Page United Methodist Church Operates Soup Kitchen
It is just a small sign advertising a “Free Lunch 11-1” planted in the wilting turf between the sidewalk and busy U.S. 1 in Aberdeen.
People are drawn to it, following it to a nearby building, curious to know if there really is still such a thing as a free lunch. As they enter the tidy fellowship hall at Page United Methodist Church, some lift their faces and close their eyes as they breathe in the smell of the freshly baked rolls that wafts through the door.
“Boy, it really smells good in here,” comments one of the soup kitchen’s newest guests, who eagerly lines up behind a table laden with beef barbecue, chicken, salad, baked beans and assorted desserts, and he asks, “Is this really a free lunch?”
“Yes, it is, and we are so glad you have come today,” says Hazel Bullock, with a smile, as she ladles food onto his plate.
Bullock is one of the volunteers at Martha’s Place, a soup kitchen.
The kitchen, which opened in October, feeds between 60 to 70 adults and children each Monday, and it will begin serving on Tuesdays effective Sept. 7, according to Carolyn Gourley, the church member who serves as the kitchen’s administrator.
“The guests come from all walks of life,” she says. “There are more young couples and families than we thought we’d see — many are out of work or just down on their luck. Some of them are homeless and need a hand.”
It takes only a few minutes, and the food line begins to swell with guests, including a grandmother attentively caring for three young children; young adults without jobs; working couples who are having difficulty making ends meet; and widows and widowers struggling with loneliness, poor health and lack of income.
Resource for the Hungry
Gourley says the idea for the soup kitchen originated at a staff meeting.
“A man came in homeless; he’d been here before and we gave him some money, but we didn’t feel good about the options, so we started brainstorming on what we, as a congregation, could do to help the situation and not just throw money at it,” she says.
Gourley says the idea of a soup kitchen just grew in her heart, and she set off to make the concept work. Approximately 40 church members are organized into teams who rotate shifts every six weeks. The group gathers donations of money and food, or they purchase the food needed for the meals.
On “soup kitchen day” the assigned team works from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. to arrange the hall, prepare and serve food, visit with the guests and clean up. There is not a budget to purchase food or supplies, so they rely upon the generosity of church members and the community. They plan the menus weeks in advance and use donations to purchase some items from the food bank, which saves money.
“We’ve been doing this long enough that we usually know what to expect, but then there are those days that we get real close to running out of food,” Gourley says. “We try to always have something in the freezer so we can pop it into the oven right quick.”
Nourishing the Soul
The church’s soup kitchen does not look like the soup kitchens of the big cities. It is structured to make the guests feel comfortable and welcome. They are not interviewed, and there are no poverty requirements, and their privacy is fiercely protected by the volunteers.
“This is different,” says H.A. Slate, one of the kitchen’s team leaders. “The people who come here are wonderful. They all have different situations and needs, and this place provides not only food, but a sense of community for many of them. Here they are not a number, like in the big cities. We know them and help them and they are family to us all.”
Some guests prefer to sit alone, but most, in time join others in table talk and sometimes in prayer.
“We stop by all the tables welcoming everyone and just talk about their day,” says volunteer Jean Slate, as she refills cups with lemonade or tea. “If they seem receptive, we’ll ask if they have prayer need, but we don’t push it on them. We really just want them to be comfortable.”
Most afternoons the place gets very comfortable thanks to Charles Shields, the 85-year-old who has played piano since he was a youngster and does not read music.
“I learned the chords from my mother and took it from there,” he says with a smile as his fingers wiggle across the keyboard. “If you can hum a few bars, I’ll catch the tune.”
Within moments he hears a woman’s voice from across the room as she starts singing a gospel hymn. Shields picks up the tune as others sing along with the woman, who excitedly calls out, “Oh Lord, this is the best — it makes me feel like home.”
“He’s something,” says volunteer Susan Wilson, who joins in the singing. “Whose spirit would not be lifted to listen to these happy tunes and gospel hymns?”
Wilson recalls they had a guest earlier in the year that was down on his luck and discouraged because he could not find work. One of the kitchen’s volunteers took him under his wing and they started spending time together and became friends.
“You could see the guy’s spirit rise,” says Wilson. “He’d come here and started smiling again, feeling good about himself. That’s so important when you are looking for a job. You can’t sell yourself in an interview unless you have self-confidence. You have to feel it in your soul. There are lots of people that are not connected to the system; they don’t know where to look for resources and some have been thrown into situations without any warning. We’ve become friends and help them find not only a nourishing meal, but jobs and housing.”
Expansion of Services
To extend more help to the kitchen’s guests, Martha’s Place is posting job openings.
“We try to make it easier for them since most don’t have access to the newspaper and many can’t get to the employment security commission,” says H.A. Slate. Slate says they hope to be able to expand the job search assistance by providing a computer and online access so guests can apply for jobs online with the employment security commission. They also hope to provide interview skills training and perhaps guidance on dressing for an interview. At one end of the hall there are a few tables holding a neat array of used clothing donated by church members and available at no cost to the lunch guests.
But feeding those in need remains the focus of the group’s efforts. In addition to the hot meal on Monday, and soon on Tuesday, guests can also pick up a bagged meal consisting of a sandwich, fruit and cookies to take with them. From September through May, dinner is offered on Wednesday nights, and MANNA!, a local food ministry, prepares and distributes lunches on Thursday at the fellowship hall. The church offers a hot breakfast at 8 a.m. on Sunday in the fellowship hall just prior to its contemporary religious service.
Need to Feed Increases
“We want people to have options to find food every day of the week,” says Gourley. “We’d like this to evolve into a community effort, and we’re hopeful that some of the other churches will offer to help us expand this very important program. This is what we should be doing; it’s truly an outreach to the community’s neediest.”
As the guests leave they come by to offer thanks to the volunteers.
“Sometimes they want to offer a prayer of thanks with us, and some even offer the change in their pockets. It’s a point of personal pride for them,” says Jean Slate, while noting that the lunch really is free. “They are a blessing to us, perhaps more to us than we are to them.”
The volunteers’ day ends at a table as they gather to eat what is left, but first they join hands, bow their heads and pray together.
“Some days you’re so humbled,” says Gourley. “You don’t know what you’ll see or experience here. This is a wonderful place to live, but there is a clear need to help the impoverished people who live here. We don’t know where they’ve all come from. But they come, wearing only humility. This soup kitchen is just one part of the solution; so much more is needed.”
Claudia Watson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Pilot and PineStraw magazine. She may be reached at email@example.com.
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