A place at the table

Urban minister at home in Raleigh's first pay-it-forward diner

Cindy Bolden’s community ministry journey began in 2013 when she approached a coffee shop owner and asked if he had a backroom where she could meet with friends and strangers alike and simply “talk about life.”

“Mine is a ministry of presence,” says the 2011 Master of Divinity and 2016 Doctor of Ministry Campbell graduate. “Spend 15 or 20 minutes with someone in a shared space and you’re truly present with that person. Their fears, desires and stories start coming out, and in that space, I listen, love and encourage.”

Bolden’s ministry moved from coffee shops to pubs and other “community wells,” a term lifted from John 4:4-42, where Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well is his longest one-on-one conversation in the Bible.

“When you engage with someone, the possibility of a new life is born,” Bolden says. “Love is shared. It sounds simple, but it’s what I’m all about.”

She was approached by Maggie Kane, director of the nonprofit group A Place at the Table in 2016 to help form and lead a community advisory board for a “pay-what-you-can cafe” the group was eyeing for Downtown Raleigh. Cain sought somebody who “loved people and loved her community,” and Bolden’s reputation preceded her. Bolden went to work immediately, putting together a team of people who’ve both experienced and worked with people who have experienced homelessness, poverty or food insecurity (or all three). The cafe, she believed, needed input from people who would benefit most from it if it was going to be successful.

“If we truly desired having the food insecure coming into our cafe, we had to look at everything,” Bolden says. “How to pay, what the menu looked like, the look and feel of the cafe. How do we offer something that is welcoming to all people?”

A Place at the Table, located at 300 W. Hargett St. near Nash Square in Raleigh, opened last January to rave reviews and big crowds. Customers have several pay options — pay what they can afford, pay the suggested menu price, pay the suggested price, plus an extra pay-it-forward donation, pay specifically for someone else’s full meal or volunteer at the restaurant to pay for a meal.

On a given day, the cafe attracts between 80 and 300 diners, according to Bolden, and between 15 and 25 men and women volunteer to prepare meals, bus tables or clean the cafe, which employs full- and part-time chefs, waiters and waitresses as well.

After helping launch A Place at the Table, Bolden returned to her community ministry roots and literally took a place at the table.

She’s become a mainstay at the cafe, bringing with her knitting kits, coloring books, chocolates (she’s known to always have chocolates on her) and other activities or conversation starters to help connect with the patrons.

“I have no agenda, other than to seek to love all,” she says. “What comes with sitting down with a man, a new friend, and connecting through coloring or knitting? They start talking. Sharing memories. A lot of difficult, painful stuff comes out, too. They’re often wrestling with things like faith and hope, who they are and what they believe in. One man recently looked at me after a long talk and said, ‘I don’t know you, but I know you love me.’

“Sometimes they just need somebody who will listen. So many don’t have someone who will simply sit with them. When I can do that and help someone, it helps me, too. I leave feeling lighter.”

Bolden says she brings the love of Christ with her at all times. An “authentic and genuine” presence. Someone who listens and cares.

“You can always offer someone a true, genuine listening presence,” she says. “And a good word. And when you don’t have that, there’s always a hug. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.”