Published in IMAGE, Sandy Hill Paper.
There’s free food, the opportunity to meet lots of people and don’t forget to bring containers for leftovers. That’s how the Open Table advertises their monthly meal program for University of Ottawa students that has grown to serve up to 100 per month. As its numbers increase, so does the community and strength of relationships within the program.
“Sometimes you don’t have the resources to make healthy and nutritious meals. Open Table was started to give students the opportunity to connect with different churches… and for churches to look after students and make sure they’re taking care of themselves,” she said.
Nov. 29 marked the third Open Table meal of the year for the Sandy Hill community and Centre 454, the basement of St. Albans church on King Edward and Daly Ave., filled with students eager to chat with one another and share the home-cooked meal.
The uOttawa and Carleton Open Table partners with 12 churches in four denominations of Christianity to provide a free monthly meal to any student who shows up. Emily Sams, community development coordinator, said she sees it as an important form of alternative ministry.
Since the uOttawa Open Table’s launch in 2009, Sams said the goal has always been about creating a safe and welcoming space for all students. This September she said there was a huge growth spurt in the program, serving a record of 91 students at Centre 454. The Carleton program started last year after the success of the service at uOttawa.
Zack Ingles, staff manager of Open Table, said these growing numbers show that the service’s focus on “radical hospitality” is an important one.
“It’s serving students with no strings attached and doing it in Christ’s name. For those who want to go further with that, those options are there,” he said. “But for those who all they want is a free home-cooked meal, we see that as an opportunity to engage with a student we would never see otherwise.”
About one third of students at Open Table are international students, Ingles said. Regardless of whether students are involved in faith groups or not, he said it “becomes this safe and comfortable space” to meet people in the community.
Juliana Colwell, fourth year university student, has attended Open Table for the past few years and it was through the program that she heard about St. Albans which she now is heavily involved in as an intern and part of the music team. Colwell said for her it provided much more than food.
“It has given me the opportunity to meet some of my closest friends and have a guaranteed home cooked meal once a month,” she said. “Not only do you get to enjoy a meal, but you also find out what else is going on in the community.”
Ingles said it’s free food on the surface level, but “there’s a lot you can plug into like building relationships and community.” In the coming months, he said he expects the numbers will continue rising.
“Nights that we run out of food are the best nights because it means we’re doing something right, we’re spreading the message,” Ingles said. “If we’re rationing food out that’s an awesome problem to have because it means what we’re doing is a meaningful ministry in Sandy Hill.”
For more information about Open Table, go to their website at www.theopentable.ca.