Hidden at the end of a long, curvy driveway, all the lights are on and plenty of people call it home. If you had told me this place was a secret juke joint, I would have believed you. The packed parking lot could rival any popular restaurant on a weekend night. Unitarian Universalist Church on Robinhood Road in Winston-Salem hosts a potluck on the first Friday of the month October through May.

The location is just one of several examples of the surprisingly fantastic food that can come out of  churches or faith-based community centers in the Triad. The ubiquitous church picnic comes to mind. Many serve as commissaries for food trucks and local food entrepreneurs. Others may sell food to the public as a means to build upon the economic support of tithes. Sometimes dinner comes along with the word of God. Other times it’s simply an opportunity for good meals to be served as a part of community outreach.

Close to, if not more than, 100 men, women and children mill around the Unitarian Universalist Church’s main level, organizing food and drinks on 6-foot tables. Some dishes look to be homemade. Casseroles, salads with crisp, green lettuce and paprika-dusted deviled eggs sit beside cellophane-wrapped chips and boxes of store-bought crackers. The dessert table groans under the weight of cake slices, brownies, pies, rice cereal treats and patterned dishes festooned with stacks of chocolate chip cookies. Right by the front door, a large card table was set up with bins full of ice, cans and bottles of beer, and wine bottles in varying sizes.

A man walks right up and introduces himself. Two more follow suit.

A fourth person pivots around to thrust a full glass of wine right into my open hand.

The entire church is filled with light, laughter and dozens of conversations. The food and fellowship are just an excuse to welcome everyone with open hands and full wine glasses.

It’s not my first time in this space.

Once, I was at Unitarian for the church’s annual chili competition. Another time, it was because I had nothing to do on a Friday night. I didn’t know anyone there. I was a stranger in a sea of unfamiliar, yet smiling faces. Everyone was glad to see me, even though they didn’t know me. It didn’t matter that I came empty-handed. It didn’t matter that I was not an official member of the congregation. It only mattered that I showed up to break bread as part of the community.

Staff at Krankies Cafe serve during 12 Suppers at the Center of Hope at the Salvation Army (photo courtesy of Salvation Army of Greater Winston-Salem)

Some don’t get to choose their community. They’re thrust into it involuntarily. 12 Suppers at the Center of Hope in Winston-Salem exemplifies the idea of food as a vehicle for gathering and bonding. The event is a partnership between Winston-Salem area restaurants and the Salvation Army of Winston-Salem and takes place at the county’s only family emergency homeless shelter. The once-a-month partnerships are aimed at providing not only a meal to the families who call the Center of Hope home, but also allows families to enjoy a restaurant-quality experience that few in their circumstances have access to. They also learn a bit about the culinary field as they interact with the chefs and staff.

“The 12 Suppers initiative has brought joy to families in crisis as they rebuild their lives,” says Bob Campbell, director of marketing and public relations for Salvation Army of Greater Winston-Salem.  “When shelter families return to self sufficiency, they make not only their lives better but also serves to make our entire community better.”

Community can look and feel like different things to different people. Sometimes it’s dressed as a catered meal. Other times it is a conversation and a connection with a total stranger. Feeding a soul and feeding hunger can sometimes look like the same thing.

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