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An evening out with a twist at Community Missions Cabaret

Christians look for ways to serve God's people.

Sometimes what they serve them is pulled pork with mashed potatoes and green beans.

That was the menu at last month's Sunday Cabaret held at Community Missions of the Niagara Frontier, an agency that helps people dealing with homelessness, poverty and mental illness in Niagara County.

Five days a week, Community Missions serves filling lunches to the public. Those who live in rooms at the agency, which is housed in two former motels, are fed three meals a day.

But once a month, everything is different.

A special dinner on Sunday night — for which cook Jimmie Walker plans and saves ingredients — is followed by entertainment, which could be a movie, a trivia night or live music.

The dinner is served by volunteers from local churches, many of them Episcopal, who dine with the guests and stay for the entertainment afterward, offering cookies and coffee or bottled water during the program.

The Sunday Cabaret started in September 2012, when the Rev. Mark H. Breese, Community Missions' agency minister, was discussing possible programs with the Rev. Judith Lee, dean of the Niagara Deanery of the Episcopal Church.

"We came up with idea of doing a dinner and program at the shelter here for the people in the shelter," said Breese, "and as we were planning, we said there's no reason to not invite the community as well."

The initial plan was to offer the special programs for two or three seasons, said Breese. But the Sunday Cabaret has proven popular with the volunteers, performers and guests alike.

"The groups involved in putting on the Cabaret — primarily churches, but now slowly beginning to include other community-based groups — have remained very committed to continuing the project," he said.

Working together

Because organizers realized that serving the dinner and also providing entertainment was a lot of work, they suggested that churches might want to share the tasks.

Sometimes, as on Sunday, March 25, one church serves dinner and another provides the entertainment: Grace Church of Lockport will serve dinner from 5 to about 5:45 p.m., and Hope United Methodist Church of Sanborn will offer a trivia game night for all ages, with prizes, starting at 6 p.m.

In February, members of two Episcopal churches, St. John's in Youngstown and St. Paul's in Lewiston, joined to serve the pulled pork dinner.

Jimmie Walker of Community Missions cooks a special dinner that is open to everyone on the last Sunday of every month from September through April. Churches provide volunteers to help serve and to eat and chat with the dinner guests. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Mary Ellen Aureli of Youngstown, a member of St. John's, and the other volunteers arrived in mid-afternoon to begin work. They got a quick lesson from cook Jimmie Walker, who showed them how the plates should look and gave them tips on cleaning up as they served, then had them prepare salad and plate the desserts.

Teresa Carter of the Town of Niagara, a member of the mission and outreach committee of St. Paul's, said she enjoyed working with members of St. John's. "It's an opportunity for us to serve God," she said. "We are called to take care of his people."

A vital part of the Cabaret is that members of the churches eat with the guests. "That's the part that people enjoyed the most," said Breese. "It was scary at first for some people, and there were some that found it terrifying, it's like you are invited to a dinner party with a friend and your friend is the only person you know."

"Doing this makes me grateful for all I have, and also reminds me that we're all the same," said Aureli.

"It's a unique experience designed to break down that barrier, whether it's the counter between you serving lunch or just those perceived barriers, and to sit down and enjoy the entertainment with people," said Breese.

"I look foward to this every month," said Victor Henry Sr. of Niagara Falls, who works in the kitchen at Community Missions. "It gets me out of the house and gives me something to do. I try to stay busy."

'I heard 'Do it!' '

After the plates were empty and the dining room and kitchen tidied, about 30 of the 70 people who had enjoyed dinner gathered at round tables in the comfortable community room upstairs.

As a last-minute substitution for a performer who was ill, music was provided by keyboard player Joanne Lorenzo and guitarist Johnny Carr and singer Ron Harrison, both of Niagara Falls.

Lorenzo ran the food pantry and kitchen at Community Missions for 16 years before leaving nine years ago to launch the Magdalene Project for women and children.

"Pastor Mark called me this morning and I thought he was just calling to say hi," she said, laughing. "When he asked, I heard, 'Do it!' inside. So here I am."

The voice certainly echoed the opinion of her son, Joey Lorenzo, 14, who was delighted to see Walker, his longtime friend, and to enjoy some of his cheesecake. "He makes some good food," said Joey emphatically.

Harrison, whose smooth tenor filled the room, dedicated his performance to his mother, Cora Harrison of Niagara Falls, who just turned 85.

The group began with "His Eye is on the Sparrow," Lorenzo's mother's favorite song, followed by "Hallelujah, Thank You Jesus" and "Walk With Me." After some urging from Harrison, who said, "I'm not going to sing by myself  when I've got a whole choir here!'' the audience joined in on the choruses.

Eventually, two audience members stepped up to the mic. Chuck Hawk, with 30 years of guitar-playing experience, had the crowd's toes tapping with a bluesy rendition of "Kansas City," and Peter Rhine, 22, whose voice soared in the sing-alongs, was persuaded to come forward and sing "Amazing Grace."

Dinner and a night out

The event is held on the last Sunday of every month from September to April, except for December, which is already packed with holiday events, said Breese.

The Sunday Cabaret was a hit from the beginning. At the first one, on Sept. 30, 2012, the Gospel Groove Band of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Burt performed and members of the First United Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls served dinner.

"We had a lot of people out," said Breese. Before we got to the next month, people wanted to know when the next one was."

The importance of the Cabaret soon became clear, Breese said. "We learned that we were filling the need of dinner and a night out. These are folks that aren't necessarily going to have that, and we have a really great cook, and it's always a really great dinner."

After the first season ended, "I got lots of questions from the community, 'When is the next one going to be?' and it's now five years," he said.

Through the years, the entertainment portion of the Cabaret has been "a variety of stuff," said Breese, ticking off craft nights, a chalkboard artist, all kinds of music — some religious and some not — and games.

Although some programs are more popular than others, "I don't think we've had one that has been a failure," said Breese. "We had a movie night, and although I think everybody had already seen the movie, it was cool to watch it together and have popcorn."

Just under 20 groups from churches or community groups have participated, he said. Most of the churches are Episcopal, but United Methodist, American Baptist and Presbyterian churches have participated.

Girl Scouts and the Niagara Area Foundation have volunteered to do parts of the Sunday Cabaret, and on one memorable night, the Philosophy Club and Social Work Club of Niagara University led a game of  Thanksgiving bingo.

Those who enjoyed the musical portion of the February Cabaret ranged from senior citizens to wide-eyed Essence Cooper, 6 months old. "She loves anything like this," said her great-grandmother, Lori Cooper of Niagara Falls.

"It's for all ages," said Breese. "There are probably two or three families that come, and the only time I see them is at the Cabaret."

The Very Rev. Earle King, current dean of the Niagara Deanery of the Episcopal Diocese, had a chance to help out at the Sunday Cabaret as pastor of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church on Grand Island.

"The folks from St. Martin's who have been to Community Missions for the Cabaret (and for other opportunities) have been incredibly impressed by that ministry, and have been delighted to have the opportunity to serve God and to serve the people who are in need who come to Community Missions," he said. "We go home feeling better at being given the opportunity to serve."

In fact, King's church will serve dinner at the final Sunday Cabaret of the season, starting at 5 p.m. April 29, along with the Church of the Advent Episcopal Church in Kenmore. The program that follows will be presented by the Advent Ukelele Band, which will lead a sing-along.

As always, all are welcome.


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