Volunteer Bound: Morning Glory Cafe in Kansas City

How We Found Morning Glory Cafe

When looking for a volunteer opportunity in a new city, I can’t understate how helpful it is to work with someone how is familiar with multiple non-profits in the area. For Kansas City, I reached out to Catholic Charities of Kansas City and got in touch with Laura Hilliard. I explained our project, our timeline, and that we were looking for a volunteer experience where we could work directly with those in need. Laura had the perfect place in mind – Morning Glory Cafe at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City.

The Experience

When I first talked with Laura Hilliard about our volunteer experience, everything sounded like the ideal volunteer opportunity. Working with the hungry and homeless? That’s our goal. Serving breakfast to those in need? Even better. A chance to meet the guests? One of my favorite parts. Thursday morning? Perfect! Be there at at 6:30 am? Um, ouch. With our commute, that meant rising at 5:30, which actually felt more like 4:30 since we were still on Mountain Time. Whew.

We spotted the church by its famous gold dome and even in the pre-dawn dark, it seemed to glow against the dark morning sky. We entered the dining hall on a high landing and descended the steps into the large serving area to find Steve Bruns, the Cafe Coordinator. First off, I love that it’s called a Cafe rather than a soup kitchen. The little details make a big difference.

Morning Glory Cafe

Morning Glory Cafe

Morning Glory Cafe

Morning Glory Cafe

When it came time to serve breakfast, I was asked to give out pineapple to the guests as they came through the line. One of the things I liked about Morning Glory Cafe was how willing they were to accommodate requests from the guests. In many places, the portions are strictly rationed because the staff worries about arguments among the guests. Here, within reason, the guests were allowed to get as much of anything they wanted. Some people skipped the cereal and fruit, making a beeline for the cinnamon roles. Others only wanted toast and coffee, but were able to get two or three pieces because of the flexible serving system.

Rebekah and Sarah serving breakfast at Morning Glory Cafe

Rebekah and Sarah serving breakfast at Morning Glory Cafe

I like the opportunities where I have the chance to give food to others, especially in situations where I get to interact with everyone. It gives me a chance to see the hunger as individuals, rather than a group. Putting a name and a face to hunger changes the way you think about the people in that situation. Even better than seeing someone is talking to someone and this set up is a good way to start a simple conversation. Usually, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between those who want to talk and those who prefer to keep to themselves. People can make an impression on you whether they talk or not.

There was one man who came through and was their self-proclaimed health nut. He skipped the cereal and went straight for the pineapple. As I started putting it into the small fruit bowl, he very politely and excitedly asked if he could have pineapple in the large cereal bowl instead. I obliged and he looked like a kid a Christmas. He thanked me profusely (as if it were mine to begin with) and I heard him tell several people around him how important it is to eat fruit. He came back at least two more times for more pineapple.

I also met a man named Jeff who had been recently laid off from work and was trying to stretch his budget. He and I had been many of the same places. He was in the Navy and had been on Navy bases in Jacksonville, FL, Millington, TN, and San Diego, California. I lived in Jacksonville, I worked on the Navy base in Millington and that job took me to the base in San Diego. What a small world. Jeff stayed around long after the breakfast was over and helped with mopped floors, cleaning tables and taking out the trash. It’s clear that he’s a very hard worker and was grateful for what he’d be given.

I noticed that two men were playing chess at a nearby table. I also noticed that it was one of the fastest games of chess I’d ever seen. I guessed that at least one of them did not know how to play! But the reason this made an impression on me was not the speed of the game, but rather the leisurely breakfast. In many places, the guests are fed and quickly moved through to accommodate more guests or discourage loitering. Here, everything encourages the guests to stay. They’re given time to rest and enjoy the warmth and company. They’re also welcome to come back for seconds, thirds, and fourths for as long as there is food. I marveled at this approach because so many soup kitchens worry about fights for food, but people were very patient and understanding. Eventually after a few rounds, they ran out of pineapple but no one pitched a fit. No one went over to the health nut and accused him of hogging the pineapple. The atmosphere was patient and welcoming.

One of the gentlemen came through and gave me a kiss. Two actually. He walked down the line and handed Hershey’s kisses to all of the volunteers. This was the first time I that I have been given something by someone I was there to serve.

Kisses from one of the guests at Morning Glory Cafe

Kisses from one of the guests at Morning Glory Cafe

One of the more memorable people was a man named Amiko (or maybe Abiko). The first thing I noticed about Amiko was that he smiles a lot. The next thing I noticed was that both of his hands were deformed, which made it difficult to carry the tray. Or (I realized) maybe I was just imagining that it was difficult to carry the tray. It didn’t seem to slow him down at all. He had a very unusual accent, which I asked about to learn that he was from Sudan. I really liked him right away. He seemed kind and focused in a way that is hard to describe. I felt like he looked at me intently like he was trying to figure me out. I think I passed some sort of test because he talked to me more candidly as the morning went on. I learned that Amiko also won a soft spot in the heart of Cafe Coordinator, Karen Miller. She and Steve Bruns both spoke highly of Amiko describing his intelligence and kindness. Karen said that Amiko always tells them he wants to throw a party for the staff and guests as the Cafe whenever he gets enough money to do it. That idea just makes me smile – the fact that he would use his new found money to bring happiness to others. Throughout the rest of my time at Morning Glory, I talked to Amiko several more times. Towards the end of the breakfast, he asked if I would be coming back tomorrow. I felt crushed. I wanted to say yes. I did want to come back. He saw my face fall and he knew the answer before I said it, but that didn’t stop him from looking disappointed when I shook my head no. I heard myself explain the project – the volunteer trip and the blog, but somehow it sounded hollow because at that moment it seemed insignificant. Instead I wanted to tell him yes I would be back in the morning to see him. I wanted to tell him I’d be there to check on him, talk with him, and feed him breakfast. I’ve been thinking about Amiko since we left and I have so many questions I want to ask him. Where do you sleep? How did you come to be in Kansas? What is your life like? What do you hope for? And one more question that neither of us can answer. What will happen to you?

