Wealthy Manhattan residents and homeless set to eat holiday dinner together at same table

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Some Manhattan residents will leave luxury dwellings behind to dine shoulder to shoulder with the homeless on Friday in a holiday event that seemed like an experiment when it was first held last year.

Now, the Rev. Edward Sunderland says there is momentum aiding the effort at St. Bartholomew's Church in midtown. This year, The Four Seasons restaurant is joining The New York Palace and The Waldorf-Astoria hotels in serving a gourmet meal to provide some relief and conversation for more than 250 homeless people.

He said the dinner was aimed in part at helping society's more well-to-do residents look differently at the homeless population, or look at it at all.

"Many times people who are uncomfortable with the homeless look right past them," Sunderland said. "We want to help those people sit down with the people they're afraid of."

Last year's gathering included a healthy supply of civic-minded individuals employed as law firm partners, investment professionals, executives, teachers, social workers, writers, musicians and retirees. A host at each table managed the atmosphere as the event was serenaded by a piano and saxophone. Much the same is planned this year.

Sunderland draws the homeless participants from those attending soup kitchen meals at the church. They will sit at large tables, eating a traditional turkey dinner with some gourmet touches.

Heather Mitchell, an Upper East Side resident who is among the paying guests, said she will attend again this year.

She said she understands that some people prefer to write a check rather than be with homeless people in a more direct way.

"But when you sit down and share a meal, you recognize there but for the grace of God go I," Mitchell said. "We're all just a series of bad decisions away from being in the same place."

She said her table last year included one homeless man in his late 30s who had been to Europe and hoped to find a job someday in the music industry. She said he "was one of the most interesting guys I've met at a dinner party, bar none."

"He had impeccable manners. He was more of a gentleman than many dinner mates I've had," Mitchell said. "He was interesting. I was stunned, absolutely stunned."

Another homeless man, though, was "not very communicative and certainly not as comfortable," she said.

Sunderland said some focus groups he had conducted since the last dinner "almost made me cry" as homeless people described the positive effect the dinner had on them.

"It was a civilized environment where we were respected," he said one told him.

"We get a sense that we are worthy of excellence and capable of excellence," he recalled another saying.