by Emily Dagostino
Six days a week, Martin Johnson starts his morning at 3 a.m. at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen in Memphis, Tennessee, with prep work on soup and coffee. By midmorning, the line to the kitchen is snaking out the door of the building, sometimes as far as 50 yards. When the doors close at 10 a.m., somewhere between 200 and 300 of the most vulnerable people in Memphis will have received soup, coffee, pastries, sandwiches, and a treat for the road.
“I had a lady once come through the line with four children under the age of probably 6,” Johnson said. “She looked up at me and said how thankful she was, because if it hadn’t been for us, they wouldn’t have eaten that day. “That’s what keeps me here. If I don’t come to work, people don’t eat. That’s the responsibility that God has put on to me. I take it very seriously.” Johnson, who serves as the director of homeless services at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, leads one employee and many volunteers in keeping alive the soup kitchen’s nearly 150-year old legacy in the heart of Memphis.
The soup kitchen, which runs Monday through Saturday every week of the year, closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas, is believed to be the oldest continuously run soup kitchen in the United States. “There’s a reason it’s the longest-running soup kitchen in Memphis,” said Caroline Flores, a volunteer who also serves as the soup kitchen’s public relations coordinator. “It adds something extra. It’s not just a cafeteria. It’s that extra of piece of faith. It’s community.”
A CITY FIXTURE
St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen was founded in 1870 upon the opening of the church by German immigrants to Memphis. The city, only a few years removed from the Civil War, was in the grips of a yellow fever epidemic, and people began showing up at the church looking for assistance. So many people were coming that the women of the church responded, making soup for the visitors — from there, the soup kitchen soon became a city fixture.
While the demographics of Memphis have shifted in the past several decades, and the neighborhood around St. Mary’s has changed, the soup kitchen remains, as does the need for meals, clothes, and spiritual support. At 26.7 percent in 2016, the city of Memphis has one of the nation’s highest poverty rates. “It’s not just homeless people. It’s people in the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods that can’t get federal subsidies or are falling short on the amount of money that they have for the month,” Johnson said. “Our numbers increase two to three times from the first of the month to the end of the month. It is a lot of locals right here in our little neighborhood.”
It’s that extra piece of faith. It’s community.
St. Mary’s serves roughly 60,000 meals per year, thanks in large part to the generosity of local businesses and individuals. Six days a week, the soup kitchen doors open at 6:30 a.m., with somewhere between 50 to 100 people entering early to get a coffee and pastry. At 9 a.m. guests are served soup. They also receive a peanut butter sandwich, meat sandwich, and a snack. One of the busiest days of the week is Saturday, when in addition to the soup kitchen, the church opens a clothing depot and provides free clothes for those who need them. Flores said when volunteers hand out meals and clothes, it’s service with a smile. It’s “God bless” and “Have a good day.” “Everyone who leaves there at least we know that person had someone smile at them today,” Flores said.
IN GIVING, ST. MARY’S VOLUNTEERS RECEIVE
Guests and volunteers find both community and fellowship, and together, form the heart of St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen. Some volunteers are Catholic. Some are not. Those who keep coming back find a home of sorts at St. Mary’s — they find that in the process of serving, they are receiving spiritual nourishment. “When you volunteer, you’re receiving a whole lot more than you’re giving,” said Cindy Buck, who started volunteering at St. Mary’s after her youngest daughter left for college. “You feel good every time you do something and you contribute. Don’t you want to feel good every day?”
Before moving to Memphis from south Texas with her fiancé, Flores found St. Mary’s and its soup kitchen in an internet search and thought it would be a great way spend time in her new city. Soon she was going every day. Then she began serving as the kitchen’s public relations lead. “It has completely made a 180 in my life,” Flores said. “I would go to church and do everything that a good Catholic should do. But working with the soup kitchen has, I feel, helped my faith grow even more. Being able to let go of your own problems and issues for just a few minutes or just a few hours in the day and focus your love and attention on someone else who may need it more than you in that moment is a really strong lesson that I’ve needed to learn from God.”
Carl Price and his wife began volunteering at St. Mary’s after they retired from teaching more than three years ago. He said they were looking for a way to do meaningful service for the community and learned about St. Mary’s from Johnson’s mother, who taught with his wife. The Prices are Christian, though not Catholic, and Price said he always had an interest in serving the homeless. The first time they came to the soup kitchen, he added, they knew it was where they were meant to be. “Many of these people that are considered downtrodden, they have great faith in God,” Price said. “I guess it stems from when you have nothing — [when] you don’t even know where your next meal comes from — you have to rely on somebody for help.”
Buck echoed similar sentiments. She said the people she’s met and served in her time as a volunteer have inspired her and deepened her faith. There is a 70-something-year-old man Buck said she sees every time she works at St. Mary’s. After eating his soup, he clears the table, grabs a broom, and tidies the area before leaving. “It warms my heart to see him take pride in that area,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s by the grace of God that it’s not me in their position,” she added. “Some of them have just fallen on hard times and didn’t know how to dig their way out, or they’re just managing the best that they can.”
It has completely made a 180 in my life.
‘THE HAND OF GOD’
The community around St. Mary’s has changed in the past 30 years, with more people moving to the suburbs and the city population declining. It has changed far more since the Germans who founded the church turned it over to the Diocese of Memphis. Yet the soup kitchen stays alive, thanks to the commitment of the church’s staff and volunteers and the generous contributions from local businesses, schools, and community partners. It remains part of the heart of Memphis.
The hope among its loyal supporters is that the soup kitchen will be there for years to come — for as long as people in Memphis need it. “It seems like every time we have a need, somehow that need gets filled,” Price said. “That’s why I say you see the hand of God in this. If you’re doing something that God wants you to do, God’s going to help you do it.”
TO LEARN MORE: Visit StMarysSoupKitchen.org