Fresh flowers, lighted candles, live music—can this be the soup kitchen that just hours earlier had fed 400? Yes, a humble church social hall in Lower Manhattan had been transformed to a scene of celebration. The celebration in early December marked the 20th anniversary of a group named the University Community Social Services. Its main focus is indeed the Saturday soup kitchen, where I volunteer (usually as pot-washer) on most Saturdays. But besides high-quality food, it also provides social services to the poor and often homeless people who gather there from 8 a.m. onward.
The small size of the kitchen permits only a limited menu. As a result, Lorry Wynne, the organization’s director and co-founder, explains to new volunteers that meatloaf has long been the main course, because it is relatively easy to prepare. She and the other workers are therefore known on the streets as the meatloaf people. But Lorry is careful to point out in her weekly orientation that besides a first-rate meal, “we want to provide something else—respect—and that’s why we serve our guests just as they would be served in our own homes, and only with such food as we ourselves would enjoy.”
The origins of the soup kitchen go back to Lorry’s days as a graduate student at nearby New York University (hence the word “university” in the group’s name). She and a professor—the other founder, Andrej Kodjak—were dismayed by the large number of homeless and hungry people in the area. As a result, they received permission to serve a simple meal of chili in a dining area of one of the university chapels on Washington Square South. But soon the undertaking was moved to a Jesuit church a few blocks away, where Lorry is a parishioner. (During the week she works full time as a social worker with mentally disabled homeless people.)
Although the operation is nonsectarian, its tone is nevertheless set by a huge banner of the Beatitudes across one side of the social hall—a banner Lorry and others commissioned. Noticing the first line, “Blessed are the poor,” an elderly man in a worn parka looked up from his plate one day and said, “That’s us.” Men like him predominate, and most have the appearance of those who know the city streets and doorways all too well. Having no other resources for personal hygiene, many make use of the two sinks in the bathroom to shave and generally clean up. But women are present too, and it is not unusual to see some arrive with small children for what may be their only full meal of the day.
The volunteers range in age from teenagers to senior citizens. The former frequently come as part of an interdenominational group called Y.S.O.P.—Youth Service Oppor-tunities Project. Others tend to be students from New York University, or young employees of investment companies like J. P. Morgan Chase. Still others are older neighborhood residents like myself. Some appear only once or twice, but not a few reappear. Each spring, for example, Lorry greets a woman Episcopalian priest who serves as chaplain at a university in Oklahoma. Though not a frequent volunteer, she comes annually with a half-dozen students for a week of New York City service work that includes a Saturday at the soup kitchen. I once heard her observe, “When we get back to the hostel where we’re staying, I’m going to use that first line about the poor on the banner as the way to start our sharing.”
In these harsh economic times, more poor people wander the streets and more of them are hungry enough to recognize this soup kitchen as a genuine blessing—not only because of the food and social service assistance, but also because of its supportive sense of community. But the real blessing and the real cause for celebration will come when soup kitchens and food pantries are no longer needed anywhere in the nation. That will not be any time soon.