[Episcopal News Service] If you’re trying to differentiate First Nations Kitchen from other Episcopal feeding ministries, look no further than the menu. What other weekly church meal regularly has buffalo instead of beef, turkey instead of chicken, walleye instead of pork?
Some of those entrees can be expensive, said the Rev. Robert Two Bulls Jr., vicar at All Saints Indian Mission in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but his goal in starting First Nations Kitchen more than a decade ago wasn’t to offer hungry neighbors an extravagant meal. Instead, he seeks out these food items because they long have been part of indigenous cuisine and culture. All Saints’ Sunday night meals cater to local Native Americans who struggle at the margins of society, Two Bulls said.
It’s also about serving good people a good, healthy dinner. “Everybody deserves a good meal,” Two Bulls told Episcopal News Service in a phone interview. “You’re dealing with people who are living far out on the fringe, even farther than most native peoples.”
For a congregation that may only get 15 people on a Sunday morning at its worship service, All Saints’ extended family sometimes swells to more than 100 people when Sunday night dinner is served. Many of the guests live nearby at Little Earth, an affordable housing development serving the local American Indian community. Turnout at First Nations Kitchen’s meals is even larger if you count the many volunteers who come from around Minnesota’s Twin Cities region, including from other Episcopal churches.
“It’s very much community- and relationship-based,” said Karen Evans, who coordinates a volunteer group from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota. She also appreciates the emphasis on healthy food. “It’s not about doing things quickly and cheaply.”
Nan Zosel has similar reasons for her support of First Nations Kitchen. She works as a chaplain at Breck Episcopal School in the suburb of Golden Valley, and she brings a group of about 20 students and parents once a year to volunteer. She said her experience working with All Saints has been much more spiritually fulfilling than her past volunteer work at other soup kitchens, which she described as impersonal, dreary and lacking healthy food options.
“I just didn’t think the food ministries I had encountered up to that point had done a good job of feeding either the soul or the body,” Zosel told ENS. First Nations Kitchen felt like a faith-based volunteer’s dream come true, she said.
Two Bulls starts by leading the volunteers in prayer while acknowledging that the land on which they are gathered once belonged to the native peoples of North America. He also explains the ministry’s goal of providing healthy, indigenous food with a sense of welcome to all who come.
“The hospitality is really stunning,” Zosel said. “Rather than people lining up and getting plates of food, they come in and they’re invited to sit down, and people come take their orders.”
Two Bulls prefers helping with the cooking rather than the cleanup, so right after Sunday worship, he starts prepping the food. Kale, mixed greens, all organic. Wild rice is a typical grain. Most of the bread and vegetables are donated by grocers or restaurants, and the various protein sources are purchased from regional farms. The walleye is from a fishery run by the Red Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota, Two Bulls said.
One big reason he accepted the call here 12 years ago was the opportunity to create a ministry like First Nations Kitchen. All Saints previously had attempted to grow a feeding ministry, even installing commercial-grade equipment, but it had struggled to get it off the ground. Two Bulls was assured he would have his new congregation’s support to try again.
“That was the hook because I’ve lived all over the States, East Coast, West Coast, and have volunteered in soup kitchens and been to many of them and just helped out whenever I was able to,” he said. “I just like that kind of ministry, and it’s real Gospel-based, simple as you can get.”
Two Bulls, who is Lakota and originally from South Dakota, also serves as missioner for the Episcopal Church in Minnesota’s Department of Indian Work and Multicultural Ministries. He said it took a couple of years to build up a solid base of volunteers, donations and word of mouth for First Nations Kitchen. About a half dozen people now form the ministry’s core, including Two Bulls’ wife, Ritchie Two Bulls, and a ministry coordinator.
The ministry hasn’t been able to rely on its congregation for sustaining financial support because many members are retired or living paycheck to paycheck, Two Bulls said.
“I’m not expecting them to give it their all. They’ve got bills and everything else, so we find the money to keep it open,” he said. Fundraisers help maintain First Nations Kitchen.
The ministry also brings the congregation to life once a week in ways that go beyond the modestly attended Sunday Eucharist. “Really, the kitchen is what’s keeping the place rolling,” he said.
He has a rotation of about five cooks who take turns drafting menus and coordinating the meals. Unless Two Bulls has other commitments, he is at the church Sunday evening helping out, and even when he can’t make it, the team at All Saints makes sure that First Nations Kitchen opens its doors once a week, every week.
“Never missed a Sunday yet,” Two Bulls said. “I always tell people: Snowstorms, Easter, Christmas if it falls on a Sunday, New Year’s and the high holy American holiday Super Bowl Sunday, we serve.”
Zosel’s group from Breck Episcopal School makes it their annual ritual to claim the volunteer roles every Super Bowl Sunday – or Soup-er Bowl Sunday, as she calls it.
“Any folks who are not into football, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I can do that,’” Zosel said. Later this year, she hopes to add a second Sunday to the school’s annual support of First Nations Kitchen, and one of the high school seniors at Breck chose to spend two weeks last month helping First Nations’ coordinators as part of the school’s May Program internships.
The group from St. Mary’s helps with the meals at First Nations Kitchen about every four to six weeks. Up to 10 church volunteers are split into two shifts. One in the afternoon helps with food prep, such as chopping vegetables and filling baskets of bread for guests to take home after the meal.
“The sustainability piece of it has grown a lot over the years,” said Evans, who has volunteered since Two Bulls started First Nations Kitchen. In addition to using high-quality, organic ingredients, the scraps are composted whenever possible. “We’re just kind of here taking our turns as stewards of the Earth.”
The second shift is responsible for serving the food, and when possible, the volunteers sit at the tables to share conversation with the guests.
“It’s not like a food line where you go in and you’re just dumping food on a plate,” she said. “It’s a community.”
– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.