‘Eat Together, and Care for One Another’
By Kelsey McFaul
Kevin Finch stewards relationships with those who serve others
It was November 2006, the middle of the night. Out of nowhere, Kevin Finch wakes up from a dead sleep.
“It’s pitch black, and I hear a voice: ‘Kevin, I need a pastor for the restaurant industry. Are you interested?’”
An associate pastor at a Presbyterian church in Spokane, Washington, at the time, Kevin was moonlighting as a restaurant critic, sneaking into restaurants anonymously and writing reviews for a lifestyle magazine and the local paper.
“I thought, if that job exists I would love that job. But I knew that job was a non-starter because when anyone in the industry found out I was a restaurant critic or food writer, they all wanted to talk to me. The second they found out I was a pastor, I could clear a room. No one wanted to talk to me.”
That’s because those who work in the restaurant industry often have bad experiences with Christian patrons, those identified by praying before meals and eating out on Sundays.
“I have a friend who’s a server and a Christian, and I asked her, ‘Why is it that any time I mention I’m a pastor no one will talk to me in this industry?’ Remember she’s a Christian herself. She says, ‘Kevin, as a server I hate Christians. They’re the most demanding customers that ever walk into a restaurant; they’re the stingiest tippers; and they take tables too long, often to study the Bible. I hate to work on Sundays; it’s literally the worst shift of the week.’”
Standing in his house in the middle of the night, Kevin wondered what pastoring the restaurant and hospitality industry would look like, or if it was even possible.
“Instantly I see a Bible that’s open to Acts chapter 2, where Luke writes how the early church formed. And two phrases jumped out at me: ‘They ate together,’ and ‘If anyone had a need, they took care of each other.’ Then I heard the voice again and it said, ‘That’s how you pastor this industry.’”
In that moment, the idea for Big Table, a nonprofit that serves the restaurant and hospitality industry by building community around shared meals and caring for those in crisis, transition, or living on the edge, was born.
“Folks who work in restaurants and hospitality [are] quite isolated because of the odd working hours. They’re working nights and weekends and holidays, basically the opposite of the community, so when they get off work they hang out with each other.”
It also came as a shock when Kevin discovered that food service employees are the largest industry in the nation. Throw in the other half of the hospitality industry, those who work in hotels, and the number is almost double the size of any other industry in the nation.
“It’s the one industry in the country that still has no barriers to entry if you’re willing to work. But for that very reason, this is the only industry that collects the most people who are right on the edge, who are the most vulnerable: at-risk teens, single parents, income insecure seniors, immigrants, ex-felons.
“When you put all of those vulnerable populations under one roof, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to predict that you’re going to have the highest needs of vulnerability. There’s incredible rates of need. Poverty rates double that of any other working group. The highest rates of drug and alcohol abuse, massive divorce rates, incredibly high stress levels, no safety net, the list goes on and on.”
But inexplicably, given these statistics, not a single nonprofit out of over 1.5 million registered with the IRS in 2008 specifically focused care on the restaurant and hospitality industry.
It still took him two years to take the leap into nonprofit creation (Big Table was officially incorporated in 2009 with Kevin as executive director) and begin stewarding those who make their careers serving others.
“Steward leadership just dovetails with what God’s been doing through Big Table and doing in me over the last almost-decade. You’re just paying attention to another person, and you’re paying attention to them as someone that God brought into your life, not to be used by you but to be blessed by you.”
Big Table sees and stewards restaurant and hospitality workers as whole people, not just as a means to an end. They provide care ranging from monetary assistance to medical treatment, transportation, furniture, and school supplies to those in the industry or their kids, no strings attached. But their bigger goal is building longer term coaching relationships that walk people from crisis to wholeness.
“We track this change along eight ‘trajectories of transformation’ that focus on the eight areas that we see the most brokenness for those in the industry. And then we asked the question, ‘What would abundant life look like in a work environment for this person? What would their home life look like? What would their relationships look like? What would their direction in life look like? How would that impact their struggle with addiction, with responsibility, and with faith?”
As Big Table grows, Kevin experiences new arenas to practice stewardship: with care coordinators, potential and active giving partners, and those in leadership roles at restaurants and hotels.
“We hold dinners around an actual big table that seats 48 people. Half the people at that table are frontline folks like dishwashers, servers, line cooks, and housekeepers. The other half are managers, owners, and chefs. We mix them up at the table and have this wonderful evening of community created around a phenomenal 6- or 7-course meal.”
Kevin says that owners and managers are often overwhelmed by the needs of their employees and afraid that helping in one situation will then result in others demanding the same help. Attending a Big Table dinner helps encourage them and realize that Big Table can help them treat their workers as full people–in other words, to steward them well.
“They have the opportunity to say, ‘I care about my people, but I didn’t think there were any resources available to me to live out that care. I think this organization could partner with me to change how I care for all my people.’”
For Kevin, the ultimate indicator of success is transformation–transformation for those working in the industry, but also of those who manage them and are served by them.
“We say our goal is transformation for all people to a life of abundance. That could be the changed life of a person who realizes they can’t walk into a restaurant without seeing people who were invisible before, realizing that every time they interact with someone in this industry, there’s an opportunity for them to care directly themselves for the working poor in the place with the highest concentration of need in the nation.
“For the folks we care for, it’s not just helping them pay their rent when they’re in the middle of a crisis, but the conversations after that that help build capacity and margin into their lives. We help them believe and hope that there can be a life that’s not just right on the edge. Sometimes that includes a direct conversation about faith, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Because so many in the restaurant and hospitality industry have been burned by faith or by those they associate with the church, Kevin has a special stewardship challenge for Christians.
“There’s such a high correlation between folks who pray before their meal and those who stiff the server or treat them like a servant, here’s the deal. I’m not asking you to stop praying before your meal, but if you do that means you need to pay. I’m not saying 10 percent or 20 percent; I mean you pay a tip of 30 percent to make up for all the folks who prayed and stiffed that server earlier.”
As with everything at Big Table, it’s less about material gifts and more about relationship. Tipping well is one way of demonstrating that industry workers are whole people, and stewarding that relationship accordingly.
“Once you care about people without any strings attached, then they have all kinds of questions about why and what that looks like.”
These days, Kevin’s worry about scaring people away as a pastor have been replaced with the language and posture of stewardship.
“There’s a guy who’s a longtime server in Spokane. After probably two years of relationship with him and caring about him, even though he was a very outspoken atheist, he said to my face, ‘Kevin, I’m still an atheist, but will you be my pastor?’ We have a very generous ongoing donor who says, ‘I’m not a Christian, but I think these guys embody the life of Christ in a way that I’ve never seen anyone do.’
“Those kind of statements are just a joy to me because I think it means we’re truly living out the gospel now rather than just using gospel language. Like steward leadership, it’s not something you think about once and check off a box. It’s something you practice every day.”