SAN ANTONIO – At Bernard’s Creole Kitchen on the Baptist University of the Americas campus, food is for sale, but second chances are plentiful and free of charge.
Here the conversation is as often about the food’s delectable sauces and seasonings as it is about life journeys, hopes and dreams. The small eatery brings together people from all walks of life – politicians, military personnel, the hungry, the hurting as well as BUA faculty, staff and students.
The restaurant is shaped by the life experience of its owner, Bernard McGraw who seeks to help those in need as often as he concentrates on serving “the real deal” Creole cooking on the city’s south side. In addition to his critically-acclaimed dishes, McGraw often can be found serving up an encouraging word, prayer or a free meal to those who truly need it.
Just like people once offered him.
Six years ago, McGraw and his family suffered through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. They were there when the storm blew threw, when the power went out, when there was no more drinking water. There he said a prayer, asking God to deliver him from the situation. The next months were filled with people who would guide McGraw through his journey, helping him and his family.
God brought them to San Antonio, McGraw said, and the community has poured into them as well. Following three days of prayer, McGraw started a rare Creole restaurant on the south side, placing a small sign in front of a home and buying his cooking equipment at a flea market with his remaining insurance money.
He opened the door, and people came. They may not have known what Creole cooking was before they entered the door, but they soon discovered they liked what they found. Bernard’s developed a fiercely-loyal customer base, with first-time customers often returning with at least one of their friends – often enough to fill the 16 seats in the house.
Not everyone who came through to door came as a customer, however. Homeless people came in. So did substance abusers. As did individuals down on their luck and hungry. Financially, it didn’t make sense. But spiritually, McGraw knew he must serve them, and serve them for free he did.
“Once you’re homeless, you never judge another homeless person again. That story is my story,” McGraw said.
“I began to see that there were so many people who were lost, that needed a hand up, that needed some hope, something to believe in.”
When Bernard’s grew to the point that it needed a larger location, he agreed to move to BUA’s campus, where he could use the school’s kitchen in exchange for directing the lunch program. It was an ideal situation for the school and McGraw – Bernard’s could grow in size and have a larger kitchen, and BUA could have a lunch program. Sensing a call to ministry, McGraw has enrolled at BUA.
Even in a larger location, Bernard’s often is filled to capacity. People from various backgrounds still come to the restaurant and still find the same kind of hospitality. McGraw is intentional about investing back into the community, particularly in his hiring practices.
Some of the people he’s hired have checkered pasts that include homelessness and criminal incidents. Others simply were told they’d never amount to anything and seemingly sought to make those predictions reality.
“I’ve just made that my mission – to help one person along the way in hopes of being able to help many along the way,” McGraw said.
Richard Castillo is one of the people McGraw has reached out to. Castillo has been working at Bernard’s for three years doing a variety of jobs. Castillo credits Bernard for changing his life.
“I wasn’t always a good kid,” Castillo said. “I wasn’t always the best. Bernard helped me out. He helped me become something I thought I’d never become. I graduated high school because of being in the restaurant, being just around the people that always had good things to say, never bad. It was never really a dull moment.”
Craig Bird, BUA assistant professor of missions and English who helped connect McGraw and BUA, said McGraw embodies the attitude that BUA is attempting to instill in each of its students. McGraw looks for opportunities to share the gospel whenever he can.
McGraw’s commitment to sharing the hope of Christ personifies the spirit of Texas Baptists’ Hope 1:8 initiative, an effort that encourages believers to follow the Acts 1:8 missions imperative in the Bible. BUA is partially supported by gifts to missions through the Texas Baptist Cooperative Program.
“He looks for ways to minister. His business comes second to him. He’s always engaging people about coming to BUA or helping students out. He gives away more food than he probably should. If he had an accountant, his accountant wouldn’t be happy with how much food he gives away,” Bird said.
“If a student is hungry, he’s going to feed him. If a person he knows is in trouble, he’s going to do things to help them. That does come out of his faith and a gratitude. God has done things for him, and he thinks we’re supposed to share. Interesting concept – that we’re supposed to take the things God has given us and help other people’s lives be better.”
McGraw, who is a member of True Vine Baptist Church, smiles at the thought of him being called a missionary, even if he knows there could be some truth to it. He admits he doesn’t have a “five-year business plan” and often refers to himself as only a “manager here,” letting God do the directing. But if being a missionary means sharing the hope of Christ with people, McGraw gladly accepts the title.
“When I submitted over to the ministry, I took it for what it really meant – to go wherever He’d have me to go, do whatever He’d have me to do. If that mission takes me from here to Africa, I’m willing to go. That’s just in my spirit. I don’t know what it takes to be a missionary or whatever but I know that I’m on a mission because there are so many more people who need help and need hope and need to know there is a light.”