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Christian Union: The Magazine
September 28, 2019

Penn Students Volunteer at Emmanuel Ministry

By Emily Solomon, Penn ’22


Most students cherish Saturday mornings as a precious time to sleep in. However, for some underclassmen at Penn, it’s a wonderful time to venture into Center City to prepare and serve meals for the Emmanuel Ministry at Liberti Church Center City.

Every week, Liberti Church opens its doors for volunteers to serve over 100 individuals who are experiencing homelessness and food insecurity. On a recent Saturday, some Penn students arrived at Liberti Church and were immediately greeted by head chef Matt Soldano, who gave marching orders. The instructions to “divide and conquer” ensures that the meal is ready to be served by noon when the dining hall is filled with guests. At about 11:30 a.m., volunteers from various churches and organizations gather to pray over the meal, make any urgent announcements, and decide who will prep plates and who will wait tables. 


Chef Matt Solano (center) and volunteers in the kitchen at Emmanuel Ministry


The Emmanuel Ministry does not serve the food the way most homeless shelters do, through a food line that produces little interaction between guests and servers; instead, food is served restaurant style. Waiters and waitresses start by introducing themselves and learning the names of everyone at their table. Then they announce the food options for that day and see if anyone has any dietary restrictions. This approach makes everyone who walks through the door feel like a valued individual who is respected and truly loved. Right before the servers bring out the food, one of the pastors at Liberti gives a short sermon and prays over the meal. The servers then bring out the hot food, delivered with a personal touch. Once the flow slows down, volunteers can feel free to sit with their table and get to know their guests better through conversation.

The mission statement of Emmanuel Ministry sums up its compassionate approach: “We believe that because God has come to dwell with us and the world in Jesus, so too we, as a church community, are called to dwell in and serve the holistic needs of the world.”

Nahima Saliba, Penn ’20, appreciated the sense of community among volunteers and guests, and the joy that comes from serving.

“The warmth that the volunteers shared with one another was beautiful to watch,” she said. 

Since September 2016, Emmanuel has partnered with Bethesda Project, a homeless services organization, to provide on-the-ground services to their guests. This allows them to broaden their engagement with chronically homeless individuals on a weekly basis by providing them with toiletry donations and other supplies. Twice each month, Emmanuel has a group of local dental and podiatry students on hand who promote good hygiene and refer individuals for treatment. Lastly, a pastor is always at Emmanuel to offer spiritual guidance and care for anyone—guests or volunteers.

In the last three years, Emmanuel Ministry has served over 3,000 meals and helped guests find housing through Bethesda Project Services. Chef Soldano is the point person when the guests ask about housing.  Since partnering with Bethesda Project, over 200 people have been able to find temporary housing, and 25 individuals have moved to permanent housing.

“We make sure people are cared for holistically—mind, body, and spirit,” Soldano said.