It is supposed to be cold Thursday – about 12 degrees cold. But it’ll be warm inside the Thursdays-only Bethel United Methodist Church soup kitchen, like it has been for the past 25 years.
Homemade soup. Homemade pimento cheese sandwiches. Homemade cakes and cobblers. Homemade cornbread.
Just don’t bother looking for any prices on the menu.
“We have this tradition here; people donate for their lunch,” said Mama Ruth, the volunteer who organizes and runs the place. Her name is Ruth Culp, but the people at this soup kitchen have called this retired schoolteacher and pimento cheese mixer Mama Ruth for so long, she is just everybody’s Mama.
Even this year, after back surgery put her in a body brace. No brace stops Mama Ruth.
“I just don’t move as fast, is all,” she said.
The soup kitchen is staffed by volunteers from this church who do any job they are asked to do.
Some cook and some wash dishes. Some make lemonade and sweet tea and some bake cakes. Some clean and serve and some sweep floors. Some make the grocery store runs to buy the items on sale that week, because these are thrifty women who have survived growing up modest or even poor of means and then raised families on budgets. Others deliver to the sick, the shut-in, the feeble.
All do it to help the church raise money for the poor.
The ladies who have baked a million cakes in lifetimes of being mothers and grannies and great-grandmothers bake more.
“We all try to help out and do what needs to get done,” is how Mary Etta Tinkler, a volunteer for 20 years, described it.
School bus driver Edwina Faulkenberry comes in between routes – before sunrise sometimes – to hand-make the pimento cheese sandwiches that Mama Ruth has whipped up using a special recipe. Faulkenberry prepares dozens and dozens, sliding each into a single sandwich bag in case the sandwich is to go.
Other volunteers make hundreds of ham sandwiches and turkey sandwiches, some bologna, some peanut butter and jelly. The variety changes week to week. There is always work to do and all do what must be done.
The men who volunteer are smart men – they do what they are told and not a thing more. Darryl Darbush helps keep the stoves running and doing anything else he can.
“You try and make a difference in the community, and this is our way,” Dornbush said.
The recipes for the potato soup and the vegetable soup are tacked on the walls over the stoves where the soups are simmered in stockpots so large that volunteer Parker Carter has to use a boat oar to stir it all.
Money made by the soup kitchen pays for the utilities to keep the church kitchen running, mission work and other things for the needy and poor in Rock Hill and other places. This church, by no means the largest in Rock Hill, again this winter houses and operates a homeless shelter through the coldest months.
The soup kitchen’s official opening time is 11 a.m. In 25 years, though, the doors have never opened right then. Some early birds always push through, to drop fives and tens into the old pig’s feet jar that serves as the cash register. Lunch is, technically, one bowl of soup, one sandwich, one dessert, one drink. But if somebody comes in and he is broke and hungry, the volunteers feed the person for free, then tuck extra into pockets for later.
There are call-in orders from area businesses, then the lunch rush comes through. Some weeks, more than 500 people have come to eat. Many people have been coming for years, or even decades, on winter Thursdays.
All tables are communal. People sit with acquaintances or strangers. The homeless sit with men in ties. There is no social status at the Bethel soup kitchen.
From the front window where all place an order comes the refrain: “Gimme two vegetables and a potato!” The soup goes out. The money comes in. The poor get helped.
Then, after it is all over, the volunteers clean up and get ready to do it all over again next week.