Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church soothes hungry hearts

Milwaukee church teams up with local restaurants to serve those in need

By Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Karen Hagen, pastor of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, holds up a sign for the Hungry Hearts Community Meals program. (Courtesy of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — After shutting down its building earlier this year due to the pandemic, Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee was faced with a dilemma — how to keep providing food intervention and support for the hungry.

Leaders came up with the idea of partnering with local restaurants to distribute meals through an endeavor that would come to be known as Hungry Hearts Community Meals.

The idea caught fire quickly, and takeout meals began being served from a home base, Damascus Gate Restaurant, in late May.

“People really understood there was a profound need during this COVID time especially, and wow, financial support came rolling in,” said the Rev. Karen Hagen, Tippecanoe’s pastor.

Since then, the program has served 300 restaurant-prepared takeout meals every Saturday to people without homes as well as those deprived of food access or affordability.

“It’s a joy,” Hagen said. “The more we give of ourselves, the more we receive.”

On Saturdays, Hungry Hearts Community Meals provides 300 restaurant-quality takeout meals to people in need. The varied menu offers choices to diners. (Courtesy of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church)

About 10 restaurants prepare meals on a rotating basis. Amilinda Restaurant, which is known for its Spanish- and Portuguese-inspired cuisine, coordinates their efforts, with a trio of restaurants providing 100 meals each on Saturdays.

“They are to-die-for meals,” Hagen said. “They’re really wonderful,” and the guests “have three different options for the meal they would like that particular Saturday, so it feels like going out to eat. It feels very special.”

Gregory León, chef and owner of Amilinda, said participating in the program has been a heartwarming experience.

“It’s a nice feeling … to be able to take some stress off of people right now,” he said, adding that the pandemic has posed hardships for many people.

Most participants come from the immediate neighborhood and include single men and women, families of all types and others, including a woman living in a tent with her pregnant daughter.

A hundred meals are set aside each week for local refugee and immigrant families who have language or mobility challenges.

“It’s not about meeting Tippe needs,” Hagen said, referring to the church by a nickname. “It’s about being present to the needs of others in the community.”

The program will continue until at least next summer, thanks to donations that have come in from the Presbytery of Milwaukee and elsewhere.

“Initially, we raised $58,000 from individuals and churches and the presbytery,” Hagen said. “A local foundation added $32,000, and as those funds began to dwindle down, we would have had to close our door at the end of November.”

However, “we opened up the funding again, and we have received …  over 75,000 additional dollars now, which assures us to keep this ministry going through July 31.”

Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for national hunger concerns for the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), praised the collaborative effort.

“The secret in the sauce of this inspiring ministry is the community involvement and relationships that made it possible,” said. “Tippecanoe is part of the community, knows its concerns, has long-standing relationships with people and groups, and it is these things that provide the foundation for innovative and needed ministries, such as Hungry Hearts.”

PHP Coordinator Rebecca Barnes noted, “These activities also align with the denomination’s Matthew 25 vision to eradicate poverty.”

Hagen said people often want to help their communities but don’t know how, and Hungry Hearts provides an outlet. “We’ve had some very large donations, but many of them are $10, $50, $100.”

The program benefits not just individuals and families in need but the participating restaurants, which “we hire, so to speak,” to prepare the meals, Hagen said.

“The restaurants we are working with are all currently open in the sense of (being) in business, but certainly very challenged to stay in business,” she said.

It’s important to keep such businesses viable because “often small restaurants are cornerstones in neighborhoods, so when they go out (of business), it negatively impacts neighborhoods in terms of community gathering places, a sense of self-worth and actual jobs,” she said.

Hungry Hearts is helping keep “the restaurants that we’re working with open, hopefully, throughout this very challenging financial season for them as well as feeding those who are hungry,” she said.

Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Hunger Action Congregation that has done food justice work for many years and strives to follow the example set by Christ, Hagen said.

“Jesus walked the talk,” she said. “He didn’t wait for something bad to happen to himself. He was out there coming alongside others to help in every way he could be supportive to meet their current needs while he was advocating for systemic change, which we are also doing through advocacy work.”

Hunger Action Congregations focus on at least one of six areas: hunger alleviation (sharing food in a dignified way); development assistance (doing equitable and sustainable development); hunger education (learning about the topic); lifestyle integrity; corporate and public policy witness; and worship, according to PHP.

Volunteers enjoy participating in the program. COVID-19 protocols, such as the wearing of masks, are followed. (Courtesy of Tippecanoe Presbyterian Church)

Constance Tenhawks, a newcomer to the area, was unfamiliar with the church when she saw the Hungry Hearts program mentioned on Facebook and decided to volunteer out of a desire to have meaningful interaction with other people during a time when pandemic-related shutdowns were fueling isolation.

Tenhawks now serves as a greeter for the program, where people line up to get such dishes as beef with Bearnaise sauce. She likes that Hungry Hearts is a cooperative effort, benefiting the church, the restaurants and the guests.

“It’s really a win-win,” she said.

The Presbyterian Hunger Program is funded by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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