. But in 2013, he was living in his car — and hungry. Someone told him about the women serving breakfast at St. Luke’s.
“It was just like a mother’s unconditional love,” Loomis said on the phone the other day. “They ask you to check whatever problems you’re having at the door and just come in and have a meal.”
He started helping out, washing dishes, and ended up being part of the regular crew.
“I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “I would get fed up and tired, because I know the stories and what went on outside. And yet, the women would always say, ‘Hey, how are you?’ ”
He’s doing well in North Carolina. It’s beautiful and green and stable. But he misses the women of St. Luke’s. He misses his mothers.
“I’d come in and have these ladies to talk to,” he said, “and they would tell me I was loved and don’t give up.”
That is exactly what Rogers and her colleagues intended when they first turned on the stove all those years ago.
“I want them to feel like they had a good meal and that somebody would talk to them and look at them, and treat them like they have some value,” she said. “Maybe give them more courage to go out and fight the battle on the streets.”