‘Paying It Forward’ in Montclair

by Robert Mitchell

Imagine a café where you pay with a smile.

Such a place exists at The Salvation Army’s Montclair, N.J., Citadel Corps, where on the second Thursday of the month, more than 100 people from the community come for soup with a side of rice and dumplings through a partnership with another community group called Dumpling Diplomacy. They call it the Pay It Forward Pop-Up Café.

Major Carl Avery, the corps officer in Montclair, said the café took over an underused part of the building called “The Coffee Booth.” The space was originally designed to function as a small public coffee shop, but zoning has prohibited this use.

Avery said the corps advisory board saw an opportunity last year to engage the public and create awareness of The Salvation Army alongside Dumpling Diplomacy.

“We’re passionate about giving a voice to any who are left out, connecting individuals and organizations to form bigger stories, and providing larger entities a glimpse into the lives of neighbors as yet unknown,” the group says on its website at www.dumplingdiplomacy.com.

Avery said the folks coming to the Pay It Forward café are in addition to the clients who show up at the regular feeding programs at the church.

“It’s nice because they can order what they want off the menu,” he said. “People from the public come in. It’s getting pretty good press coverage. People are interested in it. It’s increased volunteerism for us and it brings new people into our building, which is good. Those were goals that we had when we were talking about doing this kind of program.

“For those who come, our hope is that they return the kindness by paying it forward with a smile, by volunteering, or by making a tax-deductible donation to support the programs and services provided by The Salvation Army in Montclair.”

Avery said people can take the food to go or stick around at the corps for fellowship, where “we promote a sense of community over their meal. People from all walks of life enjoy the interaction, sharing about themselves, current events, and our town.”

While no religious activity is a part of the café, Avery said Nancy Loo, the founder of Dumpling Diplomacy, introduces him as a Salvation Army pastor, and that has opened doors and is helping build bridges to the community.

“It gives us an opportunity to meet people and talk to them,” Avery said. “We get the opportunity to tell them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. They’re becoming aware of The Salvation Army’s spiritual ministry, as well as what we’re doing for people who need our help physically.”

The Salvation Army has been in Montclair since 1891 and offers a host of services, including an emergency shelter (Cornerstone House), a drop-in center, a shower program with clean clothing for those experiencing homelessness, breakfast and lunch on weekdays, homeless prevention help, rental and utility assistance, and seasonal programming.

“People kind of take us for granted,” Avery said. “We wanted to do something that was a little different and would grab some attention. The café turned out to be a good thing for us.”