Saturday Cafe provides 14 years of breakfast for unhoused in Columbia
Unless you're homeless in Columbia or attend one of the participating half-dozen churches, you've probably never heard of the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cafe.
But since its 2009 conception, the collective effort of the downtown churches has served unhoused community members week after week. With a recurring annual schedule of monthly assignments, congregations pass the service among one another’s volunteer teams, always opening at 8 a.m.
Calvary Episcopal, Missouri United Methodist, First Christian, First Presbyterian and Sacred Heart Catholic churches and the Korean Church at First Presbyterian all participate in the cafe effort. Although each church has its own menu, resources and volunteer teams, they share a pursuit of faith through service. And they’ve kept it up for 14 years.
“Our congregations are located right in the heart of downtown — we see homeless folks every day,” said Kay Metcalf, the cafe coordinator at First Presbyterian. “In a small way, we feel that we’re at least able to give them a warm place and information to find further comfort.”
The cafe effort sees anywhere from 40 to 90 guests each week. This summer alone, Calvary served up more than 700 breakfasts. Congregations also provide occasional medical services, charging stations, donated clothing and toiletries.
Charlie is a cafe attendee who recently moved from Hannibal. He hopes to get a job and see his grandchildren again after being homeless for two years. He was shocked by the generosity he found at the cafe.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Providing a safe space for mental and physical rest is a priority for many of the participating churches, especially in months with extreme weather conditions.
“It’s a good decompression time for people,” said Tracey Hunt, a volunteer on the kitchen crew at First Presbyterian. “You can rest and know that you can set your pack down and no one’s going to take it, and I think that’s as much as anything else.”
Cafe leaders say the six churches can be gently competitive over who cooks the best breakfast, but they remain unified in their mission.
“For guests, it has provided a nutritious breakfast in a safe, comfortable and welcoming space,” said Cecile Bentley, one of the cafe chairs at Missouri United Methodist. “For our volunteers, it has helped us to get to know more of our neighbors, and to live out our faith through serving others.”
‘We can do this’
When Beth Simpson, deacon at Calvary Episcopal, began her ordination process in 2009, her bishop challenged her to do something “totally different” for the downtown Columbia community. It was through prayer, and on a long drive home from the diocesan headquarters in St. Louis, that the idea for the cafe came to her.
At the time, the Day Center — predecessor to the Turning Point Day Center — was open Mondays through Fridays. On Saturdays, unhoused people had no certain place to go for food, coffee or a place to rest.
“It occurred to me that I would like to model a cafe for Saturday morning to try to make it like a cafe atmosphere so that people could relax, put down their heavy packs and just enjoy a breakfast,” Simpson said.
After sharing her idea for a Calvary-based breakfast cafe with other congregants, the church served brown-bag breakfasts for a few months until volunteers were inspired to fire up electric skillets.
“It was such a hit,” said Simpson. “We then decided to bring it upstairs to the Parish Hall and start cooking hot breakfast.”
Metcalf heard about Calvary’s effort from her grandsons who’d been volunteering there. After stopping by one Saturday in 2009, Metcalf jumped to get First Presbyterian involved.
“We can do this,” Metcalf recalled thinking. “I didn’t sleep for the whole month of December because it was going to start in January — and I was a new member, so I thought: ‘What am I doing?’”
First Presbyterian took up the project for the winter months, serving from January to March. The Korean ministry based at the church joined the next year, serving in December. First Christian and Missouri United Methodist churches joined shortly thereafter.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church was the last to join, taking up November service after trying it out for a few weeks.
“I just didn’t know if our little bitty church could handle it, so we said we’ll do two weeks, and then we’ll see how it goes,” said Connie Sutter, Sacred Heart cafe coordinator. “And it was almost completely funded by donations, with the exception of paper products and stuff. And I thought, ‘We can do this.’”
Church leaders don’t meet each month — or even each year. They simply hand off their responsibilities throughout the seasons, informing cafe attendees of the next location at the final Saturday of service. As more and more congregations joined, the group built a practice of trust in coordinating monthly responsibilities and schedules.
“There’s a lot of cooperation,” Simpson said. “I’m really proud of the way Columbia has come together, faith-based and non-faith-based, to keep people safe and thriving.”
Over the years, each church developed its own menu. Calvary’s cafe features homemade breakfast casseroles, the occasional pastry loaf and waffles. First Christian serves up sausage pastry rolls known as Whomp ‘Ems, a name coined by the grandkids of a longtime volunteer. Biscuits and gravy is a common option: filling, warm and easy to make in bulk. If you’re wondering which pancake mix cuts costs and time, it’s the one that just adds water, according to Sutter at Sacred Heart.
“It’s accommodating, coffee’s hot and they’re willing to help put people up with resources,” said Lyle, an Army veteran new to Columbia and cafe attendee. He and other cafe guests asked that their last names not be used because of the stigma of homelessness.
The menus have changed based on the needs of attendees, adding things such as decaf coffee and sugar-free cereal. At most of the churches, meat is served on the side to accommodate vegetarian guests. Many serve turkey sausage or ground beef with biscuits and gravy to account for religious restrictions.
“It’s really a lesson to me — just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean that you’re not trying to watch your health and you’ve got different, you know, needs,” Sutter said.
