Soup kitchen warms community’s soul

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October 29, 2014 - 12:00 AM

What began as a notion one year ago is scheduled to become a reality this Sunday when First Presbyterian Church of Iola hosts its inaugural Sunday Soups from 5 to 7 p.m.
The event — according to Eric Olson, who gave voice to the idea in a blog post back in July — is open to any individual or family that wants a free meal or a place to gather for company.
Inspired by his work with Circles of Allen County, an anti-poverty group, Olson began to silently pursue the idea of opening a local soup kitchen. It wasn’t until he started his blog many months later, though, that he finally gave expression to the details.
“OK,” his July 14 post begins, “I have had an idea…”
From this tentative first step a community of volunteers began to form.
Fewer than five months later Olson and a small group of organizers, among them the Rev. Jennifer Loeb, were welcoming a delivery of USDA Commodities to the church’s back door. From there, volunteers were arrayed to help pack the food into a brand-new industrial-sized freezer, itself a donation from a member of the community motivated to join Olson’s project.
And now, this Sunday, anyone in need of a meal will have their choice of chili or baked potato soup, small sides, desserts, beverages — and bread, which Olson, the son and grandson of Iowa bakers, has promised to make himself.
The speed at which the program has fulfilled its early goals and the eagerness with which so many volunteers have embraced it, only reinforces Olson’s deep optimism in the community. Sunday Soups will continue to request volunteers. According to Olson, though, interested groups have already begun approaching him: Scout troops, a local Methodist youth group, Rotary, Community National Bank, and more. “The community has embraced this as a way to say ‘We would like to serve.’”
The logistics of the program are modeled on a similar not-for-profit in Fort Scott, a place which, according to Olson, currently serves 150 to 200 meals per week.
Both Olson and Loeb were eager to secure the support of First Presbyterian’s board of directors before moving ahead. “We introduced it to the board gradually,” Loeb says. “They had a million questions and so we went through and addressed every single one of their issues. Then we asked them to take some time, and to pray about it.”
When the board returned a short time later it was to deliver a unanimous vote in support.
Loeb confesses that a few members of her congregation remain uneasy about hosting a soup kitchen in their church basement every week. “Because what does it mean if somebody is sitting next to me and I know that they were in jail last week? It can make people uncomfortable.” However, Loeb stresses, this is not the majority view. “Most people here are so glad that they have a chance to give back; in this case, to provide meals to people who may need them. There are not a lot of places for people who want to do some kind of service, and so people are just hungry for that. No pun intended.”
Despite its venue, organizers are careful to insist that the program makes no religious claims on those who attend.
“The church is only the setting,” Olson stresses. “The ministry is our ministry here. We’re not going to ask a single person if they believe in Christ. The important thing is: are they hungry, are they lonely, would they like a way to serve?”
Loeb agrees. “We have no agenda. We want to feed people and offer friendship and make it unconditional.”
By way of promotion, the group has handed out stickers and brochures; it had a booth at Farm-City Days; and it has a yellow banner planted in the lawn at Madison and Chestnut. But what Loeb and Olson both know is that if Soup Sundays is going to succeed it will be by word of mouth.
Olson is one of the few who can speak infectiously about soups. “Fort Scott doesn’t serve soups. We chose soups. It may be chili, it may be ham and bean, it may be chicken noodle — we’ll have different stuff.”
Last week Sunday Soups held a practice run for the congregation. A sheet was circulated asking attendees to list their favorite soups, and a chorus rose up to join Olson. “Broccoli and cheese, clam chowder, lentil, black bean, steak…”
Olson goes on chronicling the life of the project on his blog, “Coffee and Reflection,” where readers are invited to contribute their own favorites.
In the meantime Sunday Soups will continue making the radical suggestion that there be a place in town where when one person says “I’m hungry” another is there to say “I’ll feed you.”

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