Weekly Chestnut Hill supper offers community respite from daily challenges

Think of Chestnut Hill and the words “affluent” and “comfortable” no doubt come to mind.

But even in this Northwest Philly enclave, people can find themselves down on their luck.

The awareness that even people in so-called well-off parts of the city can struggle to put food on the table was the catalyst behind trained caterer Debra Roberts’s decision to start up a Wednesday evening community supper at the Church of St. Martin-In-The-Fields, an Episcopalian ministry in Chestnut Hill. 

The event, which celebrated its two-year anniversary in late February, offers both church members and non-members alike a chance at some healthy, home-cooked food and camaraderie in a welcoming and comfortable setting free of judgment.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

More than a ‘soup kitchen’

“Our goal was that it not be a ‘soup kitchen,'” Roberts said during the March 12 supper, which was attended by about 200 or so diners.

Roberts said she got the idea for the supper back in 2008 when she heard about the 28 home foreclosures in Chestnut Hill.

Her decision was cemented when she learned of two families living in their cars.

This can’t be happening, especially in wealthy Chestnut Hill, she thought.

But it was, and so she eventually brought the idea for the supper to Jarrett Kerbel, the head rector at the church.

He loved it.

“Knowing Debra, I knew it would be a well-led project,” Kerbel said during the supper, which offered rosemary chicken, wild rice, lentils and salad.

Kerbel said the event ended up having a “lot of different audiences.”

Attendees include those who are struggling to put food on the table because of financial hardships, residents who are too busy to prepare a home-cooked meal, and still others who simply relish the opportunity to come together with neighbors and friends.

“It’s a big gamut,” Chestnut Hill resident Barb Previdi said at the recent supper.

A service to the community

Previdi, who was accompanied by her two sons, ages 15 and 11, said for her, it’s simply a time to be able to socialize with community members and church congregants.

“It’s something to look forward to,” she said. “It’s social.”

Previdi, who called herself a “Catholic refugee,” has been coming to St. Martin’s for the past nine years.

And she’s been a devoted supper-goer since its inception two years ago.

If she’s not traveling for work, she’s attending the communal dinner.

“It’s a meal together with the family … but it’s really the extended family,” she said.

Previdi called the supper a “service” for everyone in the community — those who are not church members are invited — but especially working families like hers.

“It’s getting us off the hook for having to make dinner,” she said.

A handful of teenagers from the Manayunk-Roxborough-based group Teen UpRise also attended this past Wednesday’s supper.

The group offers afterschool tutoring and general mentoring for young people in need and were accompanied by Teen UpRise founder Amy Concilio.

Even Gary Glazer, a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge who resides in Chestnut Hill, was spotted at the supper accompanied by his wife.

A group effort

Everyone can chip in in his or her own way, said Roberts, the event’s founder and organizer.

Some bake and drop off homemade dishes, others serve food, there are those who just come to bus tables and clean up, and there are still others who contribute monetarily.

Of course there’s no requirement to do anything at all except show up and chow down, Roberts said.

“The supper is just a chance to meet and get together,” Roberts said. “This is pure service. No expectations.”

Judy Howard, who joined the church a year-and-a-half ago after a lifetime of atheism, said during Wednesday’s supper that what she appreciates about St. Martin’s is that it’s not a preachy congregation.

One can pursue political issues, get involved in community events like the supper, or simply befriend others in the community.

“It’s not a Sunday morning deal,” she said. “I could see that there was a real lively community here. It wasn’t very churchy.”

Anna Meyer, whose husband, Erik, is the music director at St. Martin’s, said she and her family enjoy the community supper so much that they plan their schedules around it.

“This is an event, at least for my family, that we love,” she said on Wednesday. “We get very excited about it.”

Roberts is pleased that the supper has been going so strong for the past two years.

And the fact that about 25 percent of those who attend are not church members means she’s doing something right.

“I had wanted to do this for a while,” she said. “I wanted to prepare meals for people who need it.”

Suppers are held at 6 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal