Every Thursday, Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Community residents and volunteers, several from the Rutland sitting group, gather at the yellow house at 197 West Street in Rutland for an “everybody eats” community meal. The food is wholesome, hearty, and delicious. It is cooked with great care from scratch using fresh, high quality ingredients. Everyone, volunteers included, sits down to eat together. The atmosphere is jovial. People talk to each other, know each other’s names. It feels more like a gathering of friends and neighbors for a meal than like a soup kitchen.
Ideas for this Thursday Cafe started to percolate last October, when Sensei Joshin led a Street Retreat in Rutland. Street Retreat is a Zen Peacemaker practice started by Roshi Bernie Glassman. Participants become voluntarily homeless for several days and bear witness to poverty. While on the streets in Rutland, the group noticed the lack of meals for people living in poverty. There were days when no free meals were available at all. Much of the food that was offered was neither nutritious nor appetizing. Lots of day-old donuts. The group attended an eagerly anticipated free “pizza night” at the Open Door Mission and learned that what was being served came from trash bags – pizza the restaurant had decided was too old to serve to paying customers and put in hefty bags to be given away. And most meals were doled out in settings that seemed cold and unfriendly.
A notable exception was the free cafe at the Dream Center in Rutland, where nice home cooked meals were being served several days a week and people were served and treated like guests, like neighbors. The Dream Center was started by Linda Beckwith, who woke up one Christmas morning feeling called to bring bowls of beef stew to hungry people in Rutland. At first, she served stew out of the trunk of her car. Eventually, she bought the yellow house on West Street, formerly a tavern, and started serving free meals there.
A couple of months after Street Retreat, BLMZC residents and Joshin met with Linda and learned that she was leaving town and had donated the yellow house to an addiction treatment program called Teen Challenge. The good news was that Teen Challenge planned to allow volunteers to continue serving meals at the house, at least for the time being. And they agreed to let BLMZC volunteers serve meals every Thursday.
When BLMZC started serving meals in January, only about a dozen people showed up. The number has steadily grown to forty or more. As one guest explained “word has gotten around that you guys make great food.” Along with BLMZC residents, frequent volunteers include Mary Byrne, Jen Sanford, Chip Paison, MaryAnne Ries, Casey LaFramboise, and Pat Hunter. Pat says of the experience, “I really enjoy the cafe. We look forward to seeing one another each week — with many arriving early to help set up and have time to sit and talk and be together.
Our ideas about community meals in Rutland continue to evolve. We are considering finding a more permanent location and calling our project the Bread Loaf Mountain Zen Cafe. To get involved, email to Daishin.