By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 8, 2011
Aproned volunteers pile plates with the day’s menu of spicy chicken sausage, collard greens and creamed potatoes.
The “guests” of the Lourdes Lunch Ministry add to their crowded plates as they choose from a table heavy with breads and pastries before taking a seat. Servers walk around with steaming cups of coffee, water and lemonade.
Shutting the elementary school was heartbreaking for parishioners in 2001. It had been a mainstay in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, a school, opened in 1912, where black parents could send their children to receive a Catholic education when segregation then barred them from other Catholic and private schools.
When the school was still open, the lunch ministry started on the rectory porch in the early 1990s as people handed out sandwiches to the homeless. Now, the former cafeteria is buzzing with activity when its doors open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“It was a blessing in disguise. God closed one door and he opened another. The property is still fulfilling the mission of St. Katharine Drexel,” said Thayes Sturgis, the longtime coordinator of the ministry. The parish and school were started in part with the help of St. Katharine, the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who serve in African-American and Native American communities.
Jones showed up on a recent Thursday two hours before the doors opened to prepare the food, which comes from the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
“No, I don’t have a cookbook, of course not. I am not a chef. I am a cook. When you are a cook, you just cook what you have,” said Jones, who has on a puffy, blue chef’s hat.
“People said they liked my cooking. I hate cooking,” she said, with a slight smile across her face. But at the lunch ministry cooking for hundreds of people makes her happy.
Much of the food is purchased at the community food bank at a low cost. Volunteers also buy items from a food wholesaler and a local Publix supermarket donates the bread, pastries and other baked goods.
Jones said the operation works because of the dedicated volunteers.
“We never have to struggle for help. We always have good volunteers,” she said.
The program draws 30 to 40 people to make the food, serve it, organize the guests, and clean afterwards. Workers come from all walks of life. A Delta airline pilot is elbow deep in sudsy dishwater. A man, who said he lives at the “famous I-20 underpass,” does anything asked. A retired English professor delivers 1,000 pounds of food in his Prius. The man who covers the $40,000 cost of the ministry ties on an apron.
“There is hope. There is a way out of every situation,” he said.
But mostly he likes “seeing the smiles of the folks’ faces when they leave.”
Among the volunteers are people who once attended the school. Linda Jordan has assisted for five years. She graduated from the school in 1957. She has dreadlocks and is sipping black coffee from a mug as she slices bread.
“This is home. I’m blessed. God said, ‘Feed my people.’ I’m working to get into heaven. I have all the material things I need,” she said.
Sheryl Horton, class of 1971 at the school, is a lector and Eucharistic minister at the parish. She’s been volunteering for two years. She works a part-time job after being laid off, but the ministry is a priority.
“We have been struggling. I find money for gas to come here to volunteer,” she said.
Horton said growing up her family fell on rough times.
“I didn’t realize we were poor too. To see that we could have been in the same position (as the guests) encourages me to come,” she said.
A few years ago, the future of the program was in jeopardy. Its benefactors, Hampton and JoAnne Ward, were victims in an elaborate Ponzi scheme. They lost $1.9 million in 2007 that was supposed to be used as an endowment for the program. Hampton, who ran a successful janitorial and cleaning business, said he and his family believe in the place out of a “moral obligation to a community I have been successful in.” His seven grandchildren and three daughters have worked on the meal line.
“I’m the least important person here,” said Ward, who covers the costs of the ministry out of pocket and is working to build an endowment so it continues.
“These people are the most dedicated Christians. I have to work on my Christianity,” he said about the volunteers.
Later, the large group of volunteers, which includes students from St. John the Evangelist School, Hapeville, gather in a circle for prayer. Outside, the line of men wait.
Randy, a laborer who has fallen on hard times since the construction industry slowed, has eaten here for the past six years. He would only give his first name. He was one of nearly 350 people served that day. “This is one of the best meals around. There’s coffee when it’s cold,” he said.