Breakfast Café at St. Mark's
GRSMA musicians Barb Corbato and Mark Buchner performed viola and bass duets in April 2023 for the St. Mark's Breakfast Café. (Photo Credit: Paul Austin)
Last fall, GRSMA musicians began a partnership with St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the oldest public building in Grand Rapids (1848), to perform chamber music once a month for their Saturday morning Breakfast Café. Located in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, St. Mark’s Breakfast Café began as an outreach of the church in 2006 and has grown now beyond that as it feeds their neighbors every weekend. Teams of volunteers from St. Mark’s and the community cook and serve the breakfasts, and people who are in transition and often homeless walk long distances to attend.
Here are thoughts from GRSMA musicians regarding their experiences in this outreach activity.
Chris Martin, GRSMA violinist
My experience performing for the St. Mark’s Breakfast Café was both fulfilling and revelatory. I didn’t really know what to expect, but as I was standing outside the church in the freezing cold with the folks waiting to both be in a warm place and get a meal it immediately became clear that we had much more in common than not. It was a pleasure to play for people who clearly wouldn’t otherwise get to hear music performed in person. They were super appreciative and clearly some people were very curious. The biggest life lesson for me came when one such attentive individual who said he played the saxophone, though not in awhile, asked if we knew one of our colleagues. “She was the best oboe player in the state,” he said, and I was floored. Here was someone on our same trajectory at one point in his life. It was a profoundly humbling moment as I realized that the privilege of my background was perhaps the only difference between performing for this man as an act of charity and being in that man’s circumstance myself. I hope that the musicians of GRSMA will continue to get out into the community in ways that go beyond our usual GRS obligations. We need to share our gifts with everyone in our community, both because they need them and because we will benefit in ways we can’t even anticipate by sharing them.
Haijin Choi and Andrew Plaisier performed violin and cello duets in November 2022. (Photo credit: Gregory Crowell)
Haijin Choi, GRSMA violinist
Whenever the Grand Rapids Symphony reaches out to communities that can’t come to our concerts easily for several reasons, my heart always warms up because I know how much these concerts mean to them. So when GRSMA musicians were asked to volunteer to play music at the Saturday morning Breakfast Café at St. Mark’s, I jumped on the opportunity to serve. On rainy cold Saturday in November, my good friend and colleague Andrew Plaisier put together some violin and cello duet music for the visitors. The connectivity I felt from the thank you’s and compliments by the visitors reminded me of my job, which is sharing music with people from all walks of life. Also we ended up playing music for the crews of the Grand Rapids H.O.T. (Homeless Outreach Team) who were just coming from assisting homeless people. I hope that GRSMA will keep this wonderful partnership with St. Mark’s to serve our community.
Andrew Plaisier, GRSMA cellist
Playing at St. Mark’s has been both an enriching experience for me and a special start to the day for the guests, servers, and others working at the Breakfast Café. It's the kind of performance where I can get away with playing whatever I feel like playing in the moment, and it is all met with positive reactions. It is quite a unique setting and audience for classical instrumental music. Some guests have requests for pop and rock songs, some guests are deep in conversation over their breakfast, others sit alone. There are volunteers serving food and greeting at the door, as well as a security officer and police officer. The heartfelt thanks, the offers of cash tips (which we declined), and the conversations with listeners touched by the live music make it all worth the early waking.
Andrew Plaisier performed solo cello music for the Breakfast Café attendees. (Photo Credit: Barb Corbato)
Eric Tanner, GRSMA violinist
In February, a string trio performed a fun variety of musical selections at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. Although it was a bitter cold and early morning (and after a challenging GRS classical concert the night before), this ended up being a very meaningful performance. I learned a lot from the interaction at St. Mark’s. They put on a full hot breakfast for the homeless population of Grand Rapids every week. Dozens of people were lined up at the door when the string trio arrived, carrying their earthly possessions in heavy backpacks and bags. It struck me that many of these people already knew each other and had formed their own community, likely just from sharing common tough circumstances. I was also surprised at how young and full of promise some of the patrons were. These observations really changed the way I had perceived people experiencing homelessness. The positive effects really became noticeable once we started playing. For some, our music added an elegant ambience to their breakfast conversations, while others stopped and stood directly in front of our group in admiration for a moment. Many thanked us for playing and expressed how much they enjoyed hearing our music. Although it was less than an hour, there was still the feeling that our music was healing for people, a nourishment almost as important as the breakfast food being served. Spending time and talking with a few patrons reminded me that those living on the streets are still real people, with real pasts, and a real love for music, just like all our other audience members inside the concert hall. I would be happy to do this again anytime!
Beth Colpean, GRSMA harpist
In December, I played for one of the homeless breakfasts at St. Mark’s. I used this opportunity to play holiday favorites that nearly everyone could recognize and enjoy. A few stopped and talked with me about the harp, and some even sang along. I was amazed and humbled by what St. Mark’s does for the homeless community in Grand Rapids. It is my hope that these men and women were given just a moment of peace in their lives through our music.
Horn duets (French and English, that is) performed by GRSMA musicians Paul Austin and Kathy Gomez. (Photo Credit: Gregory Crowell)
The Reverend Susan York, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church
We are so grateful to the excellent musicians of the Grand Rapids Symphony who have been gifting the Breakfast Café and all of us who serve on various teams with their beautiful music. There is such a lovely ambience in the room while the guests eat and talk in the presence of live music. We think that it might be like this in heaven! When various members of the community come together to offer their gifts and talents to this or any ministry, we all feel our common humanity and the love which calls us to help make our world a better place for all. With thanks and many blessings, Mother Sue York (Associate Priest for Pastoral Care, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church).
For more information about St. Mark’s Breakfast Café, visit https://www.stmarksgr.org/breakfast-cafe