The first time St. John’s Episcopal Church opened to serve free meals on site, only one man showed up.
“It was embarrassing for him because people were coming one at a time and what they usually did back then was give them a little chip and send them to Quarrier Diner and they had breakfast and we paid the bill, ”said retired Reverend Jim Lewis, then incoming pastor to St. John’s, who sat down with the man and joined him for lunch, a bowl of soup and a butter sandwich. peanut.
“He sat there with me like, ‘I wasn’t expecting that. He’s going to preach to me now, ”Lewis recalled with a wry smile.
The church staff, the sacristy, and ultimately the parishioners all agreed that there was something better they could do than hand out tokens. They collected a bulk of food to start the project and Lewis became the founder of the Manna Meal soup kitchen. Word quickly spread and today – 45 years after that first shared breakfast – Manna Meal serves two meals a day, every day, over 10,000 meals a month.
Over a hot lunch a few days ago, George Cardin, 65, described his former life in a neutral tone: he had had a wife and a family, a career as an engineer and a job with a mass salary to meet. After a massive heart attack and other life changes – “Things happen,” he said – he started coming to Manna Meal, helping where he could.
“At times when I had no money, I didn’t have two cents to rub, Manna Meal was there for me,” he said.
Across from him, Michael Layne, 67, said he has a business administration degree, decades of professional experience and a long list of creative credits, but now tries to survive on security. social.
“I like the beef and the noodles best,” he said. “And the company.”
Nearby, Robert Sheets, 70, a Charleston city councilor who suffered a stroke several years ago, said it was difficult for him to cook his own meals now.
“Manna Meal has been a godsend for me,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure what he would do – how he could make ends meet – without it.
“My income is less than my expenses,” Sheets said.
He also said that the public’s perceptions of typical Manna Meal customers are not entirely accurate. There are some that are on the streets, he said, but many others are just trying to balance a meager budget.
A hidden benefit of the meal service, Layne said, is that it does more than nourish the bodies. He also nourishes souls, in a way.
“It’s part of my social connection,” Sheets said. “I miss it when I can’t come here. It is much better than eating alone.
“The rule was that anyone entering this church could have a meal here. It could have been a parishioner. They could have been off the street. We didn’t ask them any questions about where they came from, ”Lewis said.
“We also made the decision – and it puzzled some of the other churches – not to pray,” he said.
Those in need, he said, had been “religated to death” in order to obtain a meal. They needed to be treated more like welcome guests.
“Every Sunday people came to church and to the communion service, I put a piece of bread in their hands and a cup of wine. I’m not asking any of them if they did anything wrong during the week, if they stole money from someone. They reach out, they get a piece of bread. I’m not asking any of them if they’re worth it.
“And that translates to me in what Jesus did, because he fed 5,000 people. Did he interview all of these people? No, that’s what a meal is. You come to my house to eat, I will feed you. I’m not going to ask you what kind of life you live, ”he said.
Lewis was new to town, with orders to open the church to the community.
Working with people like Judy Teel, Manna Meal’s first executive director, and Bob Rodecker, who was very early chairman of the Manna Meal board, and other staff he described as “exceptional. Just feeding hungry people seemed so basic, so simple.
In the wake of the explosive and violent textbook wars, at the height of protests against conscription and our country’s involvement in Vietnam, with the flourishing women’s liberation movement and psychiatric institutions releasing patients with nowhere to go, nothing, it seemed, was simple.
“It was a perfect storm here in the early 1970s. The anti-registration committee for the project met here, and the Vietnam vets had their first meeting here, just across the hall. … That was all the women’s liberation stuff. Everything was coming off, ”Lewis said.
In this context, he added, “Manna Meal was one of the most controversial things.”
Part of the objection was racial – some of the people who needed help were black at a time when school desegregation and civil rights protests were just a not-so-distant memory. Part of it was the mental illness involved. Part of it was economic, a sense of resentment over what appeared to be endless handouts.
“Some of the businessmen here were really angry,” Lewis said. “What they didn’t realize is that these people are in the neighborhood. Whether you know it or not. They sleep in your car. They sleep in your doors.
A longtime friend, who was in the sacristy, was among those who objected – especially after one of the needy diners came to church and sat down in front of the man.
“And my friend said, ‘Jim, I can’t take it. He smells so bad. I want to tell him to go take a shower. I said, ‘Just be patient.’ “
It turned out that people who needed food often had a long list of other needs. Some needed a place to shower or sleep. Some needed clothing, employment assistance, health care. The church could not meet all of these needs. But over time, the energy of providing food has proven to be a catalyst for other types of aid programs.
A small, doomed building in the church parking lot has instead become the first Covenant House. A trip to the hospital resulted in a weekly clinic for diners with medical problems.
“And Health Right was born from that little seed,” Lewis said.
By 2019, Manna Meal had grown so much that it served over 92,000 meals – breakfast and lunch, seven days a week, 365 days a year, including holidays.
Those numbers jumped 44% to 139,000 in 2020, and the service is on track to serve more than 164,000 meals in 2021, a jump of 18%, according to figures provided by current executive director Amy Wolfe.
Not only that, Wolfe said, but the makeup of those numbers has changed: Nowadays there are more people who have jobs but still can’t make ends meet.
“Before the pandemic, about 10% of our population worked on low income,” she said. “Now, 30 to 35% of working poor. “
“A lady called the other day and said she had three young children, and just the tension in her voice, it was heartbreaking,” Wolfe said.
“We see so many people who have never had to use our services before. “
Needs are up, donations are down and it’s worse at the end of each month, she said. “It’s like any of us that, you know, things get complicated.”
Many customers were already struggling to “step by step” before the pandemic, Wolfe said.
“Almost an unidentified expense arises, and they were in big trouble just when it all came to a halt.”
People working in service industries were particularly vulnerable, she said.
“We see a lot of waiters and cooks coming in in the morning and having breakfast on the way out. And we don’t see that much lunch. … I have three clients who work while staying at the shelter, trying to get back on their feet.
“We continue to see lots and lots of new faces that people probably wouldn’t think fit our traditional mold,” she said.
And yet there is a growing sense of fatigue from public empathy. Otherwise, compassionate people can frustration point to all the companies struggling to find employees, the increasingly visible homeless population, the ongoing opioid epidemic, and untreated mental illnesses. And some of them wonder aloud if there are personal choices at the root of this whole struggle.
For those at the heart of the Manna Meal mission, none of this matters.
“Me personally, it’s not a political issue. It is not a socio-economic problem. It is not a matter of judgment. It’s basic humanity, ”Wolfe said.
“When did we become a society where it was so easy to sit down and judge people? You know, don’t people who make mistakes deserve a second chance? ” she asked.
“It’s not my call. My call is to make sure that the minute they walk through that door, they are treated with dignity and respect. And they are fed.
As for the questions of whether some of those who show up for a meal are simply enjoying all the documents, Jim Lewis is not the least bit worried.
In fact, he assumes that it happens a certain percentage of the time.
“If I was on the street, I might scratch a bit. And we hear, ‘This class took our money. They receive health care and food. They rip us off. It seems to me that we had the 5,000 feed as a good example, ”said the founder.
“In the Bible it says – and I’m not a literalist, but there are some things that come to mind. And I take some of these things at face value: “The greatest of these is love. I take this literally.
Everything else is just a distraction, he said.
Ultimately, 45 years after Manna Meal’s mission began, its founder said, it really is that simple.