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Volunteers close up are serving meal to homeless
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A Church Dinner for the Homeless

In 2009, 2012, 2016, and 2024, The New York Times has used an identical headline: “36 hours in Austin, Tex.” The subheads have also been repetitive: “Long a haven for free spirits, Austin these days is more chic than shabby.” The latest feature instructs us on using our time wisely: “Admire the skyline from a kayak, treat yourself to barbecue and start each morning with a breakfast taco in the colorful capital of Texas.”

My wife and I have enjoyed doing all that in the 41 years since we moved to Austin in 1983 — well, not tacos every morning — but what if we want to learn about those who are more shabby than chic? I wrote last month about Church Under the Bridge and the Sunrise navigation center. This column is about a Wednesday dinner for 35 homeless individuals at the block-wide, ionic-columned, limestone University Avenue church one block off the University of Texas campus, one mile north of downtown.

At 5:50 pm on a drizzly day in May, in the parking lot closest to the church’s back entrance, backpacks held spots in line for the central Austin homeless who sat on a nearby patch of grass, waiting for dinner. Inside, in a low-ceiling, fluorescent-lit room below the soaring and massive sanctuary, six church members with plastic-gloved hands set up chips and salsa, a lettuce bowl, a noodle dish with beef and chicken, cookies, wrapped sandwiches for the road, and 35 glasses of lemonade alongside 17 glasses of water. Others placed four hymnbooks on each of the 13 round tables.

Promptly at 6:00 pm, 35 men and three women filed in. The first in line had a white beard, wore a Denver Broncos shirt, and smothered his food with mayo, salt, and pepper. I learned that he’s 66 and after three years in the Navy has had off-and-on fast food and landscaping jobs for 40 years. He said the most important thing in his life is freedom, and he won’t take orders from anyone. He’s hoping to meet an affluent Austinite who will let him sleep in a backyard.

Others, some in hoodies, three with big dogs on leashes, waited patiently as servers dished food onto plates. One slight, short woman asked in a trembling voice, “Could I have a little more, please?” At 6:10, everyone had gone through the line, so Pastor Jeff Peterson said, “Let’s recite the Lord’s Prayer.” Several diners did so along with him. At 6:12, Peterson announced that seconds on dinner were available, and ten people lined up again. A smiling young man at my table told me he had a breakthrough insight that afternoon: “There’s five, and three, and the word ‘red’: get it?”

At 6:30, Peterson led the servers and several of the eaters in singing, “Intercessor, Friend of sinners, Earth’s Redeemer, plead for me.” He then launched into a thoughtful 25-minute sermon on Psalm 22 that included several jokes. I noticed three reactions. Chin, a 68-year-old from Taiwan, paid rapt attention. A young woman fell asleep. When Peterson waxed ironic after saying Israel had some bad kings — “It’s hard to believe people would be dissatisfied with their leaders” — one of the diners called out, “Orange man!”

The whole concept of offering homeless individuals sermons along with food is now controversial. Mark Hilbelink of Sunrise Community Church says, “We need to lead with the social service foot rather than the evangelical foot. At some places, the homeless are required to listen to a sermon before they get food. Hey, if they haven’t heard about Jesus already, they haven’t been listening.” At Peterson’s church, material food comes before the spiritual food, and no one has to stick around, but he wants to offer hope.

When the sermon ended, most diners left quickly. Some picked up used but clean clothing from a nearby room. Many took paper bags containing chips and candy bars. Several said they liked coming to Wednesday night dinners and have been enjoying them for a long time. On this night the drizzle suddenly turned to thunder and lightning. My phone flashed a flood warning from the National Weather Service: “This is a dangerous and life-threatening situation . . . Do not attempt to travel unless you are fleeing an area subject to flooding or under an evacuation order.”

Chin of Taiwan voluntarily wiped down every table and got upset that someone had thrown food into a trash can but outside the trash bag within it. One man told me Chin is a Buddhist, so I asked Chin whether he is, and got a good Zen answer: “Maybe yes, maybe no.” Chin told me he has studied physics and has a roof over his head. Two others, including the young woman, lingered for a while, since it looked like they would be sleeping outside.

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.