Monday, October 31, 2011

Soup Kitchen

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.
Dorothy Day

Still backtracking to Saturday in Detroit, let me show you, in words, the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

It began in November 1929, one month after the stock market crashed, when Fr. Solanus Casey and other friars began to serve coffee and bread to the hungry who came to the door of St. Bonaventure Monastery. There was no great design for an emergency food program; the brothers simply began to share their bounty with the poor. The only ambition was to extend Christian hospitality to the needy. It is the Franciscan tradition to nourish the soul and spirit as well as feed the body.

In order to welcome more people with dignity and respect, in time the friars and Secular Franciscans established a kitchen where the hungry could get soup and bread. Now, the Capuchins serve 2,000 hot meals every day from their two kitchens located within several blocks of each other across town. On these sites men and women can take showers as needed, receive clothing, meet with advocates for case management services, and pursue GED training. At a warehouse called the Capuchin Services Center, families in emergency can receive supplemental food packages once a month. Every day the staff and their volunteers assemble and distribute 70-pound packages of meat, grains, dairy, and vegetables to 200 families. Beyond this, families in crisis can receive clothing and, for households in transition, even furniture and kitchen appliances.

This is only the beginning of what the Capuchin Soup Kitchen does. The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are wider and deeper than immediate charity.

Jefferson House is the site of an extended residential treatment program for men recovering from addictions. It was established in the 1970s as the friars sought ways to lift people permanently out of the conditions that cause crippling involuntary poverty.

Over the years, the greater number of meals served has gone to children. The Rosa Parks Art Studio and Children's Library are the outgrowth of efforts to nurture these children in safe spaces and supportive environments. Staff and volunteers tutor these young persons and lead art therapy sessions for them, while also offering field trips, summer camp, and gardening lessons to learn how to make peace in their neighborhood.

In a city where there are no jobs and little opportunity for meaningful work, the Capuchins have founded and subsidized On the Rise Bakery, where men leaving incarceration and quitting drugs can learn a trade, gain entrepreneurial skills, and stabilize their lives. The bake shop is indeed sweetness and light.

One day ten years ago a friar was making a shopping list of groceries, and some children asked him to which gasoline station he was headed to buy the food. Appalled by the lack of any real and genuine connection between poor people and the earth that supplied their daily bread, he founded a community garden on site from which food could be harvested directly for the Capuchin Soup Kitchen. Out of that first garden has emerged the Earthworks Urban Farm. Certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (no herbicides or pesticides), the farm consists of an acre and several smaller plots given by local landholders to Earthworks volunteers to use, provided the harvest goes to neighborhood residents and for consumption in the soup kitchen dining rooms. Quietly and subtly, the urban farm is reforming the city and remodelling how people live together -- with each other, and with the earth. It's a bit like the occupation movement, really, with the urban farm taking an acre here, a plot there, taking down fences, walls, and other secure barriers, reclaiming (and consecrating) a common space in the name of communitarian virtues. Food is the common denominator, but more fundamental than the food itself is love.

The gravity pull of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen is irresistible. Everybody supports it with their finest gifts, no matter how big or small. Everybody, no matter what their station in Detroit, works together to ensure the continuing operation of all the service sites. For me, the main reason for this is that the Franciscan ethos of feeding body and soul has remained intact and compelling. Secondly, the kitchen is doing what the city, state, and federal government have failed to do, which is to keep covenant with the people. It weaves a strong social web; it seals a social compact in blood, sweat, and tears. The major economic and financial institutions of Detroit support the kitchen; yes, the powers and principalities of our time bow before this humble Capuchin institution. (It makes me wonder what the Capuchins, with their good relationship with big business, can do to push the envelope with them, to goad them to subordinate their power to the power of the people and let justice, not only charity, roll down like waters.) The kitchen is pervaded by a positive spirit; and its unanimous regard, not only by the people of Detroit but also from admirers beyond the city limits, is a call to our conscience to do more.

Eighty-two years after the Great Depression descended, and nearly four years into the Great Recession, the spirit of mercy alive in Venerable Solanus Casey is alive at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

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