Mission Memphis Day 21: St Mary’s Soup Kitchen

The Experience

It was hard to get out of bed this morning. For the second day in a row I was up before the sun and running on very little sleep. I got dressed in the dark and as I pulled on my coat, I took a second to be grateful for the fact that I had one. This project is changing the way think about my world.

My car was just warming up when I pulled into the St. Mary’s parking lot and saw Ron Bezon waiting at the side door of the church. Ron has been running the soup kitchen for many years and he leaned against the well-worn rail while the volunteers trickled in.  The others and I followed him inside to the dining room where we set to work making sandwiches. As we were working, he asked if I wanted to ride with him to the Mid-South Food Bank to pick up supplies for the following morning. I’ve worked at the Food Bank, but I’ve never experienced what it’s like to shop as one of the agencies. We walked out to his truck and I noticed that a long line had already starting forming in the parking lot. On the way there, Ron apologized for being curt and slow to email me back, which I hadn’t noticed. He told me that it’s been a stressful month. His son Kevin had two tumors removed from his brain. I looked over at Ron. You never know what someone has been going through. “When we get back, you’ll have to read the article about Kevin” he said. “It’s taped to the refrigerator.”

Bare shelves at the Mid-South Food Bank

We drove to the back door of the Food Bank and were buzzed in. I followed Ron inside and looked at the pantries. They’re so empty.  Someone once told me that he didn’t believe the shelves were really bare – that it was a marketing ploy. I promise you I have seen the pantry and food is scarce. If you’re looking for 2 pound bags of candy sprinkles, you’re in luck. If you’re looking for pasta, canned chicken, peanut butter, frozen meat or fresh produce, it might be a wasted trip. Ron and I roamed the empty aisles. He scrounged what he could and grumbled about the low supplies: “This means I’ll have to buy it at the grocery store and it’s so much more expensive there.” I hadn’t realized that the food pantries around the city actually pay small handling fee for the food from the Mid-South Food Bank. I’d always thought they received it for free, but it’s still a steep discount – usually 5 to 18 cents per pound. Ron and I loaded his pickup truck and headed back to St Mary’s where the line had grown even longer.

Line for food at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen

St Mary’s Catholic Church

Back in the dining hall, Ron offered a tour and a glimpse into the history of the church and soup kitchen. We followed him through the winding hallway and into the heart of St. Mary’s church. I love old Catholic churches. There’s something peaceful and reassuring about sitting in a dim church lit only by the morning sun as it filters through the stained glass. I sighed deeply and settled into the hand carved pew. Ron, who had seemed gruff just an hour earlier, sang a simple song in a clear and beautiful voice. We sat transfixed as he recited the verses. Ron is full of surprises. In the 1870’s, the monks used to feed the hungry and homeless from the back door of the kitchen. This ministry has continued continuously since that time, which makes it the longest running soup kitchen in the city.

After the prayer and the tour, we made our way back to the kitchen to begin serving food from the back door of the kitchen as they’ve done for more than 100 years. The door way is narrow and elevated so one person goes out on to the landing and passes food from the kitchen down to those waiting in line. At first this distance and elevation bothered me a little bit, but I realized that it’s truly the best way to handle the logistics in the tiny space. After a few minutes, I gave up my seat so the volunteers waiting in the kitchen could have a turn to interact with the guests and so I could dive in and visit. I walked down the concrete steps and through the metal gate. Now I was among the crowd. Ron keeps things orderly and fighting off a bit of nerves, I made my way over to him so I could get my bearings. Most of this mild anxiety comes from being an introvert. It’s really hard to walk up to a group of people you have never met and strike up a conversation. But to be honest, there’s always a little bit of nervousness that comes from working with this group. About 95% are wonderful but occasionally you’ll run into someone who makes you uneasy. “It’s the 5% that ruin it for the others” Ron told me.

