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The Only Requirement is Hunger

Photography by Jadrian Klinger

It’s midweek in Allentown, and the basement of St. Paul’s on 8th and Walnut Streets fills with people around noon. It’s lunchtime, and the fragrance of a hot meal hangs in the air. Today’s menu features hot slices of ham, buttered noodles, peas and cupcakes for dessert. A stream of soft chatter trickles through the crowd as a line forms between the long cafeteria-style tables. The din ceases as a brief prayer is offered to the hungry assemblage, even the clatter of the kitchen quiets.

A collective “amen” follows.

Then, from somewhere near the kitchen, a single voice barks, “Kids first.” 

This same scene occurs three times a week, every week, all year long. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, the soup kitchen at St. Paul’s provides a midday meal for all who arrive. They come from all sorts of backgrounds for a free lunch – young, old, homeless or just in-need. IDs are not checked, questions are not asked, judgments are not made. It’s simple; if you show up, you eat.

The soup kitchen is made possible through the coordination of the Lehigh County Conference of Churches. The food comes from a variety of donators – Wegmans, GIANT, Bottom Dollar Food, Second Harvest, local orchards and farms as well as state and federal grants.

The soup kitchen also relies on a cadre of regular and rotating volunteers to prepare and serve the lunches. But perhaps the most integral cog in the wheel that drives the soup kitchen – though he probably wouldn’t accept this kind of credit – is Charles Brannon, soup kitchen coordinator for the past decade.

His job description is not complicated.

In addition to working hard so that the soup kitchen can operate without pause, Brannon also offers an understanding ear to those who want to talk.

“I coordinate the volunteers,” he explains. “I’ll do the menu, I will cook and do whatever is needed.” The 64-year-old will also venture out into the community to canvass for donations. Essentially, his role is to make sure lunch exists three days a week for those who show up at the soup kitchen, no matter what. Even a fire in 2004, which caused the soup kitchen to move from St. James AME Zion Church on West Union Street in Allentown to its current home at St. Paul’s, did not cause a missed day.

Brannon recounts the origins and purpose of the soup kitchen.

“Back in the early 1980s, the economy was similar to the way it is now, and the social agencies and the conferencing churches decided that since there were so many people that were out of work, they would furnish them with a meal to help them out,” he says.

“They were going to do this only temporarily, but that was almost 30 years ago. And it hasn’t shut down since. We provide a nutritional lunch for those individuals who are a little less fortunate than we are. The only requirement to eat is to be hungry. Whatever reason brings you here is a good enough reason for me because it brought you here. It was good enough for you, so it’s good enough for me. No one is turned away.”

In addition to working hard so that the soup kitchen can operate without pause, Brannon also offers an understanding ear to those who want to talk. At times, that human interaction means just as much as the respite from hunger.

“Sometimes I have to avoid chatting because I can get into a conversation that will have me there forever, but, yes, I always have time to talk,” he says. “If someone wants to talk about anything, we can talk about it. I also have ministers that come in from different congregations who will take the time to sit down and talk with individuals.”

Brannon’s dedication to doing his part to help those in need is rewarded daily.

“It may sound strange, but what I get out of it is that I know I made a difference,” he says. “At night, when I reflect back on my day and say my prayers, I don’t have to think it, I know in my heart that I made a difference in someone’s life. ...It feels like I’m doing something, I’m accomplishing something. I don’t look at the individuals as they’re less than, because all it takes is a tragedy in my life or your life, and you could be on the other side. I try to make everyone feel important – they matter, and that’s important to me.” 

The soup kitchen estimates that it serves more than 36,000 meals a year, with over 1,300 of those lunches going to children.

As important as Brannon’s role at the soup kitchen is, he’s the first to point out the necessity of volunteers. Karen Helfrich, a constant volunteer for the past four years,  arrives every Wednesday at around 9:30 a.m. and works through lunch. She explains her motivation for giving her time and effort to the soup kitchen.

“I think it’s great to volunteer because I feel you’re giving part of yourself to the community,” says the 62-year-old Zionsville resident. “I feel that – if you can, if you have a chance to – you should help somewhere, because every little bit helps. I feel good when I leave here because I’ve done something for someone else.”

The soup kitchen estimates that it serves more than 36,000 meals a year, with over 1,300 of those lunches going to children. The soup kitchen also offers weekly health screenings and referral services.

Pastor of St. Paul’s for the past 14 years, Richard Baumann, 66, conveys just how vital the soup kitchen is to so many in Allentown.

“In a real sense, this has become a very important service in the community, valued by lots of people and needed by lots of people,” he says.

“It has also helped us on some related things that are going on here. For example, people that are here will take advantage of the parish nurses that come every Wednesday. ...Something else we’ve done here – and I think you can see it with the soup kitchen, with the nurses and everyone else – is we’ve not only put a face on homelessness and poverty, but we’ve also gotten to know the names of these people. We treat them as people, not just simply give them food. In some sense, this is a place where people can get something to eat and are also treated with some degree of respect.”

Pastor Baumann continues, “The need is real and profound in the community. This is a problem that is not going to be easily resolved. I don’t know how some can say that the solution to this problem is to simply get these people jobs, so that they don’t have to come and eat. That’s kind of the mythology that I get. It’s not that easy. Even if some people do get jobs, some still need this. There are people who don’t have a living wage who need this so that they can live in an otherwise normal situation. This is an extremely important part of the service network. I think another way of saying it is we can be proud in Allentown that no one needs to go hungry. That’s maybe one thing that we don’t realize when people want to criticize what we are doing, and ask how many of these people deserve it. We don’t ask that question. No one will go hungry in Allentown, and if we can say that about our community, that’s something to be proud of.”

Every Christmas the soup kitchen hosts a holiday dinner, which serves some 350 people. “Last year, I think we went through about 16 turkeys with stuffing and veggies and apple pie,” details Brannon. “We also have Santa Claus, and we pass out gifts, toys and other stuff to the kids. To the adults, we give clothing and toiletries.”

When asked what message he’d like to convey to the people of the Lehigh Valley, Brannon talks about gratitude. “When you say you’re grateful, don’t just say it, show how grateful that you really are because all it takes is a tragedy to occur in your own life,” he says. “I don’t think people make a choice to be hungry. There’s something else going on in their lives, and I’m just glad that we are here.”

For more information on the soup kitchen or to find out how to volunteer or donate, call Brannon at (610) 462-4984 or Abby Goldfarb (coordinator for donations and volunteers) at (610) 439-8653, or visit lehighchurches.org.

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