Nourishing body and soul

Church: A restaurant launched by a mission-minded church is filling two needs: a family-style place to eat and a spiritual outreach.

June 28, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

For years, the vacant lot at the southwest corner of North Avenue and Smallwood Street was overgrown with grass and littered with debris.

Each summer for nearly the last decade, the members of Mount Hebron Memorial Church of God in Christ had donned work gloves to pluck broken bottles and used hypodermic needles from among the weeds so they could erect a white canvas tent on the lot for their weeklong revival.

That eyesore lot has been transformed into a way station for the stomach and soul.

The church bought the property from the city and built a restaurant on the spot where they used to sing hymns and pray. Mount Hebron's pastor, Elder Henry B. Hunt, and his wife, Doris, have opened the Heaven's Gate Eatery, offering "Food for the Body & Soul."

"We want people to know we're here to feed them physically, but also spiritually," Doris Hunt said as she presided over a lunchtime crowd that included ministers, a state delegate, a table full of Baltimore City school police officers and a busload of square dancers from Detroit. "We wanted to be a saving station for people who are in need."

She said people have come in off the street and asked to see the pastor and pray with him. "And they didn't even buy anything to eat," she said. Also in the works are ministries to the elderly and youth.

Most people who come to Heaven's Gate say they come because they need to eat. "I try to get down here two or three times a week for lunch," said Ron Hunter, 36, a transportation and maintenance supervisor for the city's Department of Public Works, as he polished off a plate of turkey wings and gravy.

"This is one of the few places you can get a nice meal for lunch without paying an arm and a leg. Plus, being a Christian, the Christian atmosphere attracts me."

The decor is simple and spare. Service is cafeteria style, with diners carrying their trays to their tables, although waitresses clear tables and refill beverages. The tables are a blonde wood veneer, each with a vase containing red silk flowers.

Henry Hunt, who in addition to serving as pastor is a district superintendent, with responsibility for eight churches in Baltimore, said his aim was to start a successful business and serve the community.

"I recognized that there were certain needs we had in our community, and one was an eating establishment conducive for family gatherings," he said. "We had nothing. We had mom-and-pop carryouts, but nothing else."

When he finished a late church service and wanted something to eat, he had to drive to the Double T Diner in Catonsville. "Folks thought I had stock in that place," he said with a chuckle.

Hunt, who once owned a catering company in Prince George's County, saw an opportunity in the vacant lot one block from his church. After pleading with city officials for years, he was offered the land for $1. He was able to obtain low-interest loans for $250,000 each from the state and the city, and raised more than $350,000 more on his own.

He formed a nonprofit organization associated with the church, the Saints Plaza Development Corp., which owns the building and equipment and leases them to the Hunts.

In addition to slinging plates of chicken, ribs and pork chops, the Hunts say they will use the restaurant for a ministry. In the mornings they plan to offer the Senior Brigade, a program for 25 seniors who will be welcomed to eat breakfast and congregate. The membership will be rotated every six months.

In the late afternoons, they plan to run the Mount Hebron Youth Safe Haven program, which will involve 25 middle-school pupils who will participate for one year. They'll get a hot meal and tutoring help from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays.

Heaven's Gate also plans to serve free Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. But don't come for after-church supper on Sunday - the doors will be closed.

"We told the Lord if he should allow us to open this place, we would give [Sunday] to him," said Doris Hunt.

Now, about that name. Yes, the Hunts said, people do occasionally ask whether they're connected with the Heaven's Gate cult, whose members committed mass suicide three years ago in a mansion near San Diego so they could link up with a spaceship they thought was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

But Henry Hunt says he isn't changing the name. He thought of the name first, he said, " before I heard anything about that cult out there in San Diego."

"That name was given to me by the Lord," Hunt said. "The Lord put that in my spirit."

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