A young adult’s upbringing, as well as a seven-week mission to Africa, led to a free meal on the 14th Street pedestrian bridge.
In 2007, Nathan Heald of Smiths, spent four weeks in Ghana and three in Liberia. He saw poverty up close. When he was growing up in Phenix City, Heald’s parents kept foster children, as they still do. They’ve housed a total of 130 kids for varying periods.
These two experiences — of community and provision — prompted Heald to plan the first potluck on the bridge. The fourth will be Nov. 7.
“It’s important for everybody to have a sense of what community feels like, no matter the limitations and stereotypes,” said Heald, who works at the Homeless Resource Network in Columbus.
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The Banquet on the Bridge is for the homeless, those who aren’t homeless and simply want a good meal, and those who have plenty and want to share. It’s potluck, where food is cooked at home. About 70 tables will be set up. If the weather’s favorable, Heald expects a thousand diners or more.
Though it was Heald’s idea originally, the banquet happens because of a network of churches and individuals. Heald said there’s no agenda other than sharing and befriending one another. There’s no program, no appeal — just a way to bridge gaps, using an actual bridge as a metaphor.
“We do a prayer and we tell people what’s going on, then we let people eat,” Heald said.
A member of RiverTown Church in north Columbus, Heald, 25, said the message of the action speaks for itself.
As well-intended as groups and individuals can be, Heald thinks power issues and relationships of dependency can form when one group consistently gives to another.
“Even something as simple as a soup kitchen, when one person hands a bowl to another, can carry a message: ‘I am of privilege and you are not.’ There’s a level of power in that,” he said. “If you’re sitting at the same table, everyone has the same food.”
Or, a tendency can arise in which people are seen as projects or things that need fixing.
The 14th Street bridge, between the TSYS main campus and Country’s Barbecue, is a footpath between Phenix City and Columbus. During the day, you’re apt to see joggers and walkers, homeless people looking for cash or people carrying sacks from the Phenix City Piggly Wiggly. When he started the banquet, Heald had just graduated from Auburn University. After the first meal, he was offered a job at the network, where men and women congregate four days a week to receive assistance.
Largely because of his work, Heald knows many of the pedestrians personally.
Heald and his wife, Pam, married about six weeks ago. She assists him in this effort.
The Rev. David Rathel of RiverTown has helped Heald with the banquet since the beginning. About 15 other congregations are pitching in with them.
Because the banquet is on a Sunday this year, Rathel will cut short his 11:30 a.m. service that day and send a few people downtown to start helping.
“There’s so much segregation here between the haves and the have-nots — people with no homes and people with two or three homes,” Rathel said. “There’s nothing more satisfying than having a meal with someone. Food is not the goal, but food is the bridge between socio-economic lines.
“I have a lot to learn from someone who’s homeless,” he continued, “and I want my children not to be afraid of having contact with someone on the streets.”
In the previous three years, there has always been enough food; and Heald is confident that will be true this year. One group might bring a pan of fried chicken, another a pot roast. The pieces always seem to come together, whether it be food or chairs or forks. Growing up middle-class around many mouths in need of daily meals, Heald learned this lesson early.
“There was always enough,” he said.
Allison Kennedy, reporter, can be reached at 706-576-6237