To a hungry man, a piece of bread is the face of God.
– Mahatma Ghandi
Marcus Colasurdo is an accomplished poet and the founder of the Soul Kitchen, a community meals and clothing program (in Baltimore, MD and Hazleton, PA) that currently feeds 400 folks monthly and provides various other much-needed items to needy folks in those communities.
Jamie Longazel of Anthracite Unite sat down with Marcus to chat about the history, the politics, and the philosophy of this soulful endeavor.
Jamie Longazel: Can you start out by telling us briefly what the Soul Kitchen is and how it came into being?
Marcus Colasurdo: In the late 1980s, I ended up becoming homeless in San Francisco. Things were a little bleak. A little desperate. I was looking for the next meal. And I came across Glide Memorial Church on Taylor and Ellis Streets in San Francisco. They had free lunches and free dinners every day. I think they might’ve even had free breakfasts every day. I went in there on a regular basis for a while, and I always used to think: These people that saved my ass. If I get a chance, I’m going to give back.
JL: What was San Francisco like in the 1980s?
MC: There was a lot of people on the fucking streets. One of the things that happened with Reagan a few years before is he was experimenting in California with evicting people from mental hospitals, and just throwing them out onto the streets. Eventually that became a nationwide thing.
Point is, suddenly in the 1980s, San Francisco had a lot more homeless people. I mean a lot. But there was also a tremendous amount of leftist organizing in San Francisco. Food Not Bombs, Glide Memorial Church: a lot of these groups were trying to accommodate people – or at least to feed them – in response to this sudden disinstitutionalization. People thrown out of the hospitals and onto the streets because of budget cuts.
JL: Knowing what the Soul Kitchen is, I can certainly see the legacy of this political moment in the 1980s in your current approach. But go on, tell us more of the story of how it came into being.
MC: Yeah, that was the earthy, visceral origins of the Soul Kitchen. For a little more background, let me quickly tell the story of Gimme Shelter Productions, which I started in Baltimore in 1997. It was a loosely affiliated organization of artists and community activists. I started it in 1995 and when I decided to put the call out, I got an amazing response – everything from sculptors to dancers to painters to jazz musicians to rock-and-roll musicians to actors… you name it. We came together and over the course of the next 17 years we put on more than 250 benefit performances for community groups – homeless shelters, after school programs, literacy programs, community centers, more homeless shelters, more feeding programs. We did some literacy projects too – shows and workshops – inside some of the community centers and homeless shelters. There was also a mural project across Baltimore that some of our painters did with children who were experiencing homeless. One time we worked on this massive project with the teachers’ union to help replenish school supplies damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Poetry classes. Music classes. And a lot, a lot of shows – including a couple gigs in some prisons.
So we did a lot over 17 years and I’m very proud of it. One of the things I realized, though, was the word itself, the art itself, the music, the sculpture, the dance itself is not quite enough when the people you’re performing for or with are hungry. So it was always in my mind that the next step would be to actually feed folks. That’s when the Soul Kitchen came into being in Baltimore in 2010.
We’re now going about nine years in Baltimore. Once weekly, we feed anywhere from 250-300 people. Plus, we give out hygiene articles, clothing… love. And fellowship!
That’s so important to this whole project: It’s not about charity; it’s about justice. There’s a depth to this whole thing.
Less than 2 years after starting the Soul Kitchen in Baltimore I started one in Hazleton, and that one’s in about its eighth year now. We get about 150-200 people at a meal here. Delicious, nutritiousness, home cooked stuff. Not sandwiches. More like lasagna and antipasto. We give out clothing and hygiene articles here, too. And there’s food folks can take with them.
Both in Baltimore and Hazleton, one of the interesting things is that a significant amount of the workers started out by coming to eat; then, then stayed to help.
JL: Yeah, before we dive into Hazleton, I want to hear you say more about this line “it’s not charity; it’s justice.”
MC: Well, with people who came to eat and then stayed to help, you have folks coming in off of the street, hungry, and then getting this sense of wanting to pitch in. They’re wanting to break down and stack the heavy tables, that kind of thing. The other thing is, all the volunteers sit at the tables and have food with the folks who came in. Break bread with them. So there’s a sense of fellowship. There’s not a feeling of charity. There’s a feeling of this is needed. No one’s being condescending. No one’s screening people at the door.
We have a circle. Originally it was a prayer circle but now it’s a free speech circle. We do this before everyone sits down and eats. People in that circle tell their stories! About the police shooting down their cousin on Eastern Avenue or whatever. People tell their stories about getting cutbacks on their food stamps. Some of that, especially in Baltimore, has led to participation in the Soul Kitchen but also to political demonstrations – against police brutality and other things. So there is a sense of comradeship.
