From Church Soup Kitchen to Healing Community
How Recovery Café San Jose Came to Be
by Dana Bainbridge
Pastor of Urban Sanctuary (formerly First Christian Church San Jose)
and Co-Founder Recovery Café San Jose
On this particular Sunday, it is already hot at ten in the morning in downtown San Jose. So, the Adult Christian Ed class at First Christian Church has opened the door to let in a breeze. We are intensely engaged in a discussion about the Bible and social justice when someone appears in that doorway. “They found our brother Roger, dead, this morning,” the woman manages to get out before she begins to sob. Chairs shuffle quickly making room for her to sit among us. The theoretical discussion is abandoned for something that needs our attention now. Within a few minutes, we piece the story together and learn that this is Suzanne, the sister of a man who made our block his home.
We knew Roger well, so we’re all stunned and trying to absorb the news. Roger was one of our regulars at the homeless meal program in our Social Hall, where volunteers serve over 600 meals a week. What started out as a handful of church folk passing sandwiches, coffee, and human warmth out the back door, has become a popular place for those who are hungry and live on the streets downtown. Cheerful volunteers hand out ample plates of hot food across the pass-through window. The food is good, and the lines are long, made up mostly of men who stand there patiently and quietly. Many stare at the floor, then at their plate – heads hung with a kind of despondence born of the shame of dependence, perpetually being the recipient of someone else’s good deeds. We do our best to lift people up – we play music, offer art activities and a listening ear.
Roger endeared himself to us. We often treated him special, scrounging together sandwiches and water when he knocked on the door on the days when he happened to miss the meal times. He regaled us with his humor and stories from all the years he worked in the local cemetery, back when he had a good job and his own place. On Sundays, he would often slide into a chair against the back wall during services. I hated the way he looked so marginalized there and would casually beckon him, “Hey, come sit with us!” He would always shake his head and look at me with glassy eyes. “Pastor, I’m not worthy to sit there,” he would say, pointing toward the pews with a crusty, shaking finger. His shame wouldn’t allow for it, yet he seemed to find some comfort just being in the room, so I let him be. Now he was dead. They found him early in the morning on a park bench down the street.
We prayed with Suzanne and told her we’d be honored to have a memorial service for Roger. To our surprise, about fifty people came to the memorial, mostly relatives driving all the way from Texas and Montana. They came with picture collages, told funny and endearing stories, and called him “Rocky”, a name he carried most of his life, but one we never knew.
Within a few short weeks, two more people died who were regular attendees of our homeless meal program. One was a grandmotherly woman, Ann, who regularly told servers exactly which pieces of broccoli she wanted. Cherie was much younger and died sleeping on the steps of the church. I was at a meeting across the Bay when they found her. A friend in a partner program walked by while they were taking her body away, and called me to see if I knew. When I told her how far away I was, she comforted me, “I’m here, saying Kaddish.”
I had known that urban ministry was not for the faint of heart, but my heartbreak from these three deaths created an agonizing well of doubt about what we were doing. We were working hard, serving 600 meals a week, but as I looked around it seemed that almost no one was getting better.
Grief sent us on a pilgrimage to discover its own healing. A couple of months later, three of us traveled to Seattle to visit Recovery Café. We arrived on a Sunday evening to gather with New Creation Community, a tiny congregation led by Killian Noe, whose work we had followed for years. New Creation had never had or wanted their own building. They now met inside a place that was the incarnation of their call. On that first night, about 15 of us gathered in the Faith Room of Recovery Café, a place with warm colors of pumpkin and green and granite countertops on the coffee bar, which is the centerpiece of the Café space.
Our three-day pilgrimage became an incubator for resurrection, the deep healing of our losses. As I sat with Recovery Café members, I listened to stories that were very different from those you would have heard at our meal program. The trauma and the despair they had brought in were much the same, but through these doors, they found much more than a way to get through the day without being hungry. Here they found inner healing by stepping, sometimes tentatively, into an invitation to recover.
We went home feeling as though we might have traveled on the road to Emmaus, that path where the disciples walked with the resurrected Jesus and felt the fire of his energy and passion for the healing work to be done in the world. Like them, our hearts burned within us, having listened to the vision of Recovery Café leaders and the stories of members. We went home and soon closed the homeless meal program to invest our time and energy to build something new. We formed a launch team and created a vision for our Recovery Café in San Jose.
Within a few days of opening our doors, a man walked in, middle-aged, and fit, with a demeanor that had been hardened by years of self-protection. Around the edges of that hardness were hints of willingness and wanting something different. After almost twenty years in and out of jail and prison, this release was a surprise to him and felt like both a gift and an opportunity. On his first night out, he had slept on the street and could feel the tug of desperation that was there. Determined not to go back, he reached out to the Reentry Center, and with the help of a caseworker got into transitional housing and learned about Recovery Café San Jose. Over the next two years, he would stay in my recovery circle, even after he had a good job, a place to live, and a stable life. He kept coming to stay the course. He kept coming to give back. His name is Roger.
I’ll never forget when Roger told me about being in prison on Christmas day. He sat in his cell and had the stark realization that on this day there was no one who loved him and no one that he loved. Instead of letting that thought lead him to despair, in that moment, he decided that if he ever had the chance to be out of prison on Christmas, he would change that. He would find love in his life. That first Christmas he had a beautiful tree in his apartment and bought some simple gifts for a few friends he had made at the Café and beyond.
Roger became the leader of that recovery circle and spoke at our annual fundraising breakfast where 400 people now gather to hear different stories than the ones that so often dominate news about homelessness and incarceration. Roger talked about what it’s like to be in the foster system, then have your adoptive family fall apart and be on your own, navigating the teen years without a guide. During that time, he lost his way and it took him a while to find his way back. His message then, and today, is that people need to know they belong and that their lives matter to someone.
Those who come to our Closing the Gap Breakfast leave that event seeing what is possible for someone given a second chance, or more. Roger’s story was so inspiring, that for our Breakfast the next year, we eliminated the guest keynote speaker to make room for more member stories, three now. Each year, as I listen to the familiar stories of members we’ve grown to love, I have such deep respect and awe for their courageous journeys. As they speak, I hold the other three in my heart. The other Roger, Ann, and Cherie, their families, and the preciousness of their lives.
Our journey from soup kitchen to a healing community is all about the two Rogers. Each step along the path grew from listening deeply to the need, facing the daunting challenges of the situation, and stepping into the most healing path known to us. If you’d like to learn more about bringing the Recovery Café healing community model to your area, the Recovery Café Network is here to explore that with you.