By Louise Chase Dettman

At right, food prep with kitchen boss CheeChee Mathis (right) and Makaela (left); Courtesy of Louise Dettman

“Whether you are called to serve or have a need to be served, all are welcome at St. Augustine’s every Sunday morning at 8 a.m. for one of the best breakfasts in town and the most welcoming volunteers around!” That’s what St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church says on its website. And they mean it.

Like many other congregations in the DC area, St. Augustine’s has temporarily suspended in-person gatherings at its Southwest Waterfront location to reduce the spread of COVID-19. However, its Bread for Life free breakfast program continues. This is one event that cannot be shared virtually, as the church’s services are now. 

For more than 25 years, St. Augustine’s has hosted this weekly hot meal for those in need – typically in a community dining room at its 555 Water St., SW location. The program serves a crowd of 30-50 on a first-come, first-served basis from 8-8:45 a.m. Dozens of neighbors and members of the area’s homeless population are breakfast regulars.

Many hear about Bread for Life through word-of-mouth. Others come in through the congregation, or join the church after enjoying a great meal. Things look a lot different now than they did on Feb. 2, when I volunteered in St. Augustine’s kitchen under the direction of Chee Chee Mathis, the 74-year-old grandmother of seven, who runs the program. 

A retired U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development employee, she uses her love of, and gift for, cooking to feed those in need. Longtime church members, new recruits, and a steady rotation of volunteers keep the program going with church donations. 

To continue meeting community demand in this time of uncertainty, the meal and format have changed to reflect advised protocols for the current pandemic. Guests loosely assemble outside the church, where volunteers offer a to-go bag with a breakfast sandwich, carton of juice, and piece of fruit. Guests are asked to eat apart elsewhere to limit the possibility of the virus spreading.

On a typical Sunday – when D.C., the nation, and the world are not in a state of emergency – Chee Chee runs a tight kitchen and insists on cooking her massive menu from scratch. She’s happy to show anyone the ropes, starting at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday mornings. 

Judy Alexander preps the sausages; Courtesy of Louise Dettman

The day I volunteered, eight adults and two kids prepared three flavors of pancakes, two egg-and-potato casseroles, two kinds of sausage, grits, scrambled eggs, buttermilk biscuits, fruit, and two kinds of cake, coffee, and juice for 30 hungry men, women, and children. All relished the nourishment and the company and agreed that “Pancake Church” has the best breakfast in town!

If you are interested in volunteering, please email Chee Chee Mathis for details at chee-cheemathis@staugustinesdc.org.

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