At 11 o’clock most Thursday mornings, a food truck pulls to the curb on St. Paul’s East Side. The serving window rolls open and the lunch crowd lines up for freshly made calzones — served with a slice of religion.
For the next hour, the sidewalk is transformed into an unlikely church. Lunch is followed by a worship service in which the coffee and dessert table next to the truck becomes the altar and the communion bread is flattened calzone dough.
Called Shobi’s Table, it’s Minnesota’s first and only food truck church, and among few in the nation. It’s designed to meet folks who typically wouldn’t enter a nice church building but are open to spiritual inspiration, especially when served with a tasty free meal.
“It’s like you get two in one,” said Cedric Taggart, a St. Paul man who frequently stops by. “You can get some spiritual healing, with some physical healing at the same time.”
The truck is the brainchild of the Rev. Margaret Kelly, a newly minted Lutheran minister who wanted to create a church “for people living in the margins.”
She launched the ministry in 2014 with a borrowed food truck and funds from the national Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and local churches.
“Pop-up restaurants are popular right now. This is like pop-up church,” said Kelly, who sports jeans, a black T-shirt and a clerical collar. “Jesus was fond of gathering people around food. That’s how you build community.”
It’s also how you build new models for 21st-century churches. Lutherans, like other declining mainline Protestant denominations, are searching for ways to attract new adherents. At the same time, there’s a commitment to serving the disadvantaged.
“We realize [church growth] takes more than opening a sanctuary and expecting people to come in,” said the Rev. Justin Grimm, director for evangelical mission at the ELCA’s St. Paul Area Synod. “[Shobi’s Table] has worship. Sacrament. Fellowship. Prayer. All the marks of a church, just not inside a building.”
Food and faith
On a recent Thursday, Kelly welcomed about 30 people to the food truck parked on Payne Avenue, in one of St. Paul’s poorest neighborhoods. Many are regulars at a nearby Salvation Army or live in low-income apartments. Others pulled up in cars, grabbed a meal, shared a few words and headed out.
One young woman reminded Kelly of an upcoming court date she hoped the minister would attend. (“It’s on my calendar,” Kelly assured her.) Taggart shared an update on his girlfriend’s chemotherapy. A quiet man stood by listening, and Kelly approached him with the upbeat offer, “Wanna see a picture of my kid?” His eyes perked up and a conversation was born.
“Everyone welcomes you here,” said Tara Lambeth, a regular standing at the meal window. “I have faith, but I have a hard time going to church. There are certain things you’re supposed to do, like stand and sit. It’s an awkward feeling by yourself.”
“It’s nice to be able to come here,” she said, “not a place where I don’t necessarily fit in.”
The day began at nearby Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church, where cooks Candy Stegora and Sara Stegora plus volunteers from various congregations prepare calzones, lemonade, coffee and desserts. At 11 a.m., the sky-blue food truck with the words “Shobi’s Table” scrawled across it pulled up to the curb.
Shobi is an Old Testament figure who provided a feast and shelter to King David and his soldiers in time of need.
As people finished their meals, Kelly cleared a space on the card table holding a cooler and a coffee pot. She laid down a scrap of green felt and placed on top of it a crucifix from a necklace, a ceramic mug and calzone communion.
As folks gathered near Kelly, the minister raised both palms and started with a blessing.
“We ask you God to bless those who don’t have access to air conditioners or safe water,” said Kelly, standing in 90-degree heat. Other blessings followed, and then Kelly led a worship service using the same format as a typical Lutheran service, but abbreviated.
When time came for communion and “wine” — apple juice from a dollar store — she walked up to each person standing at the table.
Not everyone stayed and prayed. Those who did appreciated this mobile ministry.
“Worshiping alone is not good,” said Kent Pengelly. “You need to do it with people.”
Kelly says she has presided over some first communions at this streetside church, as well as one wedding and a renewal of wedding vows.
Lutheran leaders, who have showcased Shobi’s Table at national conventions, are not aware of other food truck churches like this nationally — offering both a religious service and a mobile meal. There are, however, a small number of food truck churches offering prayer and gospel readings.
The Rev. Amy Beitelschees-Albers, a veteran Lutheran minister from Fort Wayne, Ind., is among pastors who have contacted Kelly to explore the option.
“The traditional way of doing church doesn’t work for everyone,” she said. “We’re all asking, ‘How can we bring faith to the people?’ ”
Kelly is considering a second location. Taggart is among those who think it’s a great idea, proclaiming, “There should be more of these!”