Over the past six years Martin Johnson can relay stories of homeless men and women who “made it” off the streets.
As the supervisor of the longest continuing soup kitchen in the U.S., St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen, Martin refers to one man, Tony, once a regular visitor to the Monday through Saturday morning meal line near St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, as one of many success stories.
“I saw Tony every morning for two years. I could tell he had a drinking problem and I also knew he had ambition to make it back off the street,” Martin recalled.
The last time he saw Tony, Martin told him, “I better not see you back here (at the Kitchen).”
He hasn’t, though Martin has kept up with Tony’s progress through word of mouth.
St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen was started by Franciscan Brothers in the rear of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in 1870 - a time where such establishing such provisions for the hungry spread from England.
Every morning but Sunday, starting at 6:30, 200-300 meals are served beginning with coffee and pastries, then cups of homemade pasta, meat and vegetable soup, peanut butter sandwiches, grapefruit juice and snacks like apples or chips mid-morning. Thousands of volunteers have helped serve at St. Mary’s; it limits the number at seven on any one day.
St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen serves over 4,000 meals - including snacks - every month, and since 2014 over 100,000 meals. In September, it was presented the 2016 Mid-South Food Bank Agency of the Year Award where the Kitchen orders most of its food.
Outside the Kitchen it’s filled with greetings, smiles and first-name conversations among clients eating on picnic tables or while resting up against the vintage brick building.
“This is a safe place for a lot of people who can eat without worry and to socialize,” Martin said.
Upstairs in the church’s kitchen and above the sinks and ovens there are photographs and paintings – gestures of gratitude for the kitchen, with some presented as gifts from those it has served.
One, points out Ron Bezon, longstanding supervisor of the Kitchen, was from a homeless visitor who declared, “Coming to the Soup Kitchen was like coming to paradise.”
Bezon has a response to some critics he’s heard over the years who refer to the Kitchen as just an “enabler” for people to continue living on the streets.
“I say that on the coldest day in winter when it’s seventeen below zero and there are 150 lined up before it’s opened … if that’s enabling, something’s wrong.”