Collaborating and building community one meal at a time

Volunteers prepare a meal at Luke House. (Photo by Alyson Pilch of Pilch and Barnet)

Volunteers prepare a meal at Luke House. (Photo by Alyson Pilch of Pilch and Barnet)

By Brian Rust
Collaboration Project story team (and Luke House board member)

Easily the most meaningful, valuable act of service I’ve ever done is also Madison’s longest-running collaboration among communities of faith: the Community Meal Program at Luke House

Its aim is simple: to provide a good meal to anyone who wants it, served with dignity and in a comfortable environment. The meals are served in an unassuming building called Luke House at 310 S. Ingersoll St. All of the food and labor is donated by faith communities. Almost all denominations are represented, along with a few unattached volunteers. 

Luke House director Matt Rogge stresses that they are trying to build community by setting the most diverse dinner table in Madison. 

“People may be nervous about sitting with folks who come from a poor or challenging background,” says Matt. “It’s just sitting down to have a quiet meal. But sometimes—many times—a meal together leads to interesting conversation. Everyone comes with a different story, all affected by poverty. Some who’ve been poor since they were born. A few made and lost millions, and are now living very simply.”

Matt observes that changes in housing and food pantries have a lot to do with who comes to Luke House. About 25% of Luke House guests have housing of some sort, but lack the means to buy a meal. Another 25% or so are living out of a car/truck/van. They are homeless, but have a vehicle. Half are living on the streets. Years ago, most guests had housing. Now most do not. Food pantries have sprung up in the meantime, reducing the need for a hot meal.

Though formally launched in 1983, the organization sprang from a chance meeting and a simple gesture of kindness. UW student Paul Ashe often stopped by the Christian Book Center where Gorham Street turns into University Avenue, to talk with the owner, Ralph Middlecamp. 

Legend has it that one day as they were talking, a man named Timothy stopped by seeking money for a bus ticket to Milwaukee. Neither Paul nor Ralph knew exactly how to respond. Not wanting to turn him away empty handed, Ralph went to the convenience store downstairs to buy Timothy a sandwich and a cup of coffee.

Timothy went on his way. He returned a few days later, asking for another sandwich. Word of the free sandwiches spread, as more people began stopping by for food. Soon Paul and Ralph began regularly making sandwiches and keeping them in a refrigerator in the store. 

Paul began to wonder if or how more people could be helped through a more organized community meal. He remembers a while later sitting on the front porch of a house owned by a Christian community called Le Samaritaine. Ralph and Cathy Middlecamp were among its members. That night Paul decided to refocus his life plans to set up a nonprofit, and run what would become the Madison Community Meal Program. 

Starting such an effort took as many ingredients as the meals themselves. Among them were volunteers, a host site, donations, procedures, and collaboration with the city and churches, to name a few. Lunches were initially served in the basement of St. Paul’s University Catholic Center on lower State Street.

That’s around the time that I and several church friends began wondering what we could do to better serve the Madison community. As newlyweds, my wife and I wanted to give and serve more personally. Although I’m not sure how we made the connection, about a dozen of us from Faith Community Bible Church were soon buying, preparing, delivering, and serving lunch on the second Tuesday of the month.

Popularity among guests and volunteers grew steadily. Within a few years, Paul and his Community Meal Program board began considering ways to serve a separate evening meal. Le Samaritaine donated a former upholstery repair store on Ingersoll St. as that second location. 

Volunteers from many, many churches (ours included) contributed time and money to rehab the building with a commercial kitchen, large dining room, storage and several offices. Named Luke House, it began serving dinner Sunday through Thursday in 1986. (Note the address: 310 S. Ingersoll. Luke 3:10 reads “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do’ ” The answer in the next verse includes words about sharing food with those who have none.)

Impending construction of the new St. Paul’s several years ago prompted the Community Meal Program to move the noon meals to Luke House, where they have remained ever since. Paul retired in 2018 and Matt Rogge was hired as the new Director.

Although the Community Meal Program at Luke House is a Christian outreach, not everyone who serves is a Christian. And there is no proselytizing. 

“We have wide representation of our faith communities in Madison,” says Matt. “Serving is such a simple and basic way of living out your Christian faith. The Bible speaks over and over about the importance of feeding, clothing and sharing with those in need. Luke House is the perfect place to see that happen.”

People feel uncomfortable with street people, people who have far less than we do. Serving thru Luke House brings us closer to people who aren’t just like us. Service at Luke House also has a way of changing our attitudes.

“Max is a regular volunteer with us,” said Matt. “He tells me almost every time he serves, he leaves Luke House with a much better outlook than when he arrived. That’s what Luke House does for volunteers and guests alike.” 

The atmosphere is generally orderly and calm because everyone has come for the same reason. There are clear rules and expectations of civility and politeness. Matt and the volunteers strive for consistency in the setting, procedures, safety and quality.

What impresses me most about Luke House is that it just works. Guests and volunteers share meals. There is no judgment. Everyone eats in peace before going on their way. 

“Volunteers have been coming for 35 years because it is such a meaningful and enjoyable way to live out their faith,” says Matt. “Some treat Luke House serving as sacred.” 

Community Meal Program by the Numbers
Year founded: 1983
Monthly volunteers: 2000
People served: 70-120 per meal
Faith communities and churches that volunteer: 33
Monthly meals served: 40-43
Meals covered by volunteer groups: 35
Faith communities represented: just about all
Serving times: Dinner 5:45-6:30p Su-Th; Lunch 11:30a-12:30p M-F
Cost: free
Location: 310 S. Ingersoll St., Madison

How to get involved
If you or your church is interested in sponsoring a meal (providing food, volunteers, etc.), contact Matt at Matt@lukehousemadison.org.

Sharing a meal around the table. (Photo by Alyson Pilch of Pilch and Barnet)

Sharing a meal around the table. (Photo by Alyson Pilch of Pilch and Barnet)

Luke House director Matt Rogge

Luke House director Matt Rogge

Paul Staats