By Richard Chin | Post Bulletin
ST. PAUL — There are a couple of clues that the mobile kitchen parked every Thursday at lunchtime on Payne Avenue on St. Paul’s East Side this summer isn’t just another food truck.
First of all, the food — hot calzones — is free. And the person who drives the truck is a young woman in a clerical collar who likes to say, “Peace be with you.”
Her name is Margaret Kelly, a 33-year-old preacher’s kid, ex-French chef and former mental health case manager. She’s now a pastor, and the food truck is her church.
It’s not a typical church, but Kelly isn’t your typical Lutheran pastor. She’s a gay woman who started her training at Luther Seminary in St. Paul at a time when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America didn’t allow gays in committed relationships to serve as clergy members.
“I was fairly confident that change was coming,” Kelly said. She was right. In 2009, the church voted to allow people in committed same-gender relationships to be ministers.
After seminary, Kelly, who also has a master’s degree in social work, worked for about three years for a nonprofit mental health agency. She was married in 2011 in a church wedding. She was ordained in 2012 and legally married to her wife, Eileen, last August, soon after gay marriages became legal in Minnesota. That wedding was conducted by her father, a pastor in Bemidji.
“We made the front page of the Bemidji paper,” Kelly said.
Last year is also when she came up with the idea of a food-truck church. When she was a mental health case manager, Kelly found that people in poverty often lack access to healthy food, reliable transportation, meaningful work and meaningful community.
She thought that one solution could be a church on wheels that drives to where people are, offering free food and prayer to the poor, homeless and near-homeless. The people helping to serve the meals would be from the community that the truck is serving.
“Increased access to food that is cooked and served by those who need the increased access” is how Kelly describes it.
“We don’t simply want it to be a church making handouts,” said Kelly’s boss, the Rev. Paul Erickson, assistant to the bishop for evangelical mission in the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod. “We are all ministers to and with each other.”
To support the project, Kelly was able to get grant money from the national church as well as local churches such as St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi.
St. Andrew’s also was able to put Kelly in touch with Peter Bolstorff, a Stillwater management consultant, who with his wife, Cary, started an organization called Mobile Action Ministries that owns a food truck serving the needy in the east-metro area.
Mobile Action agreed to loan Kelly its 28-foot, $100,000 vehicle one day a week. Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church in St. Paul lets Kelly do food preparation work in its kitchen. Kelly, who once worked as a head cook for the Concordia French Language Village in northern Minnesota and in the meat department at the Wedge co-op grocery in Minneapolis, does the recipe and food planning.
“She is uniquely gifted for this ministry,” Erickson said.
Kelly settled on calzones cooked from scratch as the truck’s specialty. It’s a hand pie, a comfort food common in many cultures and adaptable to healthy fillings.
The church’s name is Shobi’s Table, after an obscure Old Testament figure who offered food to a potential enemy, King David, and his followers.
According to Kelly, it’s a story of “radical hospitality.”
Kelly served her first meal from the truck on April 17. That was Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter that is a commemoration of Christ’s Last Supper.
On a recent Thursday at 11 a.m., the truck was parked at its usual spot on the curb outside the Family Dollar store at 1055 Payne Ave.
Over the next couple hours, a steady stream of people — old ladies, kids on bikes, youths in baggy pants — wandered up to the serving window, frequently asking, “It’s free?” and being told, “It’s free. Come and get it.”
David Schoeppner, 45, came to get a calzone for himself and his girlfriend. He said they live on Social Security checks.
“We barely are surviving,” he said. He said an alternative is a free lunch at a Salvation Army facility down the street, but “the calzones are awesome.”
“Once you know it’s here, you come here,” he said.
“Being homeless, news travels fast,” said Marshall Johnson, 56, who said he comes to the food truck “when I’m really hungry. I don’t abuse it.”
“They’re good people. They don’t have to come out and serve us,” he said.
Just like downtown office workers and bar hoppers, people who don’t have a lot of money appreciate the convenience and fun vibe of a food truck. For some people, going to a food truck feels less intimidating than going inside of a building to get a meal.
“Just the energy is different when people can walk up,” Kelly said. “This is something that pulls up into the neighborhood that feels safe to encounter.”
“This is where everybody’s at,” said Shobi’s Table volunteer Maurice Tribbett. “I come from the same place these people do. I used to be a gang member. I used to be a drug addict. I used to be homeless.”
“We come to them. It’s kind of meeting people where they’re at, spiritually, physically and emotionally,” said Tribbett’s wife, Mary Magill-Tribbett.
You don’t have to be sober to get a meal at the truck. You don’t have stick around for a service.
“I’m not bothered if people just want to eat and run and don’t want any religion,” Kelly said. “It’s a gift from Christ, but it’s not staring you in the face. This is a free lunch because Jesus is free.”
On the Shobi’s Table sign that’s set up on the sidewalk, the words “Lutheran Church” are in fine print.
But after giving out about 140 calzones, Kelly asks the handful of people still gathered on the sidewalk around the truck, “Shall we do some religion?”
“We keep things pretty simple. We read some Scripture and say some prayers,” she said.
“The word of God, yeah,” she said after reading from Romans, Chapter 8.
Kelly said the food truck won’t go into hibernation when winter comes. She hopes to get a heated tent and keep serving. Eventually, she would like to get her own truck and serve more days of the week. She also would like to partner with churches to get vegetables supplied from community gardens.
“A lot of this is breaking new ground in the church,” said Kelly’s boss, Erickson. “We’re grateful for this chance to take on some holy experiments.”
Erickson said the food-truck church eventually could offer curbside counseling and health services, along with traditional worship rites such as baptisms and communion.
“It’s not a traditional church. It doesn’t have a building. It will never have a building. But it will be a church in a traditional sense of the word,” Erickson said.