“We hug here.”

Such is the refrain when you enter the kitchen of AOK in Washington’s Crestwood neighborhood. Working professionals between the ages of 30 and 60 walk in from Beltway jobs that tend to be high in nobility but low in personalism, weary and trying to hang on to the social politeness that dominates the average cocktail party. In barrels Edd and Samera, Branndon and Madeline, and no such façade is allowed.

“We hug here,” these 19-year olds say with emphasis, and four embraces and a shuttle past a savory stove later, it’s home, not happy hour.

Community in Schools founder Bill Milliken once said, “I’ve never seen a program change a life. Relationships do.” If there’s a core ingredient distinguishing AOK’s secret sauce, it’s this insight. Husband-and-wife team David Simpson and Kathy Fletcher have built a community where adults serve kids and kids transform adults. It’s radical mutuality, love and authenticity. If the #1 problem in the country today is social isolation, AOK comes in with some genuine heart mortar to gel the cracks, across generation and social class. It’s a home where, through mentoring relationships and a weekly dinner around one big table, people can give the gift of themselves. The youth get an audience to see and discover aptitudes that perhaps few others have the patience to find, and the adults see open faces that desire only to find connection and grace.

I’ve attended Thursday Night Dinner at AOK for five months now, and even in that short time, it’s changed me. Kathy and David have attracted a unique constellation of souls, trusting those “adults” that demonstrate selflessness over self-preservation, even as those adults’ networks are such that the kids from rougher sides of town get access to support structures that no longer exist in their home neighborhoods. In turn, a subtle yet powerful equalizing force has taken shape, as human beings stripped of the normal accouterments of status and achievement find themselves sharing fears and joys, confusions and hopes. It’s social class-mixing at its finest – an exchange of the different virtues that are cultivated in conditions of want and conditions of plenty, with an opportunity-creating wheel turning through it all.

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other,” Dorothy Day wrote, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. “We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

AOK is a modern-day incarnation of this timeless gift.

–Anne Snyder