The new building on the corner of Cordova Street and Third Avenue looks like an organic grocery or a yoga studio with modern architectural lines and long banks of windows. You don't expect the city's homeless and hungry to gather outside as they did before lunchtime each day last week.
This is the new Downtown Soup Kitchen. Once an evangelical parking-lot mission run out of a dog-eared bungalow on Fourth Avenue, the new soup kitchen is sleek and spacious. It can feed more than 500 people indoors over a 90-minute lunch. It offers shower and laundry services and has undeveloped space for other social programs.
The building was constructed over the last year on donated ground with two $1 million appropriations from the Legislature and close to $2 million in monetary and in-kind donations from the faithful. It is one of the most visible indicators of how the evangelical community in Anchorage has come of age, becoming more collaborative, organized and sophisticated, able to draw more effectively on a large network of church people, from retired volunteers to the construction community to the Legislature and the governor's office.
"The evangelical churches have taken a little longer to get our act together and say we can do more together than we can separately," said Dave Bacher, pastor of local outreach and care at the South Anchorage mega-church ChangePoint, the central force behind the new soup kitchen.
"I think we're getting some momentum here," he said.
GROWING RELIGIOUS GROUP
Alaska is one of the least religious states in the country, but evangelical Protestants are the largest religious group here, comprising one in every four adults, according to a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. That percentage mirrors the U.S. average and looks similar to other western states. (The proportion of evangelicals tends to be largest in the South.) ChangePoint is Anchorage's biggest single church, with a regularly attending membership in the neighborhood of 4,000 people, according to Bacher.
The mega-church began about 25 years ago as Grace Community Church, an offshoot of Anchorage Grace church on the Hillside, Bacher said. Something in its approach clicked with people.
"Their first Sunday, they had 200 people. When you start and your first Sunday and you have 200 people, you just broke every church-starting rule," Bacher said. "After that, it just grew exponentially."
ChangePoint repurposed a large fish-processing plant into a church building in 2006, he said. Regular Sunday services draw 2,500 people. Despite the church's size, it tends to keep a low profile. The church focuses on the gospel and meeting community needs, Bacher said.
"You will not find ChangePoint stepping into the political circle," Bacher said. "It's not what we're here for."
The church is also part of Church of Anchorage, an increasingly important organizing body for evangelical churches in the city that helps give churches a united message. Homelessness is a current initiative citywide. The number of evangelical churches in Anchorage is constantly changing but the organization has, at times, been in contact with 80 local congregations, according to Richard Irwin, who serves as the executive director. He is also president of City Church, which has about 1,100 members.
Evangelical churches, with their grass-roots feel and less formal style, appeal to the don't-tell-me-what-to-do Alaskan personality in a way that differs from mainline churches, Bacher said. The community is broad here. A big tent.
"It's easier for an evangelical church to exist and not give a person a label," he said.
I toured the soup kitchen last Tuesday, the second day it was open, with Mike Martin, president of the board, and Dean Williams, the executive director. Martin, a project manager by trade, has worked in the world of commercial construction. Most recently, Williams, who has had a long career with the state in juvenile justice, was the superintendent of McLaughlin Youth Center. Both are members of ChangePoint.
The Soup Kitchen effort has not been totally church-based. The land was donated by Dennis Lavey and his son Mitch Lavey, who own the nearby Days Inn. They are not church members, but they felt giving soup kitchen clients a place to eat indoors would improve the neighborhood. It also required support from a bipartisan group of Anchorage legislators to be included in the capital budget.
As we walked through the airy, modern interior, Williams and Martin pointed out pieces of the building that were donated. Railing on the stairs. Siding. Architectural services. Washers and dryers. More than once, one of the hundred or so volunteers wrote a personal check, and more than once it was for $10,000. Later Williams forwarded me a list of 50 construction-related companies that had donated more than a million dollars in supplies and labor.
"The building isn't about the building," Williams told me as we toured one of the attractive tiled shower rooms that looked almost spa-like, and had been made with donated labor and materials. "It's about the mission, it's about people."
The Soup Kitchen is one very visible face of the evangelical church in the secular city. There have been many conversations about the tone of the place, the men said. They don't want clients to feel like they are being sold something, Williams said. The only hint of religion a client sees is a blessing over the food. Religious counseling is available, but people have to seek it out, Williams said.
"We meet people where they are at," he said. "There is no qualification in terms of giving that person a bowl of soup."
The operating costs for the current facility are about $400,000 a year. It relies heavily on volunteers who take their positions so seriously that they have a vacation schedule. There is lots of room to grow the services the facility provides. Anchorage's homeless shelters were maxed out this winter and there is a possibility that the new Soup Kitchen will be able to provide for some overflow shelter space, Williams said.
"The only question is how we get things paid for and how we keep it safe," he said.
Williams also wants to start a culinary arts training program in the building, similar to a very successful one in the Seattle area called FareStart, that would train workers and then partner with restaurants to help get them hired.
On Tuesday, lunchtime traffic was light. Many of the people sitting at the tables told me they were regulars at the parking lot location. Most weren't homeless but lived on fixed incomes in rentals or hotels and had small food budgets. Some said they were religious, others said they weren't.
Ameesa Cranston, 30, and Donovan Dennis, 22, spooned soup out of plastic foam cups. They are living in a hotel right now, looking for work. They preferred the soup kitchen to Bean's Cafe, they said, because it wasn't as crowded and people didn't tend to come there after drinking as often. They liked the feeling of the new facility, they said.
"I think it's a positive place," Dennis said.
On the other side of the glass that separates the kitchen from the dining room, the volunteers were a diverse mix. Florence Dahl and Linda Ray, both past retirement age, were handing out sandwiches. They are church-going women who have been involved with the kitchen for eight years. Dahl likes to stay busy, she said. Ray likes the dose of reality that comes with working with the homeless.
"Most of the time, I'm so sheltered," Ray said. "You can live in a bubble."
Dave Sorenson, who usually works as a chef at the Turnagain House, poured a big pot of soup into a serving pan.
"This is comfort food. This is what I learned from my grandmother and my mother," he told me.
He related to the people he served, in part because he lived in his Volkswagen bug for a time when he was young. He didn't have a regular church, he said, but volunteering had a religious quality to it.
"We all do the things we do in our past lives," he said. "This is my atonement."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Read her blog at adn.com/jomalley, find her on Facebook or get her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/adn_jomalley.