BY AMAYAH SPENCE
A meal for anyone hungry for food or companionship, no questions asked.
That is the mission statement of Soup Angels, the soup kitchen that Katie Berry co-founded with Kathie Rife. It is this soup kitchen and its journey that Katie Berry says led to her enlightenment. Here is her story.
The first soup kitchen that Berry co-founded, with Gary Hecht, is called Sunday Supper, which is located in Living Christ Church every Sunday evening. Before she began work on her first soup kitchen, Berry began with a year of prayer, which she believes was paramount to her process of founding soup kitchens. The goal of Sunday Supper, even since its early days in 2005, is to provide a place where hungry people can go every Sunday, not to feel like they are going to a soup kitchen, but instead to feel like they are having Sunday dinner with family or “going to Grandma’s house.”
The next soup kitchen that Berry co-founded is called Soup Angels, which is in the First Reformed Church of Nyack.
Between its opening in 2007 and today, Soup Angels has come a long way. In 2007, Soup Angels served soup and sandwiches one day a week. Now, Soup Angels serves dinner every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday with between 80 and 100 guests at each meal.
The quick expansion of Soup Angels meant a big need for both money and volunteers. In terms of money, Soup Angels is completely financially independent from the town of Nyack and does not rely on food banks, so its only source of income is donations. Berry also found that, “We [Nyack] have no shortage of volunteers.” Word spread quickly about the soup kitchen and plenty of people, young and old, agreed to volunteer.
Soup Angels and Sunday Supper both have similar goals: to serve people who are hungry and make them feel loved and at home – without asking any questions. However, the two soup kitchens have different models because Soup Angels is a large entity while Sunday Supper is smaller. Soup Angels serves about six times as many guests per week as Soup Angels does.
Berry explains that the model she helped create for Sunday Supper is a simple one that can be replicated anywhere. In this model the soup kitchen is based in a church, because churches typically have all the space requirements a soup kitchen needs, and starts out with “seed money” of around $1,000 which can be earned by fundraising. The seed money is used to buy essentials such as vegetable oil, ketchup, salt, and pepper to stock the pantry. Then, a team of volunteers is assembled and a team captain is designated. The team captain is responsible for defining a meal and assigning the tasks of cooking, serving, and shopping for the meal. Volunteers can cook the meal in the church and use items from the pantry. Team members then split the cost of the meal. This model ensures that after the initial seed money, there is no need for any further fundraising.
Businesses in the community often help out by donating their services. For example, Nyack Gourmet donates bread, Patisserie Didier Dumas donates desserts, and Tappan Zee Florist donates table flowers. The Sunday Supper model is based on shared responsibility and reliable volunteers, but Berry attests that people who volunteer “Want to do it… they’re mostly people who are engaged, they love it, they want it to be the best, so they bring their best. So it works!”
In the process of co-founding these soup kitchens, Berry has not only been able to reaffirm her belief that “God is good,” but she has also learned just how generous and giving people can be. Berry says, “There is this untapped wealth of people… who are delighted to help.” Beyond that, she has learned that giving and volunteering isn’t a one-way street, it can be filling to the person who is consuming the meal but also fulfilling to both the guest and the volunteer.
“It’s not just feeding the belly it really is feeding the soul. But everyone gets fed… the person who’s serving it gets fed, the person who’s eating it gets fed, the person who prepared it gets fed. There’s like all these layers of opportunity for people to get blessed.”
After Katie Berry’s many years of activism, she has identified a problem, a solution, and also advice for people looking to make change.
Berry says that part of the problem is, “Knowing where the need is. People feeling safe enough to say what their needs are, because people are willing to help.” She says working on these soup kitchens, “Enlightened me. I didn’t know that it would be such a floodgate opening [of people to be served and volunteers who would help out].” She learned just how ready people are to help.
Her answer to this problem is “community” and “Crossing the barriers: financial, racial, language, ethnic.” Berry explains, “For people who have very little, there’s nothing like being looked in the eye and told: I’m glad you’re here, would you like more? Just communicating with someone who is invisible.” She also says, “It doesn’t matter if you sing in Swahili and I sing in French.”
Finally, her advice to others, after her first and foremost advice to start out with prayer, is, “If you have a burning vision don’t let go of it… but don’t be rigid in your expectation. Let it define itself as you go. Trust the vision of other people. And make sure it’s not about you… ‘It’s about my vision and my goal and my name’ — what happens then is that you stop listening… your openness starts to shut down.”
Perhaps the biggest insight she gained is that, “We all want the same things: we want to be safe, we want to be loved, we want our little share of the pie. That’s just basic normal human desire… we want to feel like we’re seen, like we have a voice, we want to be respected. The closer we get to that individually, the more it overflows to the community.”