It’s a typical scene that you see at many food banks. People come in the door, line-up and wait as they proceed along to the table, where they register to receive a food hamper. However, it’s what happens after they’ve registered that make this food bank a little different. This food bank is the Bell Tower Community Cafe, operating out of Westminster United Church.
Once the clients have registered they are encouraged to go and grab a bowl of soup, or now that it’s summertime, head back outside and grab a hot dog and hamburger along with some salad, bread, or cookies. Then there’s coffee and tea. Not the add one cup of grounds for 100 cups of water type either. The coffee is likely to be from Thom Bargen’s and the tea from DAVIDsTea.
If you hang around long enough you’ll see the auditorium transformed. There’s a band up on the stage. While people enjoy the music and conversation a line of children will snake its way around the tables, or they’ll be out in front dancing. Often some of the adults will join them in dancing. Among the noises, laughter and shrieks of delight will also be frequently heard.
This is not some idyllic scene. After all, many of the people here are clients whose income makes feeding themselves and their families difficult. Since it began it February, right up to last Friday, the Bell Tower Community Cafe, has shared over 800 hampers for more than 1,600 people, about 600 of whom are children. Yet, despite this there is more laughter and pleasure here than you will see at many other food banks. How did this happen?
Bell Tower a Community Effort
The Bell Tower Community Cafe came out of the work Associate Pastor Greg Glatz was doing for his doctoral studies at George Fox University. However, this is not a one person show. The Bell Tower Community Cafe shows what happens when a group, in this case a church, comes together, to really connect with their neighbourhood. This idea is captured in the motto of the cafe: “Making Good Things Together.”
The neighbourhood character of the cafe is shown in various ways. The Cafe is within walking distance for most of the people. This is true for those who come for food hampers as well as for those who come just seeking a bowl of soup and the opportunity for good music and conversation. The community partners mentioned above, along with other’s such as Stella’s, Tall Grass Prairie, and Food Fare are all businesses with a neighbourhood presence.
You also really notice the neighbourhood crowd when you get to watch the people. This is more noticeable during the outdoor Cafes. There you get the foot traffic. Sometimes it’s people just stopping to catch a few minutes of music. Once in a while, people stop and join the line to enjoy a hot dog or hamper. One week there was even a couple out walking their dog, who stopped to sit awhile, and let the children come over and make friends with their dog.
Making good things together isn’t just a slogan. The Bell Tower Community Cafe is about being with each other. One of the ways they try and do that is through the number board. When a hamper is ready the number goes up on the board. This isn’t a sign to leave. People are encouraged to stay as long as they like. While the cafe officially ends at 8 there are usually some who don’t make their way out until several minutes later. This anonymity may help ease the stress and embarrassment some clients might feel
I’ve visited the cafe a few times. I enjoy the music. I’m a fan of The B-Side Apostles, and liked recent performers Bluestem. There are a lot of different styles of music and it’s a great place to here some talent Winnipeg musicians you might not hear about otherwise.
When visiting on of the things that stands out is the wide variety of people that are there. The Cafe and food bank has clients young and old. They represent a wide variety of Canadians. Students, unemployed, those dealing with mental health issues. Those whose employment doesn’t allow them to make ends meet. There is a variety of faith expressions among the clients. There are a variety of national and cultural backgrounds. None of these are a bar to people joining in and benefiting from the cafe.
On a few of my visits I’ve ran into people I know. Like me many of them were there to enjoy the music and a little supper. I’ve also run into a few people I know who are volunteering there. That’s one of the beauties of the cafe. It’s designed in such a way as to attempt to break down barriers. It’s not us helping them. Food scarcity can hit anyone. This past year friends of mine Steve and Bev Solomon found themselves at the Bell Tower Community Cafe. I’ll leave you with a little bit of their story.
Help When Needed:
Steve and Bev Solomon have been living and working in the West End for several years now, and this past year found themselves in a position where as a family, they needed to use the foodbank. I first got to know Bev about 25 years ago, when we worked together at Henry Armstrong’s Printing and Bookstore. Later when Steve became part of her life, I became friends with him as well.
Over the years we’ve remained friends as I’ve been in Winnipeg and they’ve been in various places, both singly and together. Currently they are in the process of launching Woody’s House. Woody’s House derives it’s name from one of the residents who lived in the house both before and after Steve and Bev purchased it. The hope is that soon Woody’s house will be a place for healing and recovery for men dealing with addiction.*
*Sadly the dream for Woody’s House has since ended.
As happens with places that are built on dreams, reality has a way of cropping up and bringing new challenges. For Steve and Bev, this meant being without a regular source of income for a period of time. During that time they made use of the Bell Tower Food Bank. For them, who had never had to use a food bank before, they came away with an appreciation of how difficult it is for people for whom food banks are often a long term necessity.
More than that however, they came away with an appreciation for how the Bell Tower was operating. The dignity with which the clients were treated was important, but so was the opportunity to sit back, enjoy a meal and not have to worry about the stresses of life for a brief period every couple of weeks.
If you get the opportunity on a Friday night. Head down to Westminster United at the corner of Maryland and Westminster, and pay a visit to the Bell Tower Community Cafe. You may discover that you’ve found a new way to connect with the people who live around you. You may find new ideas of how to connect with your own neighbourhood. You might even decide that this is a place where you would like to volunteer. Already the Cafe has received over 1,200 volunteer hours. If reading this has piqued your curiousity about the Bell Tower and you’d like to ask about volunteering. Contact them at the bottom of their website page.