In September 2008, pastor Kevin Finch preached his final sermon at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington. With tears in his eyes, Finch, who had been moonlighting as a restaurant critic, told the congregation he was resigning to start a new ministry with those he’d come to love in the food service industry.
The next day the stock market began to drop. On Friday he went to his wife, Karen, to see whether he should try to get his job back. “I was worried,” he says. “So many people who liked my idea and were planning on supporting the ministry were taking huge hits financially. I had three kids to support.” Karen told him, “Kevin, you’ve been called by God; if you run out of money in two to three months, you can always find a job selling cars.”
Her words kept him grounded. He began to remember how God had led him to this point—what the senior pastor had said when he tried to create a hybrid position as part-time associate at the church and part-time pastor to the restaurant workers. “He basically said: ‘Kevin, you have to make a decision. We need a full-time associate. It sounds like what you’re dreaming about also requires a full-time person.’ ’’
Did it ever. Big Table began with a simple concept. It would care for food service workers, with no strings attached, by hosting multicourse meals every eight weeks. At the end of the meal, a simple question would be asked: “Who do you know in the industry that is hurting?” Big Table would then do its best to meet that need.
Five years later they are getting calls for help daily, not just from Spokane but from throughout the state (including Seattle). In August 2013, Big Table received a 1001 Seed Grant ($7,500) from the Presbyterian Mission Agency to help it pilot a program offering Bible studies in a bar. “Talking about what they believe in a bar is fairly natural for them,” says Finch. “We’re going to try to create groups, led by food service workers, where anyone can talk about a given scripture—what it means and . . . how they would obey it.”
How did Big Table start?
I began to notice how isolated the food service industry is, which impacts an incredible number of people. [It’s the largest industry in the country.] They tend to work when most people are off or sleeping. They spend most of their time with each other. They’re not very connected to anyone else in the community.
The industry has a high rate of drug and alcohol abuse, divorce and broken relationships, with a huge numbers of ex felons, who can’t pass a background check. . . . I began to wonder, “Who is caring for these people who have incredible need behind their smiles?”
What happened next?
By 2006 I’d discovered there wasn’t a single non-profit focused on this vast industry. I began dreaming of what a ministry like this might look like. In November at 2 am I sat up straight in bed, listening. “Was it an audible voice that woke me? Or was it in my head? “Kevin, I need a pastor for the restaurant industry. Are you interested?” I said, “They don’t want a pastor. [As a restaurant critic, when Finch told them he was a pastor, the table would clear.] What would that look like?” At that moment, it was as if someone turned on a light. A Bible was open in front of me to Acts chapter 2. What I saw was, “They ate together, if anyone had a need they cared for each other,” and then, “The Lord added daily to their number.” Then I heard: “That’s how you pastor—feed them, care for them. Then watch what I’m going to do.”
What have you learned in all of this?
God always gets there first. It goes back to the beginning at our first dinner. We asked folks, “Who’s hurting?” God was helping us set up a relational screening system. Folks in the industry know who has a legitimate need and who knows how to work the system. Instead of filling out a bunch of forms or launching an inquisition, we can go to the person and say, “We heard you need this; how can we help?” This gives the Holy Spirit an opportunity to work in their lives; plus it protects their dignity—they didn’t have to ask for it.
Big Table has cared for many people—any one experience stand out?
In 2011 a restaurant owner wanted us to help their bartender, Nicole, a single mom with three children. Her car had no reverse and a convertible top that wouldn’t go up. I thought, “God, where am I going to get a car?” Two days later my brother-in-law in Seattle says, “Kevin, we’ve got a used car we were going to donate to a charity over here but wanted to check with you first to see if you could use it.”
We gave Nicole the car, establishing a relationship with her. Eventually she said, “If Christianity is about people like you, I need to reconsider my views.” I want to be careful in how I say this— because God wants us to care for every person, with no strings attached—but Nicole is a believer now. (See more of Nicole's story —and other moments of Big Table care—on YouTube.)
I tell people at Big Table dinners . . . that I’m available if they have spiritual questions. Then I say: “I’d love to talk to you whether you’re atheist, agnostic, or have been burned by the church. We’re about creating community here. All of you are welcome here, no matter what."