Every Wednesday, from 11:00a to 1:30p, the Feeding Program opens its doors to whoever needs a meal. After a short devotion, the guests are seated and they dine on a home-cooked meal, and tablecloths, napkins, utensils adorning the long tables.
The Free Food initiative aka “Bridge Street Soup Kitchen” was created by The Reverend Dr. Barbara Austin Lucas for homeless men of the Sumner Avenue Armory, two blocks west of the church on Jefferson Ave. The men could come in, get food, clothing, encouragement and prayer.
“The first nine months of the Kitchen’s operation was funded by members of the Missionary Society and Bridge Street parishioners,” says Irene Evans, 88, currently in her 16th year as Chief Coordinator of the program, and who has been with the Soup Kitchen since its inception. “Since 1991, the program has been funded by HRA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (EFAP), United Way of NYC, FEMA and the Food Bank for New York City.”
In the early years, the Free Food program received several grants that allowed The Missionaries to purchase winter blankets for some of their clients and anyone else in need, and hundreds of nightgowns for women incarcerated at Rikers.
“On the Soup Kitchen’s first day of operation, twenty-five men were served homemade soup, sandwiches, fruit, cookies and punch. Each week the numbers increased until they reached approximately 225 persons.
The work of the Missionary Society is to meet the needs of the people in the community. Though clients are mostly from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Ms. Evans says, “People come from all over … even the Bronx to our program.”
And the city-wide impact can be understood. When this reporter arrived yesterday at 8:15am, the chefs, clothing handlers and support teams were vibrant and working. The tables were already set, and we were greeted with a warm drink.
“Our operation is run solely by volunteers, between 25 and 30 per week, many of whom have been with the program since its inception,” Ms. Evans told us.
Original members of the group included Bridge Street church icons: Lubertha Steele, Rosa Hite, Victoria Harris, Bernice Carroll, Vivian Bennett, Helen Chestnut, Mildred Cumberbatch, Ed Kirkland and his wife, Beverly, Spencer Burton, and Ms. Evans, Ms. Phyllis Johnson and Mr. Elker Smith who serve to this day.
The success of the program is registered in the success stories of several of those who were fed by Bridge Street AME Church, which is pastored by The Rev. David B. Cousin, Sr. Ms. Evans says, “One of the first men to come to us from the shelter was hired by Bridge Street member Dr. Edison O. Jackson, then President of Medgar Evers College, to work in maintenance at the school. “He was employed at Medgar Evers for about 20 years, and recently retired,” according to Ms. Evans.
“Another young man came out of the shelter, got rehabbed and was given a scholarship to attend seminary school. Now he’s a reverend.” Yet, another received a scholarship and went on to school.
The program hosts special holiday meals (Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter). Sometimes, it takes three days in advance to prepare. “It takes us three days to prepare turkeys, dressing, collard greens, for hundreds of people.
The current group of workers in the program comprise ushers, church members and missionaries, and some non-members. Ms. Evans, a 1989 retiree from the Port Authority of NY and NJ, works with chefs Carrie Barfield, Elizabeth Ferdinand, Juliette Thornhill and Helen Jefferson. She also is supported by custodians William “Lance” Millington and Patrick Lawrence, and volunteers, Earl Batts and Percy Weathers.
The Bridge Street Soup Kitchen will host a 25th anniversary celebration for its award-winning Free Food program on May 22, 2015. (Bernice Elizabeth Green)