By Breanna Mekuly
Last week I served at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen in Erie, PA. The next day, Sr. Mary who runs the kitchen asked me how my experience was. I hesitated before telling her the truth; I didn’t like it and actually, I don’t like soup kitchens in general.
All I did was serve fruit on the line this time. In the midst of asking guests if they would like what I’m serving and then scooping canned fruit onto plates with as much dignity as possible, I overheard quite a few conversations.
For example, one woman begged a server to help her carry her plate. She had just suffered a miscarriage, she said, and by the looks of her, it must have been recent. She appeared so weak and pale in the face, like all of her energy was drained. Regardless of how strong she was at the time she still needed to eat; and I was impressed at her ability to get herself to the kitchen to get a meal.
Another woman who appeared much younger than me (and I’m 26) came up asking for seconds. She mentioned she was pregnant so I took that as an invitation to engage in conversation. I asked when she was due and if this will be her first child. She said this will be her second but her first was stillborn. And she told me this in the same peppy way she asked for more food, like it were normal and not much more than just something that happened. After she left with her food, I wanted to go in the back of the kitchen, sit on the floor in a corner and cry. It wasn’t her peppy response that made me sad; everyone deals with pain in different ways. It was the realization that within less than two hours I had met two women who suffered through unsuccessful pregnancies and found themselves in a soup kitchen to provide for that day’s meal.
My thoughts immediately jumped back to my time as a graduate student when I often followed the doctors and nurses on their rounds in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). As a non-medical student, the doctors or other students would often explain to me in layman’s detail about the conditions of the babies. What I learned is that not all, but too many of the babies spending their first days, weeks or months in the NICU were suffering from symptoms linked to inadequate prenatal care. The ethics folks, with whom I was working, would later explain to me that many of the mothers of these tiny infants came from poor or impoverished families in which prenatal care was not a financial priority.
Women in poverty are suffering with the consequences of inadequate educational and health care systems that fail them in so many ways. We need better education about learning our own bodies, specifically as it relates to sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, birth, and parenting. And we need way better health care that provides every woman with prenatal care no matter who they are and how much or little they can pay.
This inequality of privilege is due to the realities of human life and, accordingly, the corruption and brokenness of our institutional systems as too many fail to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. Soup kitchens are places in which the reality of humanity is displayed more than anywhere else I have ever seen.
I understand the necessity of soup kitchens. They serve all sorts of people. The humans who arrive (to eat and to serve) in different ways exemplify struggles of mental illness, addictions, homelessness, poverty, loneliness, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, trafficking, prostitution, the inadequate health care system, lack of adequate education, lack of parent involvement, lack of positive parenting, and more. These realities take all different forms; some of the humans are the perpetrators, some are the victims, and some are just trapped in systems that don’t support their development into becoming a full human being.
This is exactly the reason why I don’t like working in soup kitchens. Because when I’m there, I can’t shield my eyes from the poverty or inequality or injustice that people struggle with on a daily basis. Nor can I ignore my own privilege of health, financial stability and community I too often take for granted. When I’m there, scooping fruit from a can onto someone’s plate with as much dignity as possible, I am forced to face the reality that humanity is broken and our systems (which ought to be healing our wounds) are corrupt. I am forced to recognize my own responsibility in doing something to stop this corruption, to heal the brokenness.
I am forced to consider what my options are for becoming involved in working toward wholeness and justice. And I am forced to question the beliefs I profess: that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of a Loving Creator and therefore deserve their innate dignity and the ability to flourish into their fullest selves. Do I really believe this? If so, why am I not working in the soup kitchen each day? Why am I not standing up to the corrupt systems, raising my voice, and begging for the dignity of all? Sister Joan Chittister says that we don’t need to try to save the world—because we can’t—rather, we all need to do what we can where we are in order to make a difference. I suppose, then, I need to move beyond my dislike for soup kitchens—for the reality of humanity that it throws in my face—in order to be a part of the change for the better, in order to act in accordance with the beliefs I profess.
Breanna Mekuly is currently interning for Sister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. Before working with Sister Joan, Breanna graduated in 2014 from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a masters in theological studies and an emphasis in biomedical ethics. She then worked as a university minister at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI. Later this summer, Mekuly will be moving to Indiana to live, pray and work with a group of sisters who raise chickens, bees and alpacas on an organic farm.