MILWAUKEE — Six days a week, the Open Door Cafe at the Archbishop Weakland Center on Van Buren Street serves about 150 free, hot meals and distributes approximately 40 brown bag lunches.

In the Women’s Craft Circle, women learn to crochet yarn spun from recycled plastic bags – “plarn” – into waterproof picnic mats. Their hope is to transition those skills into a worker-owned cooperative. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

In the Women’s Craft Circle, women learn to crochet yarn spun from recycled plastic bags – “plarn” – into waterproof picnic mats. Their hope is to transition those skills into a worker-owned cooperative. (Catholic Herald photo by Ricardo Torres)

Though the cafe is part of the outreach ministry of the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, and the majority of the guests are homeless or at risk of homelessness, Fr. Jeff Haines, cathedral rector, is reluctant to call it a “meal program.”

To the staff who run the Open Door Cafe, the volunteers who serve the meals and partake of them, as well as to the diners themselves, it’s about so much more than food.

It’s about making a vulnerable population of the city feel that they are seen, heard and valued.

“We encourage (our volunteers) to think about the idea of our call as Christians to go to where the suffering is, and to be present to it,” said Shelly Roder, director of outreach ministries for the cathedral. “That’s why eating the meal is just as important as serving it, in my mind. If you’re eating with somebody, you’re bearing witness to their reality. You’re getting to know them, you’re building a relationship – and that’s transformative.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]Donations to the Open Door Café can be made online at or by sending a check to 831 N. Van Buren St., Milwaukee, WI 53202. Donors can indicate their preference to support a specific project like the Craft Circle. The Women’s Craft Circle has multiple volunteer opportunities available for interested individuals. Call (414) 276-9814, Ext. 308. [/su_pullquote]

“This is a place where they can feel welcome and not just have food but a meal, with friends,” said Fr. Haines.

The cafe started several decades ago when Fr. Louis Koran, a retired priest who was living at the cathedral, answered a knock at the door of the rectory. It was a homeless man who said he was hungry.

“Fr. Koran went and made a sandwich and got an apple and gave it to him,” said Fr. Haines. “The next day, the doorbell rang – there were two guys. And then four. And they just started to come.”

Eventually, Fr. Koran was serving so many lunches that he enlisted the help of volunteers – “the baloney brigade,” as they were called – and established the Door Ministry, which offered bag lunches at the door of the rectory to anyone who needed them.

In 2002, the Door Ministry was given a permanent home in the Weakland Center and the Open Door Cafe was born. Today, the ministry is funded by private donations and foundation grants, and in 2015 served 41,506 meals.

“We keep trying to improve the experience and what we offer in terms of food and also friendship,” said Fr. Haines.

Last May, the cathedral hired Roder, who has a background in direct service of the poor. She spent five years as the executive director of the St. Boniface Neighborhood Center in San Francisco. While there, she helped start the Gubbio Project, an initiative that provided safety and services to the homeless who sought shelter and rest on the pews at St. Boniface Church. In 2006, SFGate called her “the guardian angel of the Tenderloin.”

Fr. Haines praised Roder’s ability to connect on a personal level with the guests of the cafe.

“She’s finding out about their lives and their successes and failures and struggles and triumphs, and she’s got ideas on, how do we help them with the rest of their life? We give them a nice place, opportunity for community, but now, what can we do beyond that?” he said.

Last year, the Open Door Cafe successfully assisted about 20 of its guests with referrals and points of contact to Housing First Milwaukee, a collaboration between government entities and non-profits that aim to end chronic homeless.

Now, Roder hopes to help the Open Door Cafe guests become more employable.

“We’ve been trying to think of job opportunities that are a little more creative and that allow people to show up when they’re able, and to build job skills slowly, and kind of get back into work in a way that’s appropriate to their needs and interests,” she said.

To that end, Roder began the Women’s Craft Circle, which meets on Thursday afternoons at the cafe after lunch is served. In the group, women learn to crochet yarn spun from recycled plastic bags (“plarn”) to make ultra-durable, waterproof picnic mats that can be used in a variety of ways.

“Our hope is to build it as a worker-owned cooperative,” said Roder. “Right now the women are not only learning how to do the actual trade of crocheting, but they’re also taking turns leading meetings. We’re coming up with a vision and a mission statement and business plan, and people from the circle have gone to Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative to get classes on starting a business.”

The craft circle was recently awarded a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

“They’re learning how to think big,” said Roder of the women, many of whom are also served by the Cathedral Center shelter for women and families next door to the Weakland Center. “We’re trying to do it in a way that really empowers the women to take ownership of it.”[su_pullquote align=”right”]Cathedral happenings

The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist prides itself on being open most days from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. (open at 7 a.m. on Sundays), providing nearly constant access to the archdiocese’s mother church. The cathedral also has a full schedule of summertime activities, many that benefit the Open Door Café. The cathedral is a Holy Door site for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, and all are invited to gain special indulgences, provided all other requirements are fulfilled, by making a pilgrimage. More about the Holy Door sites and other requirements to receive the plenary indulgence can be found on the archdiocese’s website at Reconciliation is offered Wednesday through Friday, 4:30 to 5 p.m. in the reconciliation room in the cathedral’s day chapel. Wednesday concerts are held year-round in the cathedral from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. Tours are available at the conclusion of the concert. On most Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, the public is invited to visit the cathedral for open rehearsal, as organists Michael Batcho (director of music) and Scott W. Eakins (director of liturgy and communications) prepare music for weekend liturgies and special events. Mid-day prayer is held in the cathedral from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, featuring a variety of different prayer forms each time. All are welcome to attend. For more information, visit [/su_pullquote]

A hallmark of the Open Door Cafe is integrating the diners with the volunteers who serve them.

Volunteers come from all corners of the archdiocese and city. There are roughly 15 regular volunteers in addition to parish and school groups who come regularly or intermittently.

Local businesses, including Robert W. Baird, Harley-Davidson, Cramer-Krasselt, Quarles & Brady, Von Briesen & Roper, AT&T and Northwestern Mutual, also send staff to volunteer on a monthly basis.

“These are good people; when they’re coming downtown from wherever they are and they see the people on the street, they want to do something about it,” said Fr. Haines. “I think we provide an opportunity for them to say here’s something concrete that I can do that helps the people that they’re walking past every day on the way to the office.”

A reflection is read before every lunch by the cafe manager, said Roder. “It’s a way for volunteers to ground themselves in sort of reflecting on what it means to be a follower of Jesus,” she said. “We talk about the idea of taking off your shoes when you’re entering into a new culture – the idea of being vulnerable and going outside of your comfort zone … of allowing yourself to be vulnerable and to recognize that the people there have something for you to learn because God existed there before you arrived. That’s Jesus’ approach to ministry – to find the vulnerable people and be with them.”

Roder also tries to provide opportunities for volunteers to understand more about the people they are serving. One recent training program centered on trauma-informed care – “looking at the way trauma impacts how people interact,” she said, “to build compassion, to build empathy, and also to look at the structural injustice that exists.”

The outreach ministries hope the cafe will continue to be able to provide job skills, especially in the hospitality industries, and continue to grow and expand its services.

“We’re really trying to not look at it as services so much as reframing possibilities for people,” said Roder. “I think one of the directions that we’re hoping to go into now is to create different ways of thinking about how to build wealth for people who are self-determined, that it isn’t this dynamic of giver and givee, but that we’re creating things together.”