With many surrounding organizations shutting its doors amid the coronavirus outbreak, St. John’s Soup Kitchen in Newark remains one of the few places still open.
“We’re hoping to stay open as long as we can without risking anyone’s health,” said Father Bismarck Chau, the pastor of St. John’s Parish.
However, it’s not business as usual.
“It’s been complicated trying to adjust and find a good way to better serve the meals,” Father Chau remarked.
Typically, the soup kitchen, which serves two meals Tuesdays through Saturdays at its Mulberry Street location, operates two dining rooms—one for men and the other for women and children. Both of those indoor facilities have been closed along with the medical clinic out of safety precautions. Hot meals are now being distributed in containers outside the building. Guests who line up are being asked to take their meals and go.
“We’re limiting exposure to people outdoors,” said Peter Dobbs, the director of the soup kitchen. “We bag everything and hand it off as they go. We’re trying to reduce the lines and crowds.”
“They don’t seem worried,” Father Chau said regarding the guests’ concerns about the disease. “They are very grateful that we are still serving.”
So far, food donations have continued to come in, thanks to help from the surrounding community.
“We’ve been blessed,” Father Chau stated. “A lot of restaurants gave us a lot of their vegetables and meat. We are good for now.”
Dobbs noted that much of the food came from establishments required to shut down their indoor seating per the state’s order and didn’t want their food to go to waste. Over time, he said he thinks those donations will start to diminish.
He also said the number of volunteers has decreased over concerns about COVID-19, but there are still people able to come and help. One of those people is Peter Striker.
“Where else are they going to get food?” he noted.
Striker, a retiree who used to work in the pharmaceutical business, has been volunteering at the soup kitchen for the past 6 or 7 years. He comes once a week on Thursdays, and picks up bread, cakes and donuts from an area ShopRite that serves as a donor of supplies. Striker also helps prepare coffee and serve meals. He said he does it as a way to “give something back to society.”
“About 90 to 95 percent of them are really appreciative,” he said. “It makes you feel really great. They’re really a great bunch of people.”
“They’ve always been appreciative,” added fellow volunteer Dave Strader. “That level of appreciation has only increased. It’s amazing how much of a positive response you can get just by offering a smile or telling someone, ‘Good morning,’ or showing them some respect. Having an opportunity to do that really brings back tremendous dividends.”
Strader has served as a volunteer for the past 20 years. A retired physician, he said he’s used to “interacting with people who might be contagious,” so he has yet to change his efforts. “The need is greater than ever,” he remarked. “All of us who volunteer there recognize the need for food, companionship and social services that our population is lacking. That hasn’t changed with the pandemic.”
Striker agreed that he isn’t concerned with continuing to volunteer during this time of great need. He explained that the organization is taking extra precautions to keep staff and volunteers safe. “I haven’t worried about it too much. Everyone is wearing gloves. Everyone is wearing a mask,” he said.
“We don’t require anyone to come. It’s their choice,” Dobbs stated. “We have gloves and masks. We’re doing our best, keeping it clean and sanitized.”
The soup kitchen also recently received a boost from the City of Newark’s Department of Health and Community Wellness in the form of several dozen masks.
“I am thankful (to them) for considering our services at St. John’s Soup Kitchen essential to our community and supplying us with masks as protective measures for our staff and volunteers,” Father Chau said. He added that he’s also grateful for the commitment of all of the volunteers.
“I’m really thankful for the volunteers that would like to be there and can’t. I’m glad they’re taking precaution. I’m happy for those who take the risk. There’s a sense of solidarity in the concerns from the volunteers. It’s been really amazing,” he said.
If you would like to donate to St. John’s Soup Kitchen, visit www.njsk.org.