This is the third of our five-part “What’s for Dinner?” feature series about Brooklyn meals.
By Meredith Kennedy
Nine hungry men huddled around a table in the basement of an old parochial school and waited patiently for a hot dinner on a cold December night. Their laughter and conversation suggested they were all lifelong friends. In reality, it was their homelessness that brought them together. Tonight, they were lucky enough to secure at spot at the Sacred Heart Men’s Shelter in Fort Greene, where they slept in small cots that were not big enough to fit a grown man without his feet dangling off the edge.
“It ain’t home,” said David Dyson, Reverend of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, of staying in a bare room with creaking pipes and leaky ceilings. Dyson, in addition to three other Brooklyn churches, works together with his parishioners and dedicates one week every month from October to April rotating cooking meals and staying overnight at the shelter.
“This puts a human face on poverty and homelessness,” Dyson said. “I think it’s an enlightening experience to have.”
When Dyson became pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church 16 years ago, he was told that the congregation’s involvement with the shelter was a very important ministry. It was established by Walter Murphy, an old New York waterfront priest, after he noticed men in neighborhood sleeping on street corners because they had no place else to go.
The difference between the homeless men at the shelter and the homeless men on the street is that the men at Sacred Heart work—some as dishwashers, construction workers, or day laborers. “That’s the shocking thing,” Dyson said. “They are one paycheck and one angry wife away from having a place of their own.”
Every overnight guest has been through an extensive screening process to ensure that they have no alcohol, drug or violence problems. The men are always gracious, and don’t sit down to eat before they have thanked the volunteers for the home-cooked food.
“It’s never the exact same crowd every day,” Dyson said. Every night, the group of men who have successfully passed the necessary criteria, meet in East New York where a van picks them up and drops them off at the shelter. After a hearty meal and warm bed to sleep, the men are picked up the next morning at 5:30 a.m. to return to work.
Carla Cook, a Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church parishioner and Detroit native, got involved as a volunteer about six years ago and has been serving up a hearty meal at least once a year since then. For Cook, a working jazz musician and 1999 Grammy nominee for Best Jazz Female Vocal, the decision to get involved was easy. “I’ve never been hungry a day in my life,” Cook said, as she prepared the food earlier in the afternoon on the stove in her Fort Greene studio. “I can write a check to a charity, but I like the feeling of doing something hands-on and knowing that somebody has a full stomach and is warm at night.”
Cook prepared her usual menu—spaghetti and turkey meatballs, garlic bread, salad and pound cake for dessert. Her leftover cake is often eaten for breakfast the next day with coffee.
The men’s eyes widened as they watched Cook and the other volunteers fill each of their Styrofoam plates with heaping portions of the popular Italian dish. They sat down and said a blessing as they covered their salads with French dressing and filled their cups to the brim with soda. It had likely been hours since their last meal. One of the men, a vegetarian, sat by himself on his cot facing the wall eating only the salad and bread. The rest returned to the serving station for seconds of everything before retiring to their cots for the night around 8:30 p.m.
When Cook is not volunteering or on tour with the Carla Cook Quintet, she tries to prepare homemade meals for herself five times a week. “Improvisation takes place here [in the kitchen] just like it does in jazz,” Cook said. “That’s part of the fun of it.”
Still, Cook takes her role as chef seriously. “I’m not happy with my sauce situation,” Cook confessed as she stirred the spaghetti with a grimace on her face. “There’s not enough,” Cook said before running out the door to a nearby supermarket for more ingredients.
Cook, who devoted most of her afternoon to preparing the big meal, takes pride in the active role her church plays in the community. “[Fort Greene] is not just a neighborhood to me, it’s a community that I can serve, literally,” Cook said, as she wrapped up the meal to deliver later in the evening with Dyson.