By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 6, 2016
ATLANTA—Johanna Baldwin scooped the ladle deep into the generous pot of soup sitting in her car trunk, pulling up vegetables, pork and chicken. Waiting men and women cradled the cup of soup, accepting a bag of yellow rice and bread to go with it.
The parishioner of St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna, greeted people with a hug.
“Hand them a bag of food or water, it is transformative for them and you. What they appreciate most is the gift of our time. The fact we pay attention to them and look them in the eye,” said Baldwin, who is 54, one of the long-timers who spend their Saturdays in this northwest Atlanta corner of auto body shops, abandoned gas stations and boarded-up storefronts.
These ministers of mercy are a regular presence on Hollowell Parkway, delivering to women, men and families their daily bread. Faith-filled volunteers for the past five years have looked for people who are hungry in one of Atlanta’s most impoverished neighborhoods. The ministry is year round on every Saturday. The servers are undaunted by summer’s heat or the winter cold.
Pope Francis designated December 2015 through this November as the Year of Mercy. Believers are encouraged to be merciful, through prayer and practices of extending a hand to others. Even when the year closes, Catholics and members of other churches and faiths will continue to be here.
Joe Powell, who worships at Buckhead Church, said, “I’m doing well in my life. You do 40 hours a week at work, you should do at least four hours of community service.”
Guided by Matthew 25
Frank Madden, a member of St. Thomas the Apostle, was inspired to start the outreach after a fellow participant in a JustFaith class told him how her family would go to the poor in their village in India. JustFaith is a faith formation program focused on “expanding and promoting social ministry.” The idea wasn’t too unusual for Madden, who at one time was a volunteer soup maker for Atlanta’s Open Door Community before he started this ministry.
He learned of people living under the bridge where Hollowell Parkway goes over Interstate 285. That determined where the ministry would focus its effort.
“We use Matthew 25: 31-40 as a guide,” he said. The Gospel passage recounts how Jesus told people when they serve “the least of these” men, women and children on the margins of society, they serve him.
The work hasn’t veered from its original vision: Serve people with food. He hopes other small groups will take up the same mission. The bulk of the food is donated by volunteers, many from the Catholic parishes of St. Thomas the Apostle or St. Paul of the Cross, Atlanta, but also people of different faiths and churches, he said.
“They are my friends”
On Saturdays, the small convoy of cars makes three stops, driving past abandoned storefronts. Around this neighborhood, close to half of the people live below the poverty line. Some 69 percent of children under 18 live in poverty, according to the census.
Pauline Bullard-Moore is 70 and retired from the corporate world. Her hair is salt and pepper and there is a crucifix around her neck. She worships at St. Thomas the Apostle too. This warm Saturday, as the heat made her yellow shirt stick to her back, she eyed a pair of pants to see if they would fit the overweight man standing in front of her.
“I’ll make them work,” he said.
It is in the mid-80s and the humidity makes it uncomfortable. Children and adults alike suck on frozen flavored popsicles.
Bullard-Moore grew up watching parents share produce from their south Georgia family farm with neighbors. She became a Catholic as an adult. One of her introductions to the faith was serving at a soup kitchen. Said Bullard-Moore, “It’s not a struggle for me. It’s a commitment I made.”
It is unacceptable to her for people to go without food. She tries to persuade people she meets to take up feeding the hungry by donating money or making sandwiches. “Once people come out, it is so rewarding. Whatever ails me, I know I will feel better” by serving on Saturday, she said.
Bullard-Moore described helping a military veteran who lived under the bridge. After gaining his trust, she accompanied him to get military ID to check on his veteran benefits. He had no identification except for arrest record documents. With Bullard-Moore by his side and help from understanding government workers, his military record was found and he was able to access services. Today he lives in Virginia close to family, she said.
Folks served by the volunteers thank them. A woman said the food helps her stretch her food budget. One man said the group’s friendliness makes them fun.
“They are taking care of business. Even in the rain they come,” said Priscilla Cammon, as she carried the bag lunch away. “They are my friends.”
For one day, no worries about food
People get a day’s meal from the outreach. Inside a plastic grocery bag there are two sandwiches, fruit, chips, pastry and two boiled eggs. Folks also can get soup and reach into a large basket of bread donated by an Atlanta Bread Company store. The pastries are from Dough in the Box. The ingredients for the soup come from a Los Bravos Mexican restaurant.
Kiana Wright, 38, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, Atlanta, grew up in New Orleans where she was shaped by her experience at the Ursuline Academy, with its motto of “Serviam” (“I will serve”).
Said Wright, who works as a forensic psychologist, “It meets the needs of the people. It’s one day they don’t have to worry about eating. We have such a great relationship with the people we serve. Now, we’re like family.”
Some people seeking help arrive in cars, others walk from the neighborhood, like one teen. On her birthday, the girl and the bags of donated clothes she received went in Wright’s back seat as she drove the teen home.
Close to 70 people have been helped this Saturday. Baldwin finished the soup as the number of women and men dwindled. When the ladling was done, she insisted an ill woman walking with the aid of a cane let Baldwin drive her home.
For Baldwin, who works in the telecommunications industry, the ministry is “about treating people with dignity, no matter their station in life. I think this is a Mother Teresa misquote, but we do what we can with what we have. It takes so little to make someone smile.”
To learn more or volunteer, follow the Feed the Hungry Facebook group at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/565387216941763/.