This week’s eNewsletter Feature
was written by Jim Teague,
First Pres director of communications.

Dear Friends,

The span of 40 years has particular spiritual significance in the Bible. When the Israelites let fear guide them rather than trusting that God would give them the land he promised, they are made to wander in the desert for 40 years (Exodus 16:35). When Israel asked for a king, Saul reigned for 40 years (Acts 13:21), David reigned for 40 years (1 Kings 2:11), and Solomon reigned for 40 years (1 Kings 11:42).

In Old Testament Jewish culture, 40 years was considered the duration of a generation. So, for something to last 40 years, that meant an entire generation experienced it.

This year, we have a significant 40-years-in-the-making celebration of our own, as we look back on a generation of service by Souper Saturday, our First Pres soup kitchen.

At our Sunday worship service this week, we will give thanks and praise to God for his leading of this amazing effort. Souper Saturday serves the local homeless community by providing meals in person each week at 11:30 a.m. to dozens of guests, as well as 60 packed lunches each week for those who are living at the Margarita Inn.

Founded by Helen Paynter, Souper Saturday first opened its doors on May 21, 1983. Helen brought the idea to Rev. Dave Handley after she had served in a soup kitchen at a different church and saw how great the need was, how effective the ministry could be. Since its founding, Souper Saturday has undergone a variety of changes, having moved from the church basement to the 2nd floor dining room, and currently — in the age of COVID — gathering outside in the courtyard, and its history represents the contributions of countless volunteers, lay leaders, and church staff.

Kris Economos has been a volunteer at the Soup Kitchen for more than 27 years and Barb Spencer has served for 15 years.  In 2012, they took over as co-managers of the ministry. It is truly a labor of love.

“We probably get more out of it than our guests,” Barb said last week.  “Seriously. It has really been amazing to be a part of it all.”

There are guests who have come regularly for years and who have shared their needs and struggles with the volunteers, who each play a different role in making sure the meals are made on Fridays and handed out and delivered on Saturdays. The logistics of making sure it all comes together each week can be somewhat daunting.

On Tuesdays, food is delivered from the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Depending on what is delivered, a menu is created and then the food is prepared on Fridays. The Bread Ministry of the church men’s group delivers day-old “leftovers” from the Wilmette Panera every Friday morning. There is, of course, always soup, and usually a sandwich, some kind of bread, and other side dishes.

“I can tell you, it never would have lasted 40 years without the support of the church,” Kris said. “Pastor Hylton was incredibly supportive throughout his time here. He always made sure to check in and make sure we had what we needed.” Kris noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had real potential to disrupt this vital source of food and care for the homeless community.

At the time of the initial lockdown in March 2020, First Pres had an interim building manager, FPCE member Don Wilkins. Management of long-time church routines was suddenly not so “routine.” There were lots of questions about how we could continue providing the meals while making it safe for the guests and volunteers alike.

“Before the pandemic, we served meals up in the dining room on trays. We made a few to-go bags for guests who arrived late, but everything was done upstairs,” Kris said.

“Caryl Weinberg (director of missions at FPCE) really made sure we kept going throughout the pandemic. She made sure we could get into the building” even though it was closed and all of the staff were working from home.

First Pres is one of eight houses of worship currently serving meals throughout the week to anyone who shows up. In addition, FPCE volunteers give each Saturday guest a to-go bag provided by St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.

Kris said she originally signed up to help with the soup kitchen as a result of a ministry fair in Roy Hall.

“It was something I felt I should do. It quickly became something I want to do.”

Barb had a similar experience, joining because she had the time.

“Now it is something I love doing,” Barb said.

While some of the volunteers spend most of their time in the kitchen, others interact with our guests each Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

Some of the relationships formed around Souper Saturday have great meaning for guests and volunteers alike. “Steve (Todd) was like a father figure to many of the men who come here,” Barb said. “And Dennis (Boothe) is now a sounding board for many of them.”

Asked if there is a need for more volunteers, both said new folks are always welcome, but their real need is for someone to come help receive the food delivery each Tuesday between 9:30 and 11 a.m. There are folks to help move the food, but having someone who could be there consistently to track what comes in and help organize it would be especially helpful.

The inception of Souper Saturday and its relationship with Connections for the Homeless has resulted in a host of other outreach opportunities at First Pres, including the church building’s participation as a winter warming center and overnight shelter each year.

So, 40 years of a ministry to serve “the least of these” continues forward. With God’s amazing Grace and loving kindness, we look forward to having “Christ among us” for many more decades to come.

Come join us Sunday as we celebrate this wonderful anniversary… and share in Holy Communion together at 9:30 a.m. in the Sanctuary.

Peace be with you!

Jim Teague
Communications Director

P.S. – In January, Souper Saturday featured prominently in an article about the local soup kitchens in The Evanstonian, which you can read here.