“When peace like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll; Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to know. It is well, it is well, with my soul.”—”It is Well with My Soul” by Horatio Gates Spafford (1873)
On any given day in a small town in Camden County, you can find people doing ministry, feeding the hungry, handing out a book, or maybe even building a ramp or singing a song like “It is Well with My Soul.”
Now a GNJ Hope Center, Soul Café in Magnolia opens its hearts, minds, souls…and ears to the people of its community whenever there is a need.
“We’re all about feeding the mind, body and spirit,” said Rev. Cherese Evans, pastor of Magnolia UMC, chair of Gateway South District Poverty Task Force and director of Soul Cafe.
Most recently the Hope Center was able to receive a new freezer through A Future With Hope/NJ Pandemic Relief Fund grant. This will help them store the food they need to supply the food pantry and prepare dinners for its community.
“It’s an acknowledgement of all the hard work our team has done, especially during a pandemic and harsh weather. They have worked tirelessly,” said Evans who seems to have a limitless amount of energy and enthusiasm toward the plight of helping others and making ministry available to all no matter when or where.
“We have spent the past three years transitioning from a church of old to a faith community of new. We have loved on the people in the community, and we strive to listen, learn and meet the needs of those around us.”
On the day of this interview, volunteers were beginning to build a ramp for a neighbor known as “Doc,” who had recently become an amputee. The members of the Soul Café team grabbed the tools and supplies necessary to get the job done and make life easier for this disabled veteran whose only association with the church was the fact that he lived next door.
“It’s all about holistic ministry for us. We want people to be whole again wherever that brings us,” said Evans.
But the pandemic has taken its toll over the past year on the ministry that started in 2018.
“The pandemic for us has been a life-changing event, but we held onto the core mission to build relationships in spite of all the tragedy,” said Evans who added that from the beginning Soul Café has been reaching a body of people who live on the fringes.
“When we stepped out three years ago on faith to do church differently, we had no idea what it meant or how it would look.”
The pandemic has shattered the original concept of sharing the love and grace in person and gathered around a table. But consistent with the past three years, the team rallied to get the food pantry reopened only three days after it had to be closed by changing the hours to noon on Sundays and adopting new social distancing guidelines that kept people safe but still gave them a choice.
“We wanted it to be dignified still,” said Evans who added that the team created a grocery list for each client to fill out. The requested items were then delivered to the client in the parking lot.
Two cooks at Soul Café are also preparing about 100-150 prepackaged hot dinners each week for the people in their community who come from all walks of life—some just come for conversation while others are homeless. No matter the background, they all leave with a sense of hope.
Each client is greeted in the parking lot by Evans’ husband who puts their minds at ease by saying, “Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here.”
Although they can’t sit around the same tables and enjoy a meal and ministry together as they did pre-COVID, clients of Soul Café are now enjoying worship outside. There are even radio transmitters for those who prefer to stay in their cars during the service.
Adaptability is one of the strongest qualities of the Soul Café. Despite the restrictions, the Soul Café fed more than two thousand people in 2020, and so far in 2021 it’s evident that pace is not slowing down.
That adaptability is what led to the start of the Soul Café ministry in 2017. Memorial UMC in Pine Hill, which was its original home site, used to be a traditional church congregation that worshiped each Sunday, but it wasn’t thriving. In an attempt to reach the community, Evans and her congregation in May 2017 began a food pantry to help neighbors in need along with a library to feed their minds too.
But as the dynamic of the congregation changed, it became evident that Sunday might not be the best day for worship, so they started hosting a worship service on Wednesday nights.
Soul Café Supper & Service was birthed on January 3, 2018. Because of a similar situation at Magnolia UMC, the approach to worship was started there in September 2018. Since then, the Soul Café has not only fed the hungry. They have also gifted hundreds of books, baptized children and adults and have been Methodists committed to discipleship. Many have accepted or reaffirmed Christ as their Lord and Savior at the Soul Café.
“We have always been a faith community, not a church. We are a body of people and community together,” said Evans. “We remove that stigma that some people hold about church.”
That “stigma” is something with which Evans is very familiar.
“I didn’t grow up in church, but I learned pretty early on that God had a sense of humor,” said Evans who was raised in Gibbstown, NJ. She recalled how at 13 she was brought to church by an uncle who was affectionately known as “a crazy Jesus person.”
“It was really eye-opening for me. I remember thinking if Jesus could love me, I knew I had to follow. I soaked up God like a sponge.” Although her journey wound up taking a few detours, she graduated with her ministry degree in 2012.
Now nearly a decade later, Evans and her Soul Café team are hosting their Semi-Annual Chicken BBQ on Saturday, May 1, starting at noon. As always, she is optimistically aiming to have 300 people in attendance.
“We’ve always been a center of hope. People leave feeling hopeful. A smile, a prayer and sometimes a Christmas stocking,” said Evans who added that there’s an overall goal of validating the feelings of each client and embracing the value each one brings to the Soul Café.
Looking toward the future, Evans said she has her sights on housing.
“We want to be the center of hope in our community,” said Evans.
For more details, check out the Soul Cafe Facebook page.