Swannanoa Welcome Table closes, continues legacy

Karrigan Monk
Black Mountain News
Robert Randolph stands with an old Swannanoa Welcome Table sign at the door where those in need would come in for their meal and conversation.

Food and fellowship were always at the forefront of Swannanoa Welcome Table.

The program, which began in 2003, was started by members of the Swannanoa United Methodist Church after the former Beacon Blanket plant burned down. The church building sits directly across from where the plant once stood.

Originally called Soup In the Valley, the organization was made up of congregants who wanted to provide a meal to those in need.

In 2008, the name changed to Swannanoa Welcome Table and more services were added, including a food pantry, wellness checks, legal assistance and a medical equipment loan closet.

The program thrived until COVID-19 shutdowns forced Swannanoa Welcome Table to close its doors, for what the ministry thought was only temporarily.

Now, after the congregation has been shut down by the WNC Conference of the United Methodist Church and the building sold, Swannanoa Welcome Table has been forced to close its doors permanently.

Robert Randolph was the head of the board of the Swannanoa Welcome Table when it closed.

He said because the congregation had gotten so small, the WNC Conference of the United Methodist Church closed the church, but had originally agreed to let Swannanoa Welcome Table continue operations out of the church through a leasing agreement.

Randolph said the ministry agreed to this and signed a yearlong lease to expire in January 2022. However, just before the lease ended, Randolph said he and the board were informed the property had been sold and the new owner did not want to continue leasing the building.

Randolph said he and the other seven board members continued to look for other places to host the ministry but had no luck.

“It became something very personal for all of us,” Randolph said. “When it closed, a piece of each of the eight of us died. That’s what grief is, and loss. It took us many months to accept it. We went through the whole grieving process. We were angry and then we had to come to accept it.”

Coming to accept the closure meant finding a place for all the equipment and funds Swannanoa Welcome Table had left over.

Randolph said Swannanoa Welcome Table had “been blessed” with generous contributions, and they wanted to find a way to pay it forward. Around nine months ago, the board stopped looking for places to reopen and started looking for places to donate everything they had.

Most of their kitchen equipment went to McDowell Mission Ministry, with the rest going to Open Table in Black Mountain and Sandy Mush Community Center.

Randolph said the board decided to donate $10,000 each to Bounty & Soul, Food Connection and Sandy Mush.

Swannanoa Welcome Table was forced to close permanently after the congregation was shut down and the building was sold.

“We invested sizeable chunks of money with people that we know really care about Swannanoa,” Randolph said. “We moved from being frankly angry and depressed that we had to close to being hopeful for the future.”

The rest of the $38,000 left in the ministry’s bank went to Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministry, which Randolph said had a $100,000 shortfall this past year.

SVCM Executive Director Cheryl Wilson was also on the board of Swannanoa Welcome Table but excused herself from the vote to donate the $38,000.

Paula Sellars, associate director of Bounty & Soul who is currently serving as interim director, said the organization will use their donation to bring food to the community through Produce to the People markets and the Benevolent Box home delivery program.

“The Welcome Table provided not only nutritious food for people in need, but a space of caring and a spirit of community,” Sellars said. “It was a place where people could be made welcome, where they could reliably come to enjoy the kindness of food and togetherness. That will surely be missed as an integral part of people’s lives.”

Randolph said there was never a meal where one could not hear the “buzz” of conversation around the room. He said this is part of why they did not have church services during the meal, because they did not want to hinder the conversation.

Wilson said the closure is a loss because of that reason.

“It was such a gathering place,” Wilson said. “It wasn’t only the meal that was important to those that attended. It was the fellowship and for a lot that are lonely, or who don’t have a whole lot of family that they see, it was a time of gathering and being together. I think that’s the biggest loss.”

Wilson said their donation will go toward assisting their clients in whatever needs they may have, as well as stocking the food pantry.

Randolph said that despite the closure, he is still looking forward to the good work the legacy of Swannanoa Welcome Table can do.

“We’re hoping the good news of feeding hungry bellies and hungry hearts and lonely spirits will continue with other people’s hands besides ours,” Randolph said. “We don’t end angry and bitter and depressed. We end with hope and gratitude that these other people are carrying on what we’re doing.”