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Food writer Daniel Neman

St. Louis Post-Dispatch food writer Daniel Neman, photographed on Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013 in St Louis. Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle,

You don’t have to be poor to eat at Café Hope. You don’t even have to be in need of hope.

Café Hope is a ministry of community, a family more than anything else. On the first three Saturdays of every month, a handful of women serve hearty comfort food to anyone who walks through the door, whether they are in desperate need of a meal or have merely come to look at the art.

The art?

Café Hope is not really a café, it is tables and chairs set up in an art gallery. The meals are cooked at home and then taken to the 14th Street Artist Community gallery, 2701 14th Street, a block south of Crown Candy Kitchen. From Tuesdays through Fridays the space is an art gallery; three Saturdays a month it is both a gallery and a feeding ministry; and on Sundays the space is used by a church, Calvary Café, which hosts the free Saturday lunches.

“It was designed to not just feed the community but to bring fellowship and encouragement to the community. Pretty much to show people that we care,” said Denise Shelton, the church administrative assistant who helps run the program.

Café Hope began around three years ago, when church member Mercedes Harris suggested they begin serving the community. Harris has since left the church, and the program is now run by Shelton and pastor LaJuana Morris, with help from Pat Morrow and Latricia Shelton, Denise Shelton’s sister.

The goal, Denise Shelton said, is “to just be there for people. We don’t do any type of preaching. It’s more like a ministry, if anyone wants to come in and talk. If they want prayer, we’ll give them prayer. If they come in for counseling, (Pastor Morris) will go to another part of the building.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, everybody needs encouragement.”

As word about the program has spread, it has become more popular. Now, an average of about 60 people attend each week, with several arriving early to be assured of getting the food. The meal is nearly all made from scratch, and the servings are all-you-can-eat.

The women serve food from noon to 2 p.m., “except normally it doesn’t last that long. Depending on what we have, it may be done in 45 minutes,” Denise Shelton said.

On a day they serve ground beef with gravy and mashed potatoes, you’d better get there early. The ham hocks and green beans are big, too.

“If by chance we have anything extra, the ones who know will check back with us and bring their containers. We never throw anything away.”

Some of the people from the community who come for food have started to stay to help out. One woman sometimes helps them serve while others help to clean up and take out the trash. And some of the people now come back on Sundays to attend the church services.

All of this is a labor of love for the women involved, who receive no compensation and in fact pay for most of the food themselves. They do not solicit donations but are happy to accept them (Café Hope c/o Calvary Café, 3070 Country Green Court, Apt. H, Florissant, Mo. 63033).

One Saturday, Colleen Dempsey Dotson came through the art gallery with her husband. Shelton offered them a meal, which they declined, and then told them about the ministry.

“She said, ‘I have to do something. What can I do?’”

One thing she does is bake. So now, every week that Café Hope is open, she gets together with friends to bake all the desserts.

But the program is more than about the food, Shelton insists. “We have people who come consistently, whom we have built close relationships with. We are one big family,” she said.

“We’ve had people say they not only enjoy the food, they enjoy the respect. They enjoy people talking to them intelligently.”

It is Shelton’s hope that other churches that do not already have similar programs will start their own, perhaps picking different days to serve.

“There are churches all over the place. If we came together as God’s people, we could reach a lot of people.”


Daniel Neman is a food writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.