NEW YORK (AP) — Some well-off Manhattan residents paid $100 Friday for the honor of eating a candlelit holiday dinner with homeless people at a church, an intersection of two worlds that left one down-on-his luck man thinking the seemingly impossible.
"What if a love connection happened tonight between the haves and the have-nots?" 44-year-old Craig James said before guests arrived. James, who has been homeless since losing a security job four years ago, also volunteers at St. Bartholomew's Church in Manhattan, where the dinner occurred.
The Rev. Edward Sunderland called the unusual mealtime gathering a "smashing success." He said he hopes it will become a nationwide trend.
"When the food was passed we all became equal," he said.
About 500 people, serenaded by a piano and saxophone, ate at large round tables with red tablecloths beneath the church's tall dome. Chefs from The New York Palace and The Waldorf-Astoria hotels provided roasted turkey, buttered mashed potatoes, red velvet cake, pumpkin cheesecake and other delights.
Sunderland said the dinner provided donors a safe environment to meet those who benefit from their charitable instincts.
Guest Andrea Neyman said the meal was a great equalizer: "It didn't feel like an event where there were a lot of homeless people."
Mori Goto agreed. "They're intelligent people," he said.
Sunderland said he was encouraged that only two of 167 people who bought dinners asked not to be seated with the more than 250 homeless people. Among guests were law firm partners, investment professionals, executives, teachers, social workers, writers, artists, musicians and retirees. Not everybody was wealthy. He said one couple saved to afford tickets.
A host at each table managed relationships.
"Both groups tend to be a little high maintenance," Sunderland said. "Many wealthy people have mental illnesses. Many are addicted to substances, and it's probably at the same rate as homeless people. It manifests itself differently and it's treated differently."
David Garcelon, Waldorf-Astoria's director of culinary, said the hotel served about 1,800 people on Thanksgiving.
"This will be a fun and easy day for us," he said.
Heather Mitchell, a paying guest, said she expected some would be made uncomfortable at a church known for welcoming everyone.
"But how many dinner parties do you go to with people of the same socio-economic status and you're bored to tears?" she asked. "It's good to mix it up."
Artie Stone, 58, another guest, said: "The idea of well-to-do and struggling people side-by-side is like having the lion and the lamb lay down together."
James, serving as a table host, said he hopes the dinner dispelled homeless stereotypes reinforced by a "dirty guy on the train or someone sleeping in the park."
Another table host, Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, said one of five homeless people at his table described being on the street for 10 years.
King said the man, who said he sleeps in a sleeping bag in a park, was on his fourth piece of turkey when he paused in a moment that could not be scripted better in Hollywood and announced slowly with pride: "Tonight, I'm not homeless."
Sunderland called it the "story of the night."
"It just brought me to tears," he said. "Because for me, having all these people together is a great thing but having a homeless person with a sense that he's not homeless is what I do this for. It's priceless."