Soul Food Ministries delivers food for the mind, body and spirit

September 22, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Tom McCall, left, and Carl Booker lead a prayer over 4-year-old Ja'Quieren Stewart, 4, Sept. 12 at a Soul Food event on the city's Market Lot.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

Not so long ago, Sweed Jones was living the American dream — a weekly paycheck, a happy marriage and a house in a middle-class neighborhood.

Now, the job is gone and so is his wife.

And home isn’t a white Cape Cod with blue shutters. It’s a tent in the woods.

Standing in a public parking lot on a hot Friday evening, the Hagerstown man tried to figure out the long slide that has landed him among the ranks of the homeless.

“It seems like a nightmare,” he said. “But I just can’t seem to wake up.”

For the past two years, Jones, 40, has watched his life skid out of control.

He became unemployed and began competing with high school students for minimum wage jobs.

“Employers seemed to prefer the teenagers,” he said.

With no substantial income, what little money he did have soon disappeared.

He lost his house, his marriage ended in divorce and he fell into a deep state of depression.

It wasn’t long before he was living in shelters and the hard floor of a garage.

Now, he lives outdoors in an area he won’t disclose. 

“I don’t want to be run off,” he said.

It’s a life he never imagined for himself. 

But he’s hopeful things will get better.

And he finds some of that hope in the parking lot behind Hagerstown City Market, where he occasionally joins in prayer and shares a meal with others who are experiencing similar hardships.

For many who form the long lines each Wednesday and Friday evening, those meals might be the only food they have eaten that day.

There are single, unemployed mothers, homeless veterans, people who are working but barely getting by. And then there are the children — some of whom live in shelters or tents.

During those two days, more than 200 people are fed.

It’s a world that many people don’t want to admit exists in their own backyard, said Carl Booker, “because the world looks different depending on where you’re standing.”

And if you’re not standing in line waiting for a free plate of food, it might be easier to ignore other people’s struggles.

“That’s something I just couldn’t do,” Booker shared.

For the past 15 years, the Hagerstown man has been feeding the less fortunate in his community.

It’s a project called Soul Food Ministries, which delivers food, clothing and compassion to those in need.

“It all started,” Booker explained, “when I married my wife Cindy. We lived on Antietam Street and were having a few friends over for a cookout. People started coming up to us and asking if they could get something to eat. I knew there had to be so many more people who were hungry. So I looked at my wife and said ‘We have to do something about this.’”

That Thanksgiving, Booker said the couple prepared turkey, ham and side dishes and fed people out of the trunk of their car.

Booker said his wife has since died, but he has continued his mission of helping those in need, never once thinking of giving it up.

Several years ago, Booker met Justin Repp, the pastor of Lifehouse Church West in Hagerstown’s West End, and the two men teamed up in an effort to make the program grow.

With the help of church volunteers, they became more visible, setting up in locations throughout the downtown area.

But Booker wanted something more permanent — a place where people knew they could go for a meal each week. In search of a solution, he approached Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II, who recommended the City Market Parking lot.

There, in a far corner where traffic steadily streams by, the group began serving food to local residents once a week. But the demand was so high, Booker said, it wasn’t long before organizers decided to add an extra day.

“If we could do this every day of the week, we would,” he added.  “We need to feed the hungry.”

Booker doesn’t consider it work. Instead, he’s only doing “what God expects all of us to do. Care for each other,” he said.

And his message has spread. Soul Food now has 16 area churches and community volunteers lending a helping hand.

“I didn’t think we would ever get to this level of involvement,” he admitted. “We started out feeding about 14 people. Now, we’re feeding several hundred. I feel blessed to have so many people willing to give their time to make this project a success.”

On this particular Friday evening, volunteers arrived before the 4:30 start time, setting up tables, a canopy, arranging the food and putting out an assortment of clothing and toiletry items. There also is a booth where people can receive free cell phones to aid in emergency situations.

“Every week, there are new faces here — both in the volunteers and the people who come for a meal,” Booker said.

Volunteers rotate responsibilities, including food preparation and serving the meals, which usually feature soup, sandwiches, hot dogs, vegetables and macaroni and cheese — “whatever they want to make,” he noted. 

Booker said they even have had an executive chef who volunteers and adds his expertise to the food that’s offered. 

Regardless of the weather, Booker said there will be a line of people waiting for a meal.

“We’ve had snow on the ground, thunderstorms, extreme heat, but that doesn’t stop hunger,” he said. “People are here no matter what.”

Booker said he is disabled so he devotes all of his time to helping those who feel they’ve been forgotten.

“I’m a constant prayer warrior,” he smiled. “I’m here to make sure that people are taken care of. And the kids are first. There always is a child waiting to eat.”

Booker said most of the people who come for a meal are good people who simply carry more burdens than others.

“Some are intoxicated,” he added. “But I still feed them. I still tell them I love them. Other places might turn those people away. I’m going to love on them and help them. That’s the way God has trained me.”

Booker said he sometimes spots people in the parking lot on days when meals are not being served. So he carries food in his car in case he sees someone who might be hungry.

“That’s who I am. That’s what I do,” he said.

Throughout the years, Booker has gotten to know a cross-section of the community. And they’ve gotten to know him.

“So many people honk and holler at me when they see me,” he said. “I thank God that they know what I stand for.”

Booker said he will continue his work “for as long as God can provide and help me out. I’ve been blessed to do his work. And I’ve been blessed to have so many people join me.”

Among the volunteers who regularly help out with Soul Food is Dale Cosden, executive pastor of Gateway Ministries in Williamsport.

“I heard about this program last fall,” Cosden said, “and I knew we needed to come on board.”

Cosden said he does a lot of outreach ministries “and was looking for other ways to become more involved in the community. This was a perfect fit. We currently have about 50 volunteers who help prepare soup, sandwiches and snacks, and also provide clothing and personal care items. We’re here every week, rain or shine.”

Cosden said the project can be an eye-opener for many people.

“Some choose not to be involved, others don’t want to believe that such poverty exists in their community,” he said. “We are blessed to have people who do care and are so willing to serve.”

A homeless man named Mark said he used to come every week to be fed. Now he comes to volunteer.

“I’m 59 years old,” he said. “And I’ve had bad luck. But I’ve made friends here, so I turned around and started helping.”

Vincent and Ann Herold of Hagerstown have been volunteering for about eight months and occasionally bring along their teenage son.

“Me and my wife came here and asked what we could do to give back to the neighborhood,” Vincent Herold said. “So we began fixing meals. It means a lot to us to interact with the people who are here. It’s a very rewarding experience.”

People interested in making donations, becoming a volunteer or seeking more information on Soul Food Ministries can contact Carl Booker at 240-313-6298.

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