Heavenly Food, Music And Prayer In Historic St. Petersburg Churches

Jun 13, 2017

Over the years, churches have been powerhouses behind historical movements, local author and youth coach Rod Cunningham said.

“Not only did these churches provide a place of spiritual outlook and resources, but they provided basic necessities such as housing and food to both its members and strangers on the street,” he said. “One way the churches have ensured that people in the community don’t starve is through Sunday dinner.”

Student-reporters from the Neighborhood News Bureau spoke with Cunningham and visited the historic 20th Street Church of Christ, in South St. Petersburg’s Midtown neighborhood. They attended two events at the church, located at the corner of 9th Avenue S. and talked to organizers about what food means to church life and the community.

Some church members said they would go after church  to the houses of the best cooks in the community, giving them a chance to meet other people in the community.

“I had an Auntie named Rosalie Washington and we lived right over by Mercy Hospital on 13th Avenue and everybody that  came to the church use to come to my aunt’s house to eat!,” said Willie Washington, a lifelong St. Petersburg resident. “So that’s how I got to know everybody was through the fact that after church everybody was there. I wasn’t going to church there but I knew everybody because everybody came to eat.”

Roscoe Prince Jr., a member at 20th Street Church since 1958, said it was all about the best pies.

“Sister Bertha Washington was one of the great pie cookers. We would go to their house, and everybody could  get in that house, and we’d eat all the food that was there on the table. We just had a good time,” Prince said.

He rattled off a list of the foods you could expect to see on the table: “We’d have fish fries, and we would have wild game, we have fish, we’d have possum, we’d have coon,” he said. “We just had a real good time. Good cornbread, collard greens…you name it.”

Cooking was more than a tradition designed for special events. It was passed down from parent to child in the everyday life of the community.

“My mother was a cooker and, from a child growing up, I was with her when she would get up at 5 o'clock in the morning and make biscuits or whatever. I would get up with her and be in the kitchen with her. She was in a wheelchair and she would cook everything,” said Argie Barnes, a member at 20th Street, who still carries the tradition of the after-church feasts.

She described the passing of the tradition from mother to daughter: “That’s how I learned to cook: being in the kitchen with my mom.”

Barnes is well known for her hospitality, said Lawanna Washington, chairperson of Women of Faith at 20th St. Church.

“Every Sunday she cooks dinner and she invites like 15-20 people to her house,”, she said. “Just after Church, no cost no anything, just fellowship.”

Barnes said it’s important to open up her house to others.

“One thing about it, if you got some pretty good food you can get some people around and bring people together. You get to know people, to understand them. Sometimes we just pass by people and don’t ever know them, but once you are sitting down eating and talking, you can learn so much about a person. And I think that is important,” Barnes said.

Cunningham, the author, said that historically, meals were seen as a way to demonstrate the community cares for its own and others, and also serves as a way to promote and fund the church’s services and ministries.

“Many would prepare a meal for the sick as well as for families who had recently lost a loved one. Food was also used to raise money for the church. It’s a common practice for black churches to have dinners for sale or bake sales to raise money for the church or someone in need,” Cunningham said.

“Throughout the year there are several things that happen, maybe in the church someone has a death in the family and they need support as far as funeral costs or they need support in feeding the family,” Washington said. “It’s just a way to help somebody, anybody. We don’t ever want to say that ‘wow we don’t have anything to give you.’”

Washington leads one of the church’s ministries that keeps the tradition of sharing food and using food to share services and experiences alive. About 23 members of the Women of Faith ministry try to hold several events a year.

“We try to do something at least once a month, either for the church or something in the community,” she said.

Abigail Payne, Angelina Bruno, Evelyn Guerra, Lee Elstun, Paola Mazzini and Tamiracle Williams, are student-journalists attending the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies. This story was produced as part of the Neighborhood News Bureau class taught by Bernardo Motta in Spring 2017.  NNB Graduate Assistants Tyler Gillespie, Zenena Moguel and Indhira Suero Acosta contributed to this story.