Reginald and (part of) me. Self portraits are not my best work

I started at the back of the line because one of the guys made eye contact and looked like he was up for a conversation. So I met Kevin. Kevin was easy to talk to. First of all, he had teeth, which made him much easier to understand than some of the others. He was also very polite and made a point to ask me questions too, which I greatly appreciated. When people don’t ask any questions about me, it makes me feel like I’m interrogating them or bothering them. Kevin seemed to enjoy the company. I also met Reginald Meriwether, who was extremely talkative. He told me (and anyone else who would listen) about his success story. Reginald used to be homeless and struggled with an addiction to cocaine for many years, but he got himself cleaned up, moved to Texas and is finishing his associate’s degree. He showed me his college ID and told me about the catering company that he started. Typically I don’t ask to take pictures of the people I meet because I don’t want them to feel like I’m violating their privacy or only talking with them to get a story, but I could tell Reginald would be up for it. I asked if I could take a picture of us for my blog and he said “Sure! Sure you can!”

After a while, most of the line had gotten their food and dispersed, but there was a gentleman who showed up towards the end. He looked familiar. I couldn’t place him at first – I’ve been to several soup kitchens and homeless shelters this month, but I must have a least talked with him. I asked a few questions and quickly nailed it down. I met him a couple months ago while doing interviews of the Memphis homeless population with the Community Alliance for the Homeless as part of their 100K homes initiative. I remembered him for several reasons. When we met him, he had a broken leg and was trying to get around on crutches. This would be challenging on its own, but he also had a broken arm, which made travel extremely difficult. But more than that, I remember his demeanor and personality. Many of the homeless I’ve met have an anxiousness to them. I can only imagine that comes from living in such difficult conditions. Mitchell on the other hand has a calmness about him, which in combination with his politeness makes him very easy to talk to. Mitchell’s cast was off, but he was walking with a make shift cane fashioned from a large stick he’d found. His arm was still swollen from the break, but the cast was missing. It must be difficult to care for a cast and keep it dry when you’re living outside. I nearly cried when Mitchell told me that he’d be in housing shortly.

As we cleaned up and said goodbye to the last guests, Ron reminded the volunteers that we could eat as well. I love this for two reasons. One, the volunteers got up early and put in several hours. An offer of food is a nice gesture of appreciation. But more than that, eating the same food sends a message – we are tied together. We only share food that we ourselves would eat. Believe it or not, I have been places (prior to this month) where the soup kitchen manager turned her nose up at the food she bought, cooked, and served to the guests.

Peyton and Chavian Kindred volunteering at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen

There were several families there to volunteer, taking advantage of the fact that their children were out of school. I had an opportunity to talk with the Kindred family, Anthony and Patrice and their kids Chavian and Peyton. Peyton is like a little ray of sunshine with pigtails and braces. She seemed to take in everything around her and jumped in to help when I went to scrub down the picnic tables. I asked her about the experience and what she thought. She said, “I feel like I’m helping and I feel like I should help because I have more than them.” Her brother Chavian had similar sentiments and when I asked if they would come back and help again, they both smiled and nodded.

After the other volunteers left, I stayed to help clean the kitchen and marveled at how much I had learned about Ron over the last few hours. He deftly moved through the kitchen, whistling and humming as he finished prepping the fresh chicken stock. He reminded me to read the article about Kevin on the fridge. I obliged. If you haven’t seen it yet, you really should read it. When I read Ron’s story, I felt frozen for a minute. He’d been through so much. I looked over at Ron. What an amazing man.

Everyone has a back story and usually we only get the surface level details. I felt fortunate that I had a chance to learn about Ron and to be part of Mitchell’s happy news. Another project comes full circle.

How to Help

Volunteer. The soup kitchen is open Monday through Saturday, but volunteers are especially needed Monday through Friday (Saturdays fill up far in advance).

Donate. The soup kitchen runs on a tight budget and is at the mercy of what’s available in the Mid-South Food Bank.

  • Donate funds. For just $40, Ron can feed 65 people!
  • Donate paper products and coffee supplies. They are always in need of cups, napkins, sugar packets and bread.
  • Donate Kroger gift cards. Whatever cannot be found at the food bank has to be bought at Kroger. Consider picking up a gift card for any amount next time you’re at the grocery story.

To volunteer or donate, contact Ron Bezon ronbezon@yahoo.com or 901-527-5350.

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!


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