Cafe offerings have sometimes broadened to include health care. First Presbyterian regularly hosts vaccinations and diabetes testing in conjunction with MU Health Care. Last September, Calvary held a foot clinic at the cafe in partnership with the medical team at the CoMo Mobile Aid Collective. The clinic helped guests take care of their feet by providing them with medical supplies, bandages, new socks and shoes. The Korean Church at First Presbyterian will host another foot clinic Dec. 9. For these congregations, this added aspect of their work is essential.
“We hear so many stories of their need,” Metcalf said, calling the lack of access to care for the unhoused population “an ongoing downtown issue.”
The Saturday Cafe is a practice of adaptation and adjustment for each congregation. During the COVID-19 pandemic, churches returned to the initial model for the cafe — serving brown-bag takeaway breakfasts. Numbers dropped to about 20 to 30 guests a week, and the interaction between guests and volunteers was limited. Kitchen volunteers at Calvary navigated service with walkie-talkies as guests put in their orders. Some churches, like First Christian, continued their service in collaboration with Harbour House and the Salvation Army.
But, even through the difficulties of the pandemic, the cafe continued.
Serving and being served
Volunteers at Calvary Episcopal Church bowed their heads in prayer before their final Saturday breakfast of September.
“Amen,” they said as one.
A second later, Linda Shillito, the group’s self-styled “Waffle Lady,” booted everyone out of the Parish Hall kitchen with a joyful cry: “Let’s go sling some waffles!”
Volunteers start making breakfast at 7 a.m. Saturdays, arriving in the kitchens with armloads of food. For an hour, they prep for service — laughing, joking, telling stories and sharing updates on their families. Most have served at the cafe for a while, and there’s a seamless, unspoken understanding of responsibilities amid the bustle. This sense of community keeps many invested in the effort, like Fred Mottaz at First Christian.
It’s the “fellowship in doing something together to help somebody” that keeps him coming back year after year, Mottaz said.
There’s a similar sense of fellowship among the guests as they line up for the cafe. Attendees catch up, check in on those they haven’t seen in a while and occasionally share a cigarette.
The doors open promptly at 8 a.m. to a chorus of good mornings and familiar greetings, as many volunteers have come to know and recognize returning guests. They come in waves, in part due to busing from Room at the Inn as the shelter closes for the day.
Groups fill the cafe with conversation at many tables, connecting and discussing with one another over breakfast.
“Did you accomplish your mission?” asks Ron, a regular at the cafe, as a young man sat down at his table. The mission, Ron learned, was staying alive.
The cafe lends space for unhoused people to talk about their experiences. From Ron’s perspective, there is more that Columbia residents could do to support the church-led cafe. “There is a need for people to donate their old, good jackets to the church,” he said, noting a drop in donations after the pandemic.
Michael is a writer and a painter who has doodled and drawn all his life. His first time at the cafe, he had turquoise paint splattered across his face, gleefully recounting his projects to the table. Two weeks later, he attended the cafe again, having had most of his possessions stolen.
“Now I know what it’s like to be homeless,” he said, in a conversation with another attendee, Jeff. “I don’t think people realize where they come from and how quickly they can go back.”
Both Michael and Jeff spoke about being treated differently when they became homeless, experiencing hatred that hadn’t existed for them before. “People don’t know what happens, to be treated differently,” Jeff said.
The sudden nature of poverty and homelessness is a common observation among cafe guests, like David, a longtime Columbia resident — so long that other cafe guests greet him as “Daniel Boone.”
“Granted, nobody wants to be in this position. It happens to the best,” David said, standing outside First Christian. “... There’s no easy place.”
Although Columbia and its churches have invested in greater support for the unhoused population, “there should be better access for people in this situation to the things they need to get out of it,” he said.
The spirit of free conversation motivates many volunteers at the cafe. Colleen Nilges has been the primary coordinator for First Christian’s Saturday breakfasts since the church became involved. A single mom who works long hours, she has found a richer perspective on her life through getting to know cafe attendees.
“You realize that you’re blessed, and so you give back,” Nilges said.
Cafe guests are generally given the space to linger, rest and chat without firm time constraints. By 9 a.m. though, most have left, and volunteers begin to clean up. At some churches, the church doors, lawns and sidewalks remain a safe place for Saturday socializing and rest.
No plans to stop the cafe
The Saturday effort aligns with many other housing-related efforts from faith groups, including Room at the Inn and Loaves and Fishes — which was recently allowed to stay at Wilkes Boulevard United Methodist Church through March. As the shelter moves to a year-round structure, its industrial kitchen provides a potential opportunity for churches hosting the cafe.
In the coming years, churches may move their cafe to RATI’s space during their designated months. As of now, only Missouri United Methodist plans to move in 2024, because of renovations in its multipurpose space after a fire last summer.
But the Saturday Cafe overall has no plans to stop any time soon as church leaders and volunteers continue to develop the initiative launched at Calvary.
“Our congregation saw a need and made the decision to open our building to our homeless for warmth and shelter,” Metcalf said. “It has been an opportunity to share in hands-on ministry. Working together, each volunteer has found they each have something to give.”
Metcalf encourages everyone to keep their eyes open and listen to the needs of their community. “You just need to have the confidence to step forward, to try,” she said. “We can all do something.”