In contrast to Amiko, there was one man who was not so friendly. As he came through the serving line, he was physically and mentally focused on his cell phone. It was wedged between his shoulder and his ear and other than the food, it seemed to be the only thing that existing for him. He was disinterested and dismissive of everyone around him. He went through the whole line without thanking us, talking to us or even looking at us. He would look only at the food, point to it and gesture to spot on his tray. What would you think about him? Here, I have a confession to make. I was ticked. I instantly judged him and labeled him rude and ungrateful. I thought about not telling you this, because I’m embarrassed by my reaction. But I wanted to tell you about it, because something like this will probably happen to you too and I want to tell you what I did. I’m getting better about catching myself when I judge people and when that happens, I make a point to think about my reaction and the situation. I asked myself why he might be so attached to his cell phone. Sure – it could be that he was just really rude. I acknowledge that. But maybe there was something else. Maybe he had applied for jobs and had been waiting for a call back from a potential employer. And maybe you’re not buying that? Maybe he had been trying to get ahold of his family and finally found them. Maybe he was on hold waiting to learn about homeless services. Or maybe like many of the hungry and homeless he had a mental disorder. It could be that he has a fear of crowds or open spaces or strangers. Staying on the phone could have been his way of coping with what might have been an incredibly stressful situation for him. Even with this approach, I realized that I was still trying to make myself feel better about his behavior, but why did I care anyway? Was I there to be thanked? No. I was there to help, to challenge my own perceptions and to tell you about hunger in America.  Now in retrospect, I’m glad that I had this experience because it has been one of the more salient lessons of my trip so far.

I was also very impressed with the staff – Steve Bruns and Karen Miller. I could tell that the breakfast guests trusted the staff and Steve explained that it took some time. Steve was a long time volunteer before he joined the staff and even though many of the regulars recognized him, he said that it still took a while to earn their trust. He said that many will watch from a distance to see how you react to people and situations over time before they’ll open up to you. Eventually they will tell their stories and one of the most common problems is that there’s “too much month at the end of the money” Steve quoted.

I watched as Karen interacted with the guests as well. I could tell by the way they approach her and talked with her that she had been building this relationships for a long time. One woman walked by and I heard Karen say to herself, “Oh no it looks like Dawn’s having a bad day.” Later, Dawn came by and Karen asked very gently, “Dawn, are you having a rough day?” Dawn lowered her eyes and nodded sadly. Karen followed after her to talk. Everything about the team and Morning Glory Ministries sends the message that the guests are important.

In addition to hot breakfast, they also hand out sack lunches for the guests to take. They also offer a wide range of homeless services. For example, Rebekah really liked the fact that Morning Glory offers a prescription assistance program. This service is critical because many of the poor and homeless will forgo their prescriptions because of the expense, which leads to much more expensive issues down the line. It is much more cost effective to keep someone well with appropriate medication than to have another hospitalization. For example, monthly medication for diabetes can cost several hundred dollars, which is a major financial obstacle for those with low or no monthly income. And while it’s expensive to provide financial assistance, it makes sense when you consider that it can cost over $10,000 to hospitalize someone with untreated diabetes.

One of the other interesting things I noticed was that the team will put the sack lunches in the entryway of the homeless services center. They’re free to take. I was shocked. It many places you have to sign in or demonstrate need in order to receive lunches. At the very least, you have to interact with someone in order to get food. Here, they sit freely in reach of the public. I took a picture of the rack of lunches and Steve laughed, saying no one had ever thought to take a picture before. I took a picture because it was a sign that this ministry trusts their guests. I can’t understate how much it means to this population to feel trusted. If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you will get the benefit of the doubt in your everyday life. When you walk past, no one pulls their bag closer. When you enter a restaurant, you’re seated instead of scrutinized. I can only imagine how exhausting it is to feel distrusted everyday. So simple things, like access to food without judgement can make a big impact. This cart may not look like much to you or me, but to the poor and hungry, it’s a symbol of sustenance and trust.

Morning Glory Ministries freely accessible food cart

Morning Glory Ministries freely accessible food cart

I was also impressed with the volunteers. Earlier I mentioned Laura Hilliard of Catholic Charities and how helpful she was in finding our volunteer opportunity. I learned that one of the volunteers, Steve was Laura’s dad. He beamed when he talked about her and all that she’s done for the community. I can see where Laura gets her dedication – her dad Steve has been volunteering for many years because he believes that encountering homelessness changes your perceptions and because it’s an opportunity to put his faith into action. We also met Allison Keegan, the Director of Young Adult and Campus Ministries for Catholics in the Kansas City area. She said that she has a heart for the homeless because they are a misunderstood population and when we asked why she volunteers, she said, “We are our best selves and become alive when we serve. We reach our fullness.” I understand exactly what Allison is saying. The last few months have been the most fulfilling of my life. If you haven’t had this experience, you are missing out! There is so much life to live and there is so much life to miss when we are confined to our everyday lives. When is the last time you were able to say that you were your best self?

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One Response to Volunteer Bound: Morning Glory Cafe in Kansas City

  1. I haven’t commented much, but I’m with you in spirit and love reading your updates. Phenomenal work you’re doing!

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