Elise Arsenault | Reporter
The first thing I notice upon entering 541 Barton St. E is its centrepiece: a long, rectangular, ash-wood harvest table. Surrounding it are several mismatched wooden chairs, seating equally mismatched people. I see two caffeinated businessmen, scrutinizing their file folders. Next to them, a young girl makes Snow White dance on her momma’s teapot. Across the table, a trio of infinity-scarfed girls share scones and plans for the weekend.
"Nowhere else in the city do you get that,” says Sam K., Redeemer alumnus and staff at 541, “nowhere else have I seen such a diverse group of people sit at the same table. Some are really well off, some not so well off, and some are from Ancaster, others from downtown. They’re all having different days, and yet they’re eating the same food here, together.”
The concept of 541: Eatery & Exchange was conceived a number of years ago by Michael Bowyer, Community Pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in East Hamilton. His vision is one of inclusivity, offering affordable, accessible and high-quality foods to those from all walks of life. The establishment opened this past summer with funding from Compass Point Church in Burlington, and operates on 80% volunteering-staff. Proceeds from all purchases cycle back into community programming.
There is currently an after-school program for kids on Wednesday afternoons, including homework help and recreational activities. Though still in the works, Sam says, “we’re still finding our footing, but are planning on expanding from there, possibly extending from Monday to Friday.”
"The most fruitful program yet,” says Sam, “is job training. Some people say they want to get a job at Starbucks or MacDonald’s, but aren’t in a place where they’re given a chance.” 541 equips volunteers with job experience, work skills, and a reference for when they apply elsewhere. This only strengthens their vision, “because those getting involved often have a better perspective on ministry, and poverty, than we do. We learn form each other.” Volunteers stress immersing themselves within the community they serve: “We want everyone to have the opportunity to receive from us, but also to be able to give back and be a part of what we are doing; everyone has something to contribute.”
The cafe runs from 7 AM to 7 PM, Monday through Saturday, but the serving doesn’t cease between hours. A local church, The Meeting Place, holds their services there on Sunday afternoons. “What’s unique to us,” shares Shira Gamey, member of The Meeting Place, “is that we do church with people we actually see throughout the week – we don’t just pray on Sundays with each other. We have a geographical closeness that brings a different dynamic to how we grow as a community.”
Beginning as a basement Bible study, The Meeting Place soon grew into a church community with Sue Carr, 541’s Executive Director, as it’s Pastor. “Each week we take time to share the burdens of our hearts,” Shira explains, “we love one another, pray for one another, and dine together. It is in these spiritual rhythms that I find God at work, knitting us into a community that actually walks through different seasons of life together.”
Next comes the Prayer Room, managed by Shira and run by the Greater Ontario House of Prayer. “541,” she says, “has graciously allowed us to set up in their basement, and we are excited about what God is going to do with this partnership.” The space is free to visit from 8 AM to 4 PM, Monday to Friday, and will soon include an array of prayer stations. My quick visit downstairs last week revealed a quaint room with guitars, canvases, and the ideal atmosphere to intercede and receive through earnest times of prayer.
There is so much happening at 541. The vision is Biblical, the people are genuine, the space is blessed and the results are fruitful. There is, however, still a need. “We always need volunteers,” Sam says, “for front-of-house, for kitchen, for cleaning and for absolutely everything else. Without volunteers we can’t operate.” This need for staff is not only to get brooms to floors or food to tables, but to get hearts to hearts in intentional chats with customers: “We want to be able to care for people – to interact with them as we wipe down tables and strike up conversations in a natural way. We can’t do that when we’re understaffed.” If you feel drawn to volunteering, I was told to get in touch with Sue Carr, a “wise, British lady who would love to sit down with you and talk about your heart, your giftedness and willingness, and then figure it out from there.”
Remember that harvest table? Did you know that Redeemer alumnus Jeff Wynands crafted it? We’re already making an imprint here, my Royal friends, and so is the kingdom of heaven. Let us join in by giving of ourselves to a ministry that, like Christ, longs for the outcast to be known, the hungry to be fed and the last to be first.
P.S., When you visit, ask about the Button Jar.