A few weeks ago I visited a soup kitchen as part of my reporting for a story about Catholic Charities, the social agency of the Diocese of Allentown.
The story was mainly about the end of a couple of prominent agency programs, refugee resettlement and foster care, but I wanted readers to understand that Catholic Charities is still going about the business of helping people in many other areas of life: adoption, marriage and pregnancy counseling, elder care and so on.
So I stopped one Friday morning at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Chew Street in Allentown. It isn't a church anymore — it was closed during the big diocesan consolidation a few years ago — but it is still used for one of the essential works of the church, which is feeding the hungry.
People go to the Ecumenical Kitchen four days a week to get a square meal and a little company. The second part of that equation is very nearly as important as the first, since some of the clients are off-the-grid sorts — by circumstance or by design — who don't have a lot of human interaction otherwise.
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"This is like their community coffee shop," said Richard Scrak, who helps his mother, Milly, run the kitchen.
People call it a soup kitchen, but that's a bit of a misnomer. Clients get meat and vegetables for virtually every meal.
"Out of a year they get soup maybe four or five times," said Milly, the kitchen's generous heart.
The operation will be 30 years old next month. It began at the Casa Guadalupe social service center, moved a decade later to Trinity United Methodist Church on Turner Street and then, in November 2003, came to Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
The kitchen has served 40,000 meals each year for the last three years, which is perhaps not surprising given the state of the economy in that time.
People start waiting outside the church doors at least an hour before they open. That's how I met a young guy named Jayson Sanabria, who has come to depend on the kitchen to keep him going while he hunts for work.
"Jobs are really hard these days to be found and really hard to get," he said.
He was only 20. He sat on the steps outside the church next to a man twice his age, Allen Risavy, who seemed a little detached as he talked about his reliance on the kitchen.
I asked if he came for reasons beyond food.
"I like Milly," he said.
Everyone does. Clients and volunteers alike call her "Mom" (her late husband, Dick, was known as Pops during his years there) and she seemed eminently maternal as she paused from preparations to talk about her years among the needy.
The stories are touching, as you'd expect. Milly, who has been asked more than once to be godmother to someone's newborn, seemed to tear up a little remembering a nervous little girl who approached her wanting something more than food.
"She said, 'Could you give me a hug?' She was starving, for something to eat and some attention."
She recounted, too, how a sense of community had built up over the years. The kitchen has certain unwritten rules, and clients enforce them strictly. No one goes for seconds, for example, until everyone has had firsts.
If someone violates the rule, "they'll squeal on each other," Milly said, clearly pleased that honor flourishes among the hungry.
The Ecumenical Kitchen serves lunch from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. Fridays through Mondays at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 179 Chew St., Allentown.