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Margaux Murphy ‘decided to be broke all the time’ so her Sunday Love Project could feed the hungry

When the founder of the Sunday Love Project is praised for her work with the poor, she says, "It feels weird. We’re supposed to be doing this.”

Margaux Murphy (second from right) founded the Sunday Love Project, a non-profit that serves meals to those in need. Murphy poses with regulars (from left) Lawrence Miller, Lisa Johnson and Warren Lane during the organization's weekly Monday brunch service.
Margaux Murphy (second from right) founded the Sunday Love Project, a non-profit that serves meals to those in need. Murphy poses with regulars (from left) Lawrence Miller, Lisa Johnson and Warren Lane during the organization's weekly Monday brunch service.Read moreEd Newton

It all started on Christmas morning in 2014, when Margaux Murphy overslept.

Murphy had been planning to help serve breakfast at a church but awoke too late to get there on time. Feeling terrible about it, the Port Richmond resident headed to Boston Market, bought a dozen meals, and gave them out to homeless people in her own neighborhood.

"But Murphy quickly realized that far more than a dozen people were in need of meals. So she hopped onto Facebook, and asked for help in cooking and distributing meals for future days. A mere 10 days after Christmas, Murphy, with her Facebook friends’ assistance, began serving 40 meals every Sunday outside the Parkway Central Library.

And with that, Murphy, 42, founded the Sunday Love Project, a nonprofit whose mission is “to share food amongst the homeless, while simultaneously building community.”

Today, Murphy serves hundreds of meals a week, many of them at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square. She previously distributed food at Love Park, but relocated to the church after receiving a city grant that required her to bring operations indoors.

With volunteers, Murphy transforms the church’s basement into a dining room and serves Sunday dinner and Monday brunch every week to people in need.

“We just treat it like a restaurant,” Murphy said, setting tables with real silverware, dishes, linens, even flowers. Her brand of radical hospitality to the hungry is embraced by other free-meal providers, which feeds thousands per week. Where Murphy veers from some of those programs, though, is that Sunday Love’s guests aren’t asked to pray before they’re served, or show ID, or share their Social Security number, which Murphy says are requirements at some other food providers and can discourage people from participating.

“I want it [Sunday Love meals] to be a reprieve … from the way they’re normally treated,” she said.

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Great care goes into the food: at Sunday dinners, guests are treated to meals like barbecue chicken burgers with macaroni salad, baked ziti, and roast beef with gravy and potato salad. On Sunday nights, Murphy usually has two people in the kitchen helping her cook.

“I don’t serve anything I wouldn’t eat myself,” said Murphy. That means not skimping on costs. Murphy said the weekly food tab of about $1,000 is financed by grants, donations, and a yearly fund-raiser. Murphy does not take a salary. Instead, she cleans houses two days a week, earning just enough to sustain herself.

“I’ve decided to be broke all the time and scramble for money, so that I can do this,” she said.

At a recent Monday brunch, Murphy served salad, bagels, scrambled eggs, tater tots, bacon, coffee, and bowls of berries to 54 guests. Preparation for the meal took 90 minutes, with volunteers setting up tables and distributing silverware while Murphy made the food. She usually has volunteer help in the kitchen, but on this day she was understaffed.

She relished the “crisis.”

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“We’ve never once not opened on time, but I like to have a lot of anxiety leading up to it,” Murphy said with the excitement of somebody who was about to have 54 people over for a party.

Around the time the tater tots went into the oven, diners began arriving. Many had heard about Sunday Love through word of mouth, or via newspaper listings, or simply by walking past the church. Nearly all had glowing things to say about Murphy.

“She’s really awesome, and I like her a lot,” said Terrell Palmer, 35, who goes by the name Princess. The brunch is a “real respite to some of the struggles that people in need are going through.”

Lawrence Miller, 39, of Germantown benefits both from the sit-down meals as well as an additional service: Each Sunday, Sunday Love run a free “grocery store” at the church. The store, which is open for two hours and offers things like fresh produce and canned goods, gratis, has been invaluable to Miller.

“We love and appreciate what she does here,” he said.

Warren Lane, 56, from North Philly, who stumbled upon Sunday Love when he was unemployed and walking in Rittenhouse, described Murphy as “too generous” and “selfless.” He now works as a dishwasher at a nearby restaurant, a job that Murphy helped him find.

He’s hoping to find work as a prep cook via a job reentry program that Murphy launched with professional cook Lauren Hooks, former director of kitchen operations at Vedge Restaurant Group and current consultant at Seedling Project Management. The women, who met when Hooks adopted a cat that Murphy rescued, created a free, six-week program to teach people like Lane the skills needed to acquire certification as a ServSafe Food Protection Manager.

Hooks, a 10-year restaurant veteran, taught the classes, in which three students learned about knife handling, general kitchen safety, and how to deal with food-borne illnesses and allergens.

“Everybody surprised me,” said Hooks, 33, of her students, whom she described as “pretty amazing” with “great intuit.”

Murphy’s organization has not only touched the lives of those being served, but also those who serve.

Maria Paula Tijares, a 19-year-old Drexel student, began volunteering for Sunday Love to fulfill the community-service requirement of her Civics 101 class. She so enjoyed her stint that she has since become a regular volunteer.

Helping those in need eat is “something that I would love to do back home if I could,” said Tijares, a native Venezuelan whose country has undergone intense political turmoil and extensive food shortages.

Clearly, Murphy’s impact on her community has been profound, but she shuns praise. “We’re supposed to be doing this,” she said. “When you get credit for something you should be doing anyway, it feels weird.”

She probably felt the weirdest in 2016 after being contacted by and appearing on “The Rachael Ray Show,” where Ray surprised her with a $5,000 check.

“I didn’t know it was gonna be a big deal,” Murphy said of the experience. “When it aired, it was nuts … my email was flooded with PayPal donations.”

When Murphy’s not serving meals in Rittenhouse, she heads to Kensington alone to serve people there. On a recent Friday afternoon, she parked herself outside of Prevention Point Philadelphia, and, with help from two volunteers who soon joined her, distributed dozens of sandwiches, fruit cups, water bottles, Rice Krispies treats, and cookie bags to passersby, many of whom struggle with addiction.

Murphy has gotten to know their stories. As a woman with large white bandages on her arm walked past, for example, Murphy dashed over to check on her. “Her sugar daddy cut her off,” she explained later.

And after a man with a duffel bag picked up a cup of mangoes, Murphy recalled the time he had gotten angry at the lack of gratitude shown by others receiving food.

“He was ready to kill for me because people weren’t saying thank you,” Murphy remembered.

Despite the time she puts in, Murphy said her work is “not even close” to where it needs to be. Luckily, the Citizens Charitable Foundation recently awarded her a $16,000 grant for which she’d never even applied. William DeVito, 50, senior vice president and state director for public affairs at Citizens Bank, nominated Sunday Love for the award.

“For me, it was a no-brainer,” said DeVito, who has been talking with Murphy about joining her organization’s board. “I’ve been a fan of Margaux’s for some time.”

When asked what she planned to do with the grant, Murphy’s response was simple.

“Feed people,” she said. “Feed more people.”