By Emily Williams
Lunch is served and everyone is invited to the Urban Ministries’ WE Community Cafe in Birmingham’s West End community.
On any given Wednesday, patrons from all walks of life go to the cafe and share the same healthy and hearty meal. That blending of communities is as much the point of the cafe as is raising money, said Hill Carmichael, executive director for Urban Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that focuses much of its ministry in west Birmingham.
Carmichael, a Vestavia Hills resident, often brings his 5- and 2-year-old sons to the cafe to expose them to the world outside of their hometown.
“It’s good for them to develop relationships here,” he said. “I think it’s something that anyone can benefit from. It shows you that there is a whole other world outside of that area over the mountain that exists. I invite people to come here and get out of their comfort zone. When you come here to eat, sit down with someone that looks completely different than you and have a real relationship.”
Carmichael recalls having such an experience with one of his junior staff members during a conversation about fairness. The boy opened up to Carmichael about the first time he felt his life was unfair. He got an Xbox video game system for his birthday and spent his school day telling all of his classmates about it. Excited to test out his present, he ran home to find that his parents had sold the gift to buy drugs.
Carmichael said that story shook him to his core.
“Besides that experience being a part of his story and the pain that must have caused him and still causes him, he comes in here every day and chooses goodness and responsibility and respect and spends his time here learning everything he can possibly learn,” Carmichael said.
When Carmichael took the position with Urban Ministries, he saw opportunity where nobody had before and created the cafe, pairing it with an existing project, the WE Community Garden.
The garden was created eight years ago by staffmembers Ama Shambulia and Myron Pierre. Carmichael said that everyone from the board members to the neighboring homeowners told the garden planners that they were crazy. Who would build an unfenced, unprotected garden in one of the most crime-ridden areas of the city?
As if to illustrate the phrase “have a little faith,” the garden has thrived.
“It has become a point of pride for the community,” he said. “The neighbors keep an eye on it because they take ownership in it and also because they benefit from it. They get food from this garden. They’ll sit out on their porches and call us, the police, anyone if they see anything that seems even a little bit suspicious.”
Though the garden and the cafe are separate projects, their paths often cross as both missions seek to get people in the community thinking about food in a healthier way.
“When Urban Ministries decided to move ten years ago, one of the things they did was look at places in Birmingham that were considered food deserts,” Carmichael said. “The idea is to bring in ideas about healthy eating in a place where that hasn’t ever really been an option.”
Before the previous executive director retired, the space that is now the WE Community Cafe was a soup kitchen, which in Carmichael’s opinion is an outdated form of charity.
“When we were trying to decide what to do with the space, one of the main questions we asked ourselves was, ‘Is a soup kitchen really the best way to help someone?'” Carmichael said. “I’m not saying that it doesn’t do a lot of good. It just doesn’t do very much to move the community in a better direction.”
When someone enters a soup kitchen, Carmichael said, he or she may feel a bit of guilt because they can’t afford to feed themselves. At the cafe, a payment plan acts as an equalizer for all who enter. Guests donate what they can for the meal, with suggested donations of $5 for the meal, $10 for the meal and the staff’s labor, or $15 for the meal, the staff’s labor and someone else’s meal.
Vetting the culinary excellence of the meals is Shambulia, garden co-creater and Urban Ministrie’s director of wellness, a chef and holistic health coach who oversees both the cafe and the garden.
“We certainly aren’t going to turn anyone away if they can’t pay for their food, but giving them the option to give what they can gives them a sense of dignity,” he said.
Funds generated by the cafe are then dumped back into the community through the ministry’s various projects. When the cafe first opened March 9, more than 250 came in to eat.
Carmichael remembers one community member saying, “For so long we have wanted something nice and we have deserved something nice and now we finally have something nice.”
Carmichael reached out to invite members of the Police Department to the opening, and officers have been a cafe staple ever since.
“We actually reached out to them after the Dallas shooting as a means to come together and have a discussion in a non-threatening way, at the table, breaking bread together,” he said. “Even now, right after the country experienced one of the most polarizing elections in our nation’s history, you don’t feel that tension here.”
Not only are the garden and cafe places for members of the community to come together, they both provide opportunities for ministry interns to learn skills that are marketable for future career opportunities.
“We like to hire from within the West End community and hire those people that are otherwise unhirable because those are the people that are at risk,” Carmichael said.
Interns range from the ages of 18 to 30 and work either in the cafe learning culinary skills or in the garden.
“Obviously, we aren’t planting anything right now,” Carmichael said. “In fact, we just finished pulling everything up, so right now our interns are working on maintaining the soil and then we’ll start replanting once we get some rain.”
Produce from the farm is used in the cafe or sold to the community and local restaurants.
“Some of the neighbors have even started their own gardens and we help them maintain those,” Carmichael said. “So it goes beyond giving them food, we are also teaching them how to grow their own.”
The garden has generated more than $30,000 in revenue through sales. Combined with the funds raised by the garden, cafe and the ministry’s Joe Rush Center for Urban Missions – a home painting and repair program – the ministry generates $140,000 annually.
“The more funds we generate, the more opportunities we can offer these people and the more sustainable their lives become,” Carmichael said. “Real change comes from helping people help themselves and showing them that their lives are just as important as anybody else’s. This cafe is here to say, ‘You are worth it and you deserve the best and this is your cafe.'”
Urban Ministries hopes that, with continued success, the cafe will be able to serve lunch a few more days a week. But until then, the interns are always busy. People can hire the culinary team to cater parties and events, which is just another opportunity to fill those staff members’ time with educational experiences.
In light of the Thanksgiving holiday, Carmichael charges people to do something active in service to others.
“Come be a part of this and help build a better community,” he said. “A single act of compassion today can lead to wholeness and a healthier tomorrow.”
The WE Community Cafe will be hosting a holiday lunch Dec. 7, and Carmichael said that everyone is invited.
For more information on Urban Ministries, visit urban-ministry.org.
This article was updated on Nov. 30 to correct misrepresentations regarding the time period during which the WE Community Garden, which was eight years prior to the March creation of the cafe. In addition, the $140,000 generated by the ministry is through the combined efforts of the gardens, cafe and the Joe Rush Center for Urban Missions.