SPOKANE, Wash. — Kevin Finch grew up in meat and potatoes country, a small town off of Flathead Lake in western Montana. The only fine dining restaurant there was half eatery/half bowling alley. Everything came out of the deep fryer.
"It was a green bean casserole kind of town," Finch said as he sipped a floral-smelling tea at a local coffee shop.
Everyone seems to know him here. Half a dozen people call out his name and wave hello as he begins to tell the story of Big Table, a nonprofit organization that serves Spokane's restaurant and hospitality industry.
Finch was a pastor's kid and a pastor's grandkid. Two of his uncles were also pastors and so was his cousin. It was the family business. Finch doesn't tell many people that he, too, became a minister.
The idea behind Big Table isn't about proselytizing, praying or preaching. Finch's only goal is to befriend local food industry workers and pamper them at the regular Big Table dinners.
"God is big enough to show up when he wants to show up," Finch said.
As a recent evening of fine dining wound down, Finch picked up the microphone and looked at the 45 people sitting at the big table. Together they had drunk wine and chatted over a lavish five-course meal.
It was time for full disclosure.
"I was a pastor," he said sheepishly, "but whenever I mentioned that to folks in the (food) industry they would stop talking to me. It could clear a table in about 30 seconds."
His guests laugh, and he continued.
"But the goal here is to care for anybody and everybody, and it comes out of relationships. This is what it's about and it's a gift for me to look down the table and see everyone here. Thank you."
The group had wined and dined at a 42-foot table in an elegantly decorated room at The Purple Turtle. The first course featured seared jumbo sea scallop with parsnip puree, sage oil and crispy garlic chips. Next was winter white salad with endive, pear, fennel, macron almonds and white balsamic vinaigrette, followed by cauliflower bisque with shallot and rosemary oil, topped with a rosemary crouton.
And that was just the first half of the free meal.
Some of the diners -- dishwashers, line cooks, waiters, sous-chefs and others who make up the city's vast food industry -- had never been treated to a dinner like this before, although they make their living by tending to others.
A volunteer wait staff served the guests, and local chefs volunteered their time to prepare the meal.
The restaurant industry employs 12.9 million people, making it one of the biggest industries in the country, according to the National Restaurant Association. In Washington state, the food industry represents about 9 percent of the state's workforce.
It's also one of the toughest industries. According to a 2007 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, food service workers have the highest drug use rate. The industry also has one of the highest divorce rates (38 percent for bartenders, 27 percent for servers), according to Business Insider.
There isn't a national ministry that serves this massive industry. Finch wasn't looking to fill this gap with Big Table; he slowly fell into it.
While serving as an associate pastor at Spokane's First Presbyterian Church, Finch began writing restaurant reviews for Spokane-Couer d'Alene Living magazine and later for The Spokesman Review newspaper.
He's been enchanted by food his whole life. As a teenager he'd ask his mother's friends for recipes. As a seminarian, he'd pick out alien ingredients from the grocery store and try to figure out how to cook with them. As a pastor, he'd read restaurant reviews every week and then would go experience the restaurant or entree he had read about.
Yet as he spent more and more time at restaurants, he began to realize how isolated the food industry was. "I felt like I stumbled across this amazing group of people who were in a hard situation, and no one was noticing," Finch said to the Big Table diners.
"If you're doing your job, in the front of the house, you're gonna have a smile on your face. You have better tips that way. If you come out and say, 'My life is falling apart and I can't pay my rent, can you help me?' then you're gonna get fired."
The Big Table guests nodded in agreement.
They've had a nice evening with Finch, but still didn't know what this is all about.
"The idea," Finch tells them, "is to create community around dinners like this. It starts here and then we get to care for folks we know in the industry."
He asked them to write down the name of someone they work with who needs a hand, and someone who should be invited to a future Big Table event.
Big Table is funded through donations made by individuals, churches and local food industry businesses. Some of the meals haven't cost a penny, while others have been quite expensive. It's a full-time position for Finch.
He doesn't talk about God when he calls the people who his guests said needed help. He visits with them and asks how he can help. He's looked over resumes, bought diapers for new moms and visited people in the hospital. Last year Big Table helped a single mom get a new car, and purchased a plane ticket so a cook could visit his native El Salvador for the first time in 11 years, to meet his grandchildren.
Finch hopes Big Table can spread to other cities -- and churches.
"Folks from some of the evangelical churches tend to give to evangelical organizations," he said, laughing, "and they don't quite know what to do with me."
Tracy Simmons writes for Religion News Service. Via RNS.