When I first reached out to St. John’s United Methodist Church (also known as St. John’s Midtown) about volunteering this past Tuesday, LeeAnne Cox told me that Tuesdays at the soup kitchen are organized by students from Rhodes College. She put me in touch with their student coordinator to meet up and help that day. Since LeeAnne had never had the opportunity to work with the Rhodes students, she wanted to come too. The more the merrier!
I contacted Bailey Jones at Rhodes noticed two things right way – Bailey did a great job of making me feel welcome and she clearly had a process in place. She explained that we’d arrive early to start preparing the food and the guests would be welcomed shortly after that. I’d meet them at St. John’s and we’d go from there.
When I arrived at the church, I noticed that there were already quite a few people waiting for their chance to enter the warm dining room. I felt awkward as I made my way through the group towards the locked doors. Even in my coat, I shivered from the cold and I noticed that many didn’t have warm clothes. It wasn’t lost on me that the person least in need of warmth would be the first one to receive it.
The atmosphere in the kitchen was a stark contrast to what I’d felt outside. Bailey and the other students did a great job of making me feel welcome and useful. For me, I hate down time when I’m volunteering because it makes me feel as though I’m not needed, but with this group, I always had a task, which I greatly appreciated.
Within five minutes of arriving, the team was bustling about – everyone had a job and seemed to be happy about doing it. One of the girls was in charge of sautéing onions and she was singing “It’s raining onions” to the tune of It’s Raining Men. It makes me smile just thinking about it. I watched as a meal for 80 people came together in less than an hour and I was inspired by their energy, efficiency and team work. I marveled at Bailey’s confidence and diplomacy as she effortlessly delegated tasks to students and adults alike. Maybe she’ll give me some tips.
I had a chance to talk with Rhodes Sophomore, Mary Catherine Cadden. As best I could tell, Mary Catherine seemed to be Bailey’s second in command and I wanted to know why she was so dedicated to this work. Mary Catherine said “I feel really grateful for everything I have and this is my way of giving back. I also like building relationships with the guests and learning their stories.” While I was there, I noticed that many of the students took the time to chat with the people who came for dinner that night. I also had a chance to talk with LeeAnne and she seemed equally impressed by the students. When I asked about her own reasons for working at the soup kitchen, she explained that it’s about “building bridges within the community and connecting out to our neighbors.” That seems to be a common theme of St. John’s extensive outreach programs.
As we set out coffee and lemonade, the dinner guests quickly filled the dining room and came up to the counter claim to their drinks. As each person took a cup, I had a chance to talk with everyone, which is my favorite part. You don’t get to have deep conversations in those few seconds, but there’s another kind of magic that happens in those small interactions. We’ve all done it – seen someone on the corner holding a cardboard sign, but we don’t know what it says because we look away. There are many in our city who feel invisible because we treat them that way. They’re intentionally unseen by the rest of society. Imagine yourself in their position. You’re homeless and looking for food. You’re hungry and tired. And you’re cold. Maybe you’re sick or maybe you’re limping. You’re trying to remember the last time you had a hot shower and daydreaming about the next time you’ll be clean and warm. And while you’re walking down the sidewalk, there’s a person walking towards you. That person spots you, maybe even catches your eye for a second, and then intentionally crosses the street just to avoid being near you. With no family or friends, everyone treats you like a leper even if your only disease is homelessness. That’s what I try to keep in mind each time I hand someone a cup of coffee. I look him in the eye. I smile. And then I say something kind. It might just be “how are you doing?” But I mean it. It might be “I like your Tigers hat”, but I mean that too. It might even be “thank you so much for being patient”, but I make an effort to say something to everyone. And just for a second, it makes the invisible feel real.
Here is where I feel the need to confess something. I want you to know that for the most part, people are extremely kind and gracious. Almost everyone is quick to say please, thank you, and God bless you. I can’t understate how much it warms my heart to help people like that. That’s what I hope you will take away from this post. But I want you to be prepared for the fact that there are people who will be grumpy. There are a few people who will be ungrateful and maybe even angry. I’ve worked with this population many times and I love doing it, but it’s still hard to get the occasional rude comment. Deep down, I think we’re looking for validation that we’re helping people and when someone is rude, it interferes with the search for our own warm fuzzies. I considered not writing this part, because I want you to see the good and positive side, but I know it’s important to share the hard parts of volunteering too, even if I’m worried about what you’ll do with that information. When you meet someone who is unkind, try to remember all the times you’ve been grumpy even though you have everything you need. When you have the opportunity to interact with those that are kind and gracious, I hope you’ll take a second to marvel at how incredible it is that someone who leads such a hard life still makes an effort to practice patience and gratitude.
How to Help
Volunteer at St. John’s. There are many ways to get involved with St. John’s outreach programs. The soup kitchen welcomes individuals and groups to volunteer. Contact LeeAnne Cox at lcox@BPJLAW.com for more information. For other ways to get involved, check out their impressive list of outreach programs. It’s no wonder that the wonderful Scott Morris of the Church Health Center is affiliated with this group. (P.S. If you’ve never spent time with Dr. Morris, you’re missing out!)
Donate. As always – any amount welcome!
If you’re looking for a way to volunteer in the area of hunger and homelessness, this is a great way to get started.
Maybe you want to know more about volunteering with this organization or volunteering in general, but you aren’t quite ready to jump in. If so, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thinking about helping is the first step!