Volunteers come to St. Benedict church on Ninth and State to serve a home-cooked meal six days a week to anyone who wants it.

The boy standing before the long row of food-laden tables is perhaps 6 or 7 years old, tall enough to see what’s on his compartmentalized tray, yet towered over by adults all around – men in baggy sweatshirts and jeans, apron-clad food-line servers, the mid-20s woman behind him who encourages him forward.

He’s already collected a baked potato and a slab of meatloaf when he gets to a large pot. A woman stirs it and asks if he wants some gravy. “Graaavvvvyyyy,” he yells, so she pours away. He moves ahead, toward the salad and ranch dressing, apples and bananas, cake and cookies, buttered bread and, finally, the 4-year-old girl, standing atop a chair, offering salt and pepper packets.

This is the community meal at St. Ben’s Catholic Church (924 W. State St.), a free Sun-Fri offering. Tonight, nearly 400 people will dine on food home-cooked and served by volunteers. The volunteers come from one of 70-plus organizations, including schools and religious groups such as the Islamic Society of Milwaukee.

Many – but not all – diners are homeless, says organizer and Capuchin Brother Rob Roemer, who cautions against the accompanying stereotype. Some come simply for companionship.

Photo by Max Thomsen.

Photo by Max Thomsen.

When they finish, they’ll head for the exit, passing a table piled with bread, free for the taking. They’ll also pass Dan McKinley, who has volunteered here for 18 years. Tonight, he’s handing out packs of crackers with peanut butter, donated from that day’s Lakefront Marathon. Donations come in often. The past few years, someone has sent a 90-pound chocolate Santa.

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Interest from volunteers, particularly parents who “want their kids to see the needs faced by other families,” ramps up during the holidays, says Brother Rob, who staffs the annual Christmas Eve dinner (held this year on Dec. 23) with some 100 volunteers (70 more than usual) to table-serve a special feast.

“How about a snack for tomorrow?” McKinley asks. Almost everyone accepts, often with a “God bless.” Sometimes, mothers remind their children to say thank you. Some ask for seconds.

McKinley and wife Jan Keleher started volunteering as a family, and he remembers when his own children were on salt-and-pepper duty. The kids now say volunteering broadened their worldview. “When you’re here,” McKinley says, “there’s a spirit to the place that doesn’t change. Just one of hospitality and gratitude.”

Diners continue cycling through the line and tables, then make their exits. Eventually, the boy with such an enthusiasm for gravy approaches McKinley, who hands him a pack of crackers. The boy accepts with one hand, then holds out his other one, and McKinley asks if he wants more crackers. “No,” the boy says, “I just want to shake hands.” So they do. ◆

‘Community Feast’ appears in the December 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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