The chapel is quiet on Thursday mornings at Saint Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Pittsboro. Sunbeams filter through 19th-century stained glass windows, brushing a colorful hue across the empty wooden pews.
In the crowded kitchen next door, the vibe is energetic.
“In here,” says lay pastoral leader Karen Ladd, “we do church.”
At St. Bart’s, as it’s known, Thursday community lunch rivals Sunday service in attendance. Every week, volunteers cook a free lunch for anyone between noon and 1 p.m. On average, about 75 to 100 people show up.
“I wanted to feed whoever walked in that door,” Ladd says. “Whoever they were.”
Micky Hester is at the helm on this recent Thursday morning. She alternates with Ladd and others to lead the kitchen volunteers. Hester opens the freezer door and pauses.
“Larry, what was I going to just do?” she asks, both to Larry and to no one in particular.
“Give me something to chop,” Larry Williams deadpans.
After reading about the community lunch in the local Chatham Journal in 2009, Williams showed up at the back door one Thursday morning wearing striped, durable chef’s pants and carrying his own set of professional kitchen knives. He says he used to be a chef at many area restaurants.
“Oh, Larry,” Ladd later says. “If you want someone to chop green peppers into the most perfect, beautiful emeralds, you ask Larry.”
Ladd began the lunch in 2008. A non-ordained church leader, she says she is “too way out in left field to be bound by a collar.” Through her involvement with the community, she realized many people in Pittsboro need a hot meal.
“There are people who come to lunch who would not come to a soup kitchen,” she says. “Not because they’re too snooty and rich, but they’re too poor. Here, anyone comes and no one knows or asks.”
And Ladd never asks. The point of the gathering, she says, is for everyone to share an experience, free of pretense or assumption. When Ladd proposed the community lunch idea to church leaders, she found herself explaining this deeply rooted mission of respect and togetherness.
“Some people told me, ‘I hope you’re gonna use plastic forks, because what if someone stabs somebody?’ I said, ‘No. We’re going to use real silverware and real plates, because everyone that walks in here is the face of Jesus.’ And I wasn’t going to feed Jesus with a plastic fork.”
According to Christian history, Saint Bartholomew is the twelfth apostle of Jesus Christ, one of the first to immediately recognize Jesus as the son of God. He is also among the patron saints designated for butchers.
In the dining area, a flag hangs vertically on the wall just below the tall ceiling. On it is a crest of three swords peculiarly resembling kitchen knives. Just below and to the left of the flag, a long table is set out every week against the wall, piled high with stacks of fresh farm produce or loaves of bread free for the taking.
Every week at the top of the table sits a man wearing a nametag: “Hello, my name is JIM.”
“You have to take bread or we won’t let you out the door,” he usually demands before shaking your hand.
Longtime community member Henry Horton plays piano as the room fills with people, a diverse mix indicative of Pittsboro’s eclectic, small-town charm.
An older man leans over to a friend and says, “I get a kick out of seeing the young people here. I don’t think I was ever that young. Maybe I was, but I forgot.”
Local farmer apprentices with half-shaven heads and unshaven faces file in throughout the hour. They stand in line with the senior citizens who carpooled here together, dressed to the nines, suspenders taut and silk dresses pressed.
Some squeeze in at the tables set with colorful faux floral bouquets and real silverware hand-wrapped with paper napkins and placed at every seat. Others find a spot on the small outdoor brick patio, bordered by a cemetery with gravestones from the 1830s, when the church was founded.
A man named Dick walks around like he owns the place. He is 94 and wears an impish smile and long red apron that reads: Sexy Senior Citizen. “When you got it, you got it!” he exclaims.
All the food is donated by local sources, including Chatham Marketplace, Piedmont Biofarm, Piggly Wiggly and Food Lion. Each week includes ample options for vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Ladd says that her talented chef volunteers include “people who graduated from culinary school and people who never graduated from anything.”
Main dishes vary from warm borscht made with local beets to Belgian beef beer stew. Sides include sharp arugula and mustard green salads, tangy potato salad, curried ginger sweet potatoes and ruby red Screech Owl tomatoes diced into a relish.
Many frequent diners look for an elusive banana pudding every week. One woman claims it’s made by her neighbor, Esther. “When she brings it, people gobble it up and pray for more!”
With tears welling up in her eyes, Ladd reflects on the growth of St. Bart’s community lunch.
“These are blessings. Grace-filled things.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Full of grace.”
Correction: The print version of this story erroneously stated that Larry Williams was a chef at Il Palio at Chapel Hill’s Siena Hotel.