The kitchens light up early. The doors unlock. Hosts set up tables and chairs for guests who may or may not bring something to share. People who haven’t seen each other in days, months, or even years share stories and plans over a hot meal someone spent countless hours preparing.
For many, Thanksgiving is a holiday. For Don Murfin, it’s a goal.
“The community cafe is kind of like coming home to mom for people,” Murfin said. “We treat everyone with love. We get to know them. If they come back a second time, we talk to them and greet them by name.
Murfin, founder and head chef of the Community Cafe since its inception more than a dozen years ago, recently announced that he will be retiring at the end of the year.
The free lunch sites will continue. But not with the man who threw them. The man who organized more free lunches than there are people in the communities served.
“I’ve been doing this for quite a long time and to be very frank,” Murfin said, “I’m starting to get tired.”
A door prize led to an open house
Don and Linda Murfin moved to South Carolina in 2008. They found a church, tried civic groups. Murfin won a door prize in November 2008 at a meeting of a Christian chamber of commerce. The prize was one hour with a life coach.
“And I thought that would be awesome,” Murfin said. “Because she could help me figure out what I’d like to do. I had all kinds of crazy ideas.
Around the same time, Kenny Ashley served as one of many pastors at the River Hills Community Church in Lake Wylie – now Lake Wylie Community Church. Cult leader Kevin Gray asked Ashley what he would do if the money wasn’t limited.
“I said I would build a cafe and feed people for free,” Ashley said. “If they donated, fine. Otherwise, everyone would come to eat and share around a table to enjoy an hour of peace and good food.
The conversation became a call for volunteers in the parish bulletin. It would begin in January 2009, in the midst of a national recession.
“Right in the middle of bailing out banks that were too big to fail,” Ashley said. “People were struggling financially. Some have lost most of their savings.
Murfin saw the newsletter afterwards, unbeknownst to him, telling the life coach that he had long wanted to open a kitchen to help those in need.
“I saw this and I said, OK Lord, you’re talking to me here,” Murfin said.
At a Christmas party in 2008, Murfin asked if he could help.
“I said ‘no,'” Ashley said. “You can’t help with the soup kitchen. You can handle the soup kitchen. And the rest is history.”
Murfin made calculations. He figured a cafe could feed people for a dollar a meal. Murfin remembers the senior pastor at the time saying that Murfin could give it a shot for a few months.
“I thought, if that’s how you think, I’m not your person,” Murfin said. “Things like that are doomed. If you’re really interested, I’ll do it.
Over half a million meals served
The Community Cafe may look like a soup kitchen, but it started out as a gathering table.
Customers who could buy a meal at any Lake Wylie restaurant sat down with people who had lost their jobs. Business and church leaders stopped for meals. There was soup, but also sandwiches and desserts, pasta and other dishes. The cafe served approximately 25,000 meals that first year.
Other churches contacted Murfin.
Bethlehem Baptist Church at Fort Mill opened the second location in 2011. Other Fort Mill sites would follow at Fort Mill Community Bible Church, then its current Sisk Memorial Baptist Church in 2016. The Lake Wylie Cafe moved to Lake Wylie Christian Assembly. Another opened at Lake Wylie Lutheran Church near Tega Cay.
“And they all just kept growing and growing and growing,” Murfin said. “And as you can see here, we have people who come in and sit down, and they like to socialize. They enjoy food, they can take it home and it really, really helps people.
Dinner was not enough.
“We decided after talking to a lot of people that a lot of people couldn’t come see us,” Murfin said. “We ended up buying a food truck and started driving the truck into small communities and we just serve the food out of the truck.”
All of this expansion, the food truck, and the meals came at no charge for any meals.
Grocery stores and local businesses line up to help. Nonprofits helped out as word got out, earning Murfin the AARP Top Volunteer Award in 2016 and the highest community service award given in South Carolina, the Silver Crescentone year later.
“He dedicated eight good years of his life to making this happen, to developing it,” SC representative Raye Felder said as she presented the 2017 Murfin award during a cafe lunch service. . “You can definitely see it’s a ministry not just of volunteers coming together and doing the work, but of the people who actually benefit from the hot meals.”
A cup of the branded signature barley beef soup meal no. 100,000 in 2014. Just three years later, the cafe served its quarter millionth meal. Although the COVID-19 pandemic shut down cafes for a while, it didn’t dampen the need. The pandemic has actually boosted meal production.
“There were really a lot of people who needed food and during that time,” Murfin said. “We more than doubled the amount of food we were putting out.”
At one point, the cafe was preparing and delivering around 6,000 meals a week.
At the end of 2020, coffee hit the 500,000 meal mark – half a million free meals – while largely serving inmates. To date, coffee sites have served approximately 550,000 free meals.
“A Thing of God”
Mary Rasmussen started volunteering at the cafe about ten years ago. During COVID, Rasmussen has seen people struggle to find everything from toilet paper to meat.
“We decided to do a fundraiser,” Rasmussen said. “We called it toilet paper and tampons. I didn’t say anything to Don. I used her address as a drop off location and suddenly Don and Linda had boxes of tampons and toilet paper on their doorstep.
Don called. He asked if Rasmussen had started another fundraiser and how long it would last. He didn’t ask why.
“About a week later I came with a few trucks to carry all the goods,” Rasmussen said. “I asked Don to take a picture with everything. He blushed and happily agreed.
Charities that involve government funding often have guidelines and requirements. Since Murfin’s group runs on donations, he doesn’t have to ask questions.
“People can take home whatever they want,” Murfin said. “We’ll have it ready for you when you leave.” And if you need help getting it to your car. Well, we will too.
At first, the cafe volunteers quietly approached Murfin if anyone requested, say, a dozen meals.
“I said fine, yeah, it’s okay,” Murfin said. “Did you ask if they needed more?” Because they say, well, you don’t know where it’s going. I said ‘I don’t care where it goes. It’s a god thing. I’m here to make great food and pass it on to people who want to eat it.
The generous attitude proved contagious.
From the hundreds of volunteers who have kept the cafes running for all these years, to the businesses that step in and donate for a new freezer or food truck, to the big donation people passing through at a time when the café needs it most.
“Feeding or sharing food with someone in need is the most fundamental and profound act of kindness one can offer,” read a note the cafe received from a couple traveling from Minnesota to Florida a few years ago, accompanied by $1,000.
Ashley saw that the donations of styrofoam cups and spoons, bread and other items kept coming in.
“God has met all the coffee needs,” Ashley said.
retirement and the future
Murfin is almost 80 years old. It is synonymous with the free lunch service that operates throughout York County through churches and a food truck. Still, he’s been consistent throughout, coffee isn’t about him.
“It’s a thing of God,” Murfin said. “The Lord is the main person in the Community Cafe and that’s why it worked so well. He is in control. And it’s amazing what he’s done for us.
Which brings him to retirement.
“Some people say I shouldn’t, some say it’s about time,” Murfin said. “For me, I’m just exhausted.”
Sous-chef Constantine Mitsopoulos will take charge of the catering part. Murfin continues to work to put the nonprofit accounting side back. The room in his house that has been requisitioned for all these years for work in a café is going to have a new life.
It will be the same for Murfin’s schedule.
“My dear wife has a list of things she wants me to do,” he said. “But basically, for a while, I’m just not going to do a lot of things.”
If anyone deserved the break, Ashley said, it was Murfin.
“I don’t have the paper to list all the things God has done through Don and Linda Murfin and the Community Cafe,” Ashley said. “I just know that the Lord has been glorified, people have been nurtured and encouraged, and the spiritual water level of our communities has increased dramatically over the past 13 years.”