ON AUGUST 22, 2011, the day of my 13th wedding anniversary, a couple of elders walked up to the farm stand. I recognized the woman from the soup kitchen so I figured the two had come to the farm to use our fresh food bank. Turns out they were doing just fine with food, thank the Lord, but they wanted to know if I had any hope that the Winthrop Hot Meal Kitchen over at St. Francis Parish Hall would re-open in time for the school year, as it has every year since 1984.
“There’s always hope,” I assured them.
The business manager of the diocese that oversees the parish is asking $400 per month in order for us to remain there. $400 is way too steep and the board of directors has not agreed to pay it. As far as I’m aware, the soup kitchen has never paid rent before and we simply cannot afford it now. Such an expense would put us in the untenable position that many struggling families face every day – do we choose to buy food or pay the rent?
“If you think there’s hope that it’ll re-open, then I have something for you.”
The gentleman reached into the left chest pocket of his blue shirt and pulled out two folded $50 bills.
“This is from an anonymous donor. You may have it for the soup kitchen if you promise me none of it goes to the church.”
Back when I was a kid in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our family struggled to make ends meet. My father worked the first shift at Pabst Blue Ribbon Company in the mail room. A World War II veteran with little education, he was basically the company mailman. My mother held a string of part-time jobs to help put food on the table for their two children. As hard as they both worked, and they worked hard, we needed food stamps in order to survive. Still, my parents made clear in both word and deed that no matter how little we had, someone else had less and we needed to help them however we could.
I’ll never forget the day. I was about three or four years old when a young girl who smelled of dried urine knocked on our door. My father was at work, my sister at school. My mother let the girl in and escorted her to the bathroom where she drew a bath for the girl, who couldn’t have been more than 12 years old. After bathing her, my mother gave her a blouse and a pair of pants and sat her down at the kitchen table for a steaming bowl of Cream of Wheat, bacon and toast. I couldn’t believe how fast the girl devoured it all. It was an image that stuck with me, like good preaching. She ate another bowl of cereal and then my mother let her take a nap on the couch. Later, when it was time for her to leave, my mother handed the girl a brown paper bag with a change of clothes and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich inside.
I couldn’t count how many girls came knocking on our door over the next months, but they came nonetheless. My mother cared for each of them in almost the exact same way, like ritual. Our home was a stop on an underground railroad for throwaway girls.
When you walk into the parish hall at St. Francis, a collage of old photographs hanging on the wall to the left catches your eye. Emblazoned on plaques amidst the images of days gone by are the words “Feed the Hungry” and “Clothe the Naked.” For more than 25 years, volunteers have served thousands in the hall who need the food and the fellowship they receive there to survive. Is there anything more nurturing and sustaining than sitting down around a table and breaking bread with people?
Now, the food and fellowship needed by many families in our community are threatened because church representatives say the church cannot afford or does not want to continue to host a soup kitchen on its premises without expensive “help” from the volunteer organization that fulfills an essential part of the church’s mission. The business manager made it as clear as silver striking crystal.
“Don’t you people have anywhere else you can go?”
She looked me directly in my face at our last board meeting and asked that question. A question that seemed to betray the good faith negotiations I thought we were having about the $400 per month in rent the church is asking for us to remain and serve the community. You see, the money was needed to help pay for the electricity the old freezers and refrigerators in the basement of the church consume. Or so she had told us this past spring. Make no mistake, no appliances, no matter how inefficient, consume $400 in electricity each month. Still, we wanted to work something out. So when we offered to replace the old ones with brand new energy efficient appliances, something we ought to do anyway, and reduce the electrical costs to a mere $30 per month, she refused to budge from the $400.
“It’s not just the electricity, but it’s also the heat and the snow removal, and…”
“We don’t use any heat,” I said.
The stoves emit enough heat to warm the entire parish hall when they’re fired up for the soup kitchen. Since another group pays for the propane that fires the stoves, the soup kitchen doesn’t incur any costs for the fuel that not only cooks the meals but heats the space in the cold of winter.
“If snow removal is now also on the table,” I offered, “then why don’t we operate the kitchen during the months when there’s no snow and close it in the snowiest part of winter?”
