Feeding on Faith: Soup kitchen stories
October 7, 2016
Feed My Sheep Soup Kitchen serves more than food.
"It's just a place where you get to be fed in the body, and you get to be fed in the soul," the Rev. Daniel Wathen said. "Sometimes you just need to bring that healing in, whichever it is. It's pretty cool."
Wathen, a board member of the local soup kitchen for the last two years, told the story of a man who came up to him Monday during lunch.
"One of the guys asked - he said, 'Can I talk to you for a minute?' So I went outside - it's always one of those moments you tend to put up your defense 'cause you never know what you're going to be asked," Wathen said. "But it was beautiful. He just had tears in his eyes and he just said, 'Can you say a blessing over me. I'm just really struggling.' And this is a guy who's taller than I am.
"I mean, it's not an odd request that people would ask. You just sometimes don't know what they're going to ask," Wathen said. "Ultimately, there's a real hunger, spiritual hunger."
The soup kitchen was started by Immanuel Baptist Church in the late 1980s as an outreach program. But it was too much for one church to handle and it turned into a collective effort - members of Christian churches in Havre started offering their time, and today it serves up to 20,000 meals a year.
It takes six board members, two paid employees and about 30 volunteers to make the soup kitchen go. It's open Monday through Saturday for lunch. Different pastors and laymen fill in every day's lunch hour to pray, read the Bible and to listen to and pray with people who ask.
Kathryn Tilleman has only been part of the board for two years. She was a welcomed sight because of her fundraising and grant-writing background. She passionately believes no one should have to experience hunger and talked about how prevalent hunger is in Havre, despite it not being as conspicuous as it is in larger cities.
"Somebody came up to me yesterday," Tilleman said. "'Oh, I've been trying to get you alone and kind of wanted to talk about some financial stuff.' It was at the school. She needed to talk about payment arrangements. ... Her husband, when it rains, he doesn't work.
"She said, 'I literally scrounged up change to be able to buy a loaf of bread.' And for me, my dad was laid off almost my entire childhood. And if it wasn't for government cheese and assistance, I don't know if we would've made it," she said. "And so, I got in my car and went to the store and I got her (a Gary & Leo's Fresh Foods) gift card and just gave it to her. I cannot see people hungry. That's the one thing - nobody should have to be hungry."
The soup kitchen is wholly dependent on the charity of others in their mission to keep people from going hungry. The United Way, NorthWestern Energy, Domino's Pizza, Pizza Hut and Gary & Leo's, among others, all pitch in to make sure people have a place to eat when they're hungry.
But every once in a while, despite all the contributors, there still isn't enough food.
Janet Tams has been the director, the cook, at the soup kitchen four years. Tams told a story about when the food did run out.
"We'd served like 80 people already. ... It was spring. We'd just had this influx of people," she said. "I was scraping the bottom of the pan and I yell out, 'I'm out of food!' I had a line clear to the door."
That's when the divine happened.
"And the door swings open, and there's a guy from one of the schools - 'Can you use some hot rice and chicken?' he says. We said yeah and we served it right out of the box," Tams said, before adding, "Whenever we need something, it's just like we have a direct line, I swear. God hears what we need and He's like, 'Here you go.'"
It happens "over and over," she said.
Jerry Williams has been the chairman of the board for 12 years, and he's had enough time to see his share of scraping-the-bottom situations.
"The other cooks come to me and said that we were out of meat, about five years ago," Williams said. "Anyhow, we were out of meat and there have been a couple of ranchers that had donated a half of beef to us. So I thought, 'Well, I'll call up one of them and see if they'll consider that.' So I called up this one lady: 'Have you considered donating some? We're just about out of meat.' And she says, 'We took a dry cow in this morning, didn't know what to do with it.' She says, 'It's half yours.'
"The timing was perfect that day. And I see this all the time. We're being guided by more than luck," he said, laughing, tilting his head upwards.
Connie Chapman is the treasurer for the soup kitchen and she gets to stress over money and bills. For her, an answered prayer came in the form of two of the people who were sitting at the table Tuesday.
"I was telling our board, 'Our money is dwindling.' We get a lot of our money from United Way and that pays our food, our rent. But it doesn't pay our employees," she said.
The soup kitchen pays Tams and another cook who prepares food on Saturday.
"We get people who donate monthly, but we weren't getting enough to pay our employees," Chapman continued. "Father Dan (Wathen) and Kathy (Tilleman) came about that time and started putting in the grants and we were able to make up the difference. And that was a concern and a prayer of ours."
Trina Crawford doesn't spend a lot of time at the soup kitchen. She's the director of the Havre Service Center Salvation Army. The Salvation Army owns the soup kitchen building. But Crawford refers a lot of people to the soup kitchen.
"I'm resource and referral first," she said.
Crawford is constantly working - her phone rings almost nonstop - on something that includes meeting someone's needs, such as helping someone obtain a box of food.
"For example, today - twice," Crawford said, talking about someone who had asked her for a box of food.
She said she didn't give them food, but told them where food would be available.
"'Go to the soup kitchen - good food, ask for sandwiches,'" she said, laughing. "So I refer all the time. And I'm serious, just today - two people. I don't know if they showed up."
Tams said she had seen two people she didn't recognize at the soup kitchen earlier in the day. That might have been them, she said.
The stories they told weren't all about what they had done for others. Sometimes it was the very people they were ministering to who turned around and blessed them.
"When I was asked to come in on Monday, which is a quasi-day off for me. I wasn't sure," Wathen said. "I asked the pastors, 'What do you do?' To come in and say 'You're the pastor for this day,' I don't know what that means, and I don't know what everybody else has been doing.
"So I just said, 'Well, I'll just read Scripture 'cause that's easiest.' I started in the book of Genesis and we got to the story of Joseph and the multi-colored coat that he was given," he said. "Two of the individuals that had been coming on a regular basis - they were following the story and they knew the Old Testament well.
"By the time we got to the last part of the story of Joseph, they said, 'We wanted to present you with something.' I actually still have it, but it's a little vest that they had made out of different patches. It was leather and multi-colored," he said.
"It was just kind of cool, too, you know, 'cause sometimes you don't know what's being heard or not and it was just neat they got that charged out of hearing Scripture," Wathen said, smiling.
They said that sometimes the things they see aren't easy to define. The emotions they elicit can be complex and confounding.
"It must've been shortly after I started, two summers ago," Wathen said. "In the summer, you end up with a lot of kids, but I remember just being by the door and there were these two kids that rode their bikes. It was a brother and a sister. The younger one was the brother - he must've been, I don't even know what age you start riding a bike, but he looked like he was 2 or 3. These two kids biked here on their own - there were no parents - because they knew it was a place for them to get food. It was amazing to see, and the sister could've only been 5 or 6. I mean, she was probably 6.
"You see these two little kids - they brought their own bikes here - and they walked in like they knew what to do, and they knew they could get food here. It was just one of those things. It was neat to see that kids know where they can go to get food," Wathen said. "But that one really touched me, because there was no adult with them."
"People always say, 'Oh, that's so sad,'" Tams said, looking at Wathen.
Tams doesn't see it that way, that it issad.
"And then I always say what (Wathen) said, 'Isn't it great that they know they can come here and they feel safe and they know they can get a hot meal here?"
"It was cool cause they felt safe coming, you know, cause I suppose that is one of the things that people think of soup kitchens, 'Oh, they're rough people,'" Wathen said. "But these two kids, they just walked in and they were very comfortable and fine."