Written by Scott Jones
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Enormous pots of chicken and wild rice soup—the precious liquid bubbling right to the brims—simmer away. In another area of the kitchen, a team of 25 or so chops pounds and pounds of fresh-cooked chicken breasts. In other sections, people assemble trays of warm muffins, slices of triple-layer cake, and creamy pie.
With all the smells and activity, you’d swear you were smack in the middle of a giant, commercial kitchen. Actually, that’s half right. The kitchen is huge, to be sure, but instead of professional cooks dressed in toques and starched jackets, the workers manning these stoves, kettle steamers, and multi-burner cooktops are regular moms, dads, grandmas, and grandpas—the vast majority good home cooks at best.
But that doesn’t matter at The Cathedral Church of the Advent; these folks are here to serve. Why? Because they all understand the way to the heart—or in this case the soul—is through the stomach. And what better way to make that connection than through a home-cooked meal. It’s soul food in every sense of the term.
Which is exactly why The Advent’s Lenten Lunches began 107 years ago. See, church volunteers needed a way to encourage people to attend weekday, interdenominational sermons during the 40 days of Lent. Their tactic? “Serve great food,” explains Jennifer Dowdle, the Lenten Lunches public relations chair. “Today, more than 250 volunteers prepare and serve food for hundreds of locals who show up each day to get fed after they, well, get fed,” Dowdle says with a grin.
Lent is observed from Ash Wednesday (Feb. 18) to Easter Sunday (April 5), according to Pastor Gary Furr of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. “Unlike more joyous worship times in the Christian year, like Christmas, Lent is a longer, more somber season. Christians set aside 40 days to concentrate on drawing closer to God in preparation for the Easter celebration. The 40 days also reminds Christians of the 40 days Jesus fasted in the wilderness and overcame temptation,” he says.
This year, Furr and his congregation will, for the first time, offer a weekly Lenten worship service and lunch each Tuesday at noon. “In many ways, this is not a traditional Baptist practice,” he says. “At our church, though, we choose a more ecumenical spirit and our freedom to affirm the tradition when there are practices that are meaningful to us.”
Furr says they plan to keep their menu light and simple. “Since prayer, fasting, and spiritual renewal are the focus of the Lenten season, we won’t serve elaborate meals. We’ll stick with soups, salads, and sandwiches.” The twist? The church will include a “traditional Bible food” on each week’s menu. “The recipe will be an appetizer, bread, or dessert that was common in the time of Jesus. This will be a small, tangible way at each meal to focus on the Jesus story and the motif of ‘journeying with Jesus’ to Holy Week,” explains Furr.
Back at The Advent, the kitchen hums as large pans of chicken cornbread dressing (a classic Wednesday favorite) and tubs of pimiento cheese are readied for the hungry parishioners who form a single-file line down a long hallway, cash in hand. Speaking of cash, back in 1980, The Advent decided to earmark lunch proceeds for outreach programs and ministries at home and abroad. “Last year alone we served almost 6,000 lunches raising nearly $40,000, with a good portion going right back into the Birmingham community so high school students will have textbooks, homeless men will have housing, and adults will have the opportunity to earn their GED and receive vocational training,” says Dowdle. I don’t know about y’all, but this month I plan to find my place in the lunch line at both churches. I’m not missing my opportunity to, as they say at The Advent, fill up my body and soul. And I suggest you don’t either. Stay hungry, Birmingham.
The Cathedral Church of the Advent Lenten Lunches
Daily through Good Friday (April 3) • The 25-minute service begins at 12:05pm • Lunch is served from 12:05 p.m. to 1 p.m. • AdventBirmingham.org
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church
Every Tuesday in March • Service and lunch from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. • vhbc.com
The Advent’s Bing Cherry Salad
Makes 12 Servings
2 (3-oz) packages cherry-flavored gelatin
1 ½ cups boiling water
2 (15-oz) cans pitted dark, sweet cherries in heavy syrup
2 (15.25-oz) cans crushed pineapple in its own juice
12 to 16 lettuce leaves
¼ cup mayonnaise or sour cream (optional)
Combine gelatin and water in a large bowl, stirring constantly until gelatin is completely dissolved. Drain cherries, reserving juice. Cut cherries in half. Add cherries, reserved cherry juice, and pineapple to gelatin mixture, stirring until mixture is well blended. Pour into a 13 x 9-inch baking dish or 12 (6-ounce) individual gelatin molds. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight. To serve, cut gelatin mixture into 3-inch squares or unmold individual salads, and place on lettuce-lined salad plates. Top each serving with one teaspoon mayonnaise or sour cream, if desired.