“You can pick apart this $400 all you want,” she continued, “but you should know that we just recently had to pay out an $11,000 claim for a woman who fell on the lot. Do you even know about this fall?”
“Well, yes,” replied the chair of our board, who also happens to be a member of the parish. “I was walking with her. I was the one who helped her up and called for help.”
Silence fell over the room like prayer. Many of the board members dropped their heads and averted their eyes as though they were ashamed of the exchange they just witnessed. How could it be that this business manager would assume an active member of the church wouldn’t know what happened on the property? Especially when this same member can cite chapter and verse the amount of money the church collects in offerings every Sunday. This money, this bread, if you will, cannot go to defray the cost of the soup kitchen because it travels like a prodigal son to Augusta every week. To be spent on whatever the higher-ups there decide. This according to the testimony of every representative of the parish who has attended our summer board meetings.
In short, the Winthrop Hot Meal Kitchen was not able to re-open in time for the start of school because the business manager responsible for the church’s bottom line sees every person who uses the kitchen as a big old dollar-sign liability. Consequently, if we are to remain where we are and serve the people who want the soup kitchen to remain right where it is, we have to cough up $400 per month to help defray the cost of the church’s liability claims. Not the electric bill, or the heating bill, or the snow removal bill, but the liability claims. How am I so sure? Because the business manager of the diocese looked me in my face and mentioned its liability claims four times in seven minutes. She even referenced a copy of the recent claim she didn’t think any of us knew about which sat on the table right in front of her. Oh, yeah. She also wants us to purchase our own liability insurance policy.
How did we get to this place? It’s no longer in the church’s budget to feed the hungry and clothe the naked? Isn’t “love thy neighbor as thyself” a principal tenet of Christianity?
My mother, who still lives in the same house in Milwaukee where I grew up, is 83-years-old, widowed, and battling cancer. Mostly through her church, she still helps those less fortunate than she, feeding the hungry, counseling teenage unwed mothers, providing hand-sewn quilts to those who will be cold this winter. She simply cannot fathom this story I told her about our soup kitchen the other day. Could. Not. Fathom it. I can’t actually write what she said but she had to put her religion down in order to say it.
It seems that everywhere I turn these days some super-sized corporate entity, for-profit or not, stands between us and our ability to care for our most vulnerable citizens.
I would imagine this is why the man representing that anonymous donor walked up to my door on August 22 and asked me to promise him that no part of those two folded $50 bills he put in my right hand would go to the church.
“Isn’t there somewhere else you people can go?”
You better believe it. We the people will make a way out of no way, if we must, and find a place to serve a nutritious hot meal to those who come up my driveway or stop me at the grocery store to ask me when and where the soup kitchen will re-open.
I said it before and I mean it again: People who want to live need to eat. And there’s no reason whatsoever why we can’t come together as a community and feed them.
So, if you’re with me, then join me. Please. Give us this day our daily bread. Send a check made out to the Winthrop Hot Meal Kitchen, no amount too big or small, and mail it to P.O. Box 472, Winthrop, ME 04364. You may also click on the "Donate" button below. If you have a facility in Winthrop or the contiguous townships with a commercial kitchen and hall that can seat and serve 50 people every weekday, as well as a space on the premises for two large freezers, a refrigerator and ample dry-good storage, please step forward. If push comes to shove, we’ll open the earth and build a facility from the ground up. We must ensure that those who depend on our soup kitchen for sustenance and fellowship will not be displaced or inconvenienced.
It’s the least we can do for the least among us.
In the meantime, I’ll prepare a simple hot meal every Wednesday and put it in to-go containers for pick up at Annabessacook Farm at 192 Annabessacook Road in Winthrop. It may only be beans and rice or macaroni and cheese, but it will be something. The meal will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis starting at noon every Wednesday, come rain, snow, sleet, or shine. If there are leftovers, I’ll freeze them and make them available throughout the week at our food bank. Call 377-FARM if you have any questions or would like to help. Take care of your blessings.
(This essay first appeared in the Community Advertiser on September 3, 2011)