Pablo Neruda, a great poet, has a really wonderful poem, “The Great Tablecloth” about sitting down to eat with all those who haven’t eaten. And the last two lines of the poem are…
For now I ask no more
Than the justice of eating
And so that’s kind of the vibe of these places. Recognizing that eating is such an elementary, primitive need. Huey Newton and Abraham Maslow right here in the same room.
JL: Okay, let’s go to Hazleton. I think most people who read this blog and who live in this area are familiar with the troubling economic times we’re experiencing here. But I suspect even still a lot of people are going to underestimate just how bad it’s gotten for a lot of people. So can you start off by giving us a sense of what it’s like out there for folks?
MC: Right. We do know about Hazleton being hammered economically. It’s always been a blue-collar town, since its beginning, characterized by very low wages. Unions have been busted. Very few unions exist out in Valmont or Humbolt Industrial Parks. They have one or two or three that are strong, but generally speaking it’s a real low wage town and has been for a long time, at least since the mines closed.
I grew up at a time when my dad got black lung and was hospitalized for what felt like forever. I was out scrubbing toilets with my mother when I was 8 years old up in Heights Terrace to make money. So I grew up real poor. We didn’t have that much food. And now that I think of it, I guess subconsciously that probably played a role in me starting the Soul Kitchen. Because I tasted it as a young boy. That was pretty nasty. Ketchup sandwiches. Going to bed hungry. Not my whole childhood but enough of it to make a fucking imprint.
A couple of things that people might overlook about Hazleton. One is Hazleton has finally opened its first homeless shelter through the good graces of Catholic Social Services. This was, in a way, unheard of 25 years ago. Because of the stigma. And because there wasn’t much consciousness out there about housing people who were homeless. Part of our Soul Kitchen group actually feeds there twice a month, which is really nice.
Two other things that I think might be relatively invisible in Hazleton: One is that senior citizens don’t make shit on social security. And they’re hurting. They’re really hurting. They figure out their meals weekly, maybe monthly. And a lot of them will do their own breakfast but then they’ll get free lunch at one of the senior centers and find a Soul Kitchen for dinner. So we do get a good percentage of senior citizens coming out of those downtown buildings.
But the other thing is, in a very quiet way, we’ve had a nice influx of Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African American folks who just out of the blue came to volunteer and haven’t left. So it’s changed in a sense, the demographics, because that means more Latino and African American folks coming to dinner as well. Including many of those folks who are hurting, or who are in the homeless shelter. So it’s created more of a rainbow vibe. I’m not going to overstate it, but there are certainly the beginnings of a rainbow vibe because you have people finally sitting in close proximity with each other, breaking bread together in a certain kind of atmosphere. It changes people.
JL: Cross-racial solidarity among the poor achieved by a turkey dinner, huh?
That’s a great line. That’s exactly what happens. You know, there’s a certain amount of excellence, both in Baltimore and Hazleton. A sense of this is something really fine that’s going on here. People are proud of it. You know what I mean? Respect. There’s respect all the way around.
Hazleton Soul Kitchen’s been open about 8 or 9 years now and I can remember talking to the same people seven years ago when we were seeing the first Dominican faces showing up and people having their shoulders coiling up in suspicion. Even the little whispers: “Oh, it’s them.” Seven years later, that talk is gone. People need to be educated and one of the best ways to educate people is through action. That’s one of the under-the-radar things about the Soul Kitchen, how we’ve been quietly bringing folks together across the color line.
JL: Do you have a favorite story, or even just a particular moment that you would say really captures the essence of the Soul Kitchen?
MC: Oh, man – there’s about 100 of them! Let me give you one. In Baltimore, a couple got married at the Soul Kitchen! And the Soul Kitchen meal was their wedding meal. It was a white couple, homeless. Jake and Jessica. Buddies of mine. They’d come over and take a shower every now and then. Sweet people. They were trying to raise two children, either in a small garage on and off or on the streets. Or separated in different shelters. Anyway, they got married at the Soul Kitchen and a group of African American veterans who would come up from East Preston Street, in the ghetto – they’d take three buses to get up to the Soul Kitchen in North Central Baltimore. They all became buddies over the years and these three guys, Jake and Jessica asked them to sing their wedding song, which was “I got sunshine…. On a cloudy day…”. That’s the Temptations, right? Nice moment. Nice fucking moment. And then everyone sat down and ate a Soul Kitchen meal, which was really wonderful and this massive wedding cake for everybody. Pretty fuckin’ good.
JL: I know you’ve got a lot of good stories, but that was way past my expectations.
MC: It’s not me. I didn’t do it, they did it.
JL: I can see how this whole Soul Kitchen experience is beneficial for the volunteers, too, right?
Very much so. And we always need more volunteers! We need people who can build that barn, lift that bale. Break down those tables. We need people who can cook. We need people who can bake up maybe 40 cupcakes and bring them down for a dessert tray. A lot of our dessert trays are homemade – cupcakes and pies and such. There’s a million little things to do. So just show up or give me a call and we’ll work it out. I’ll show you the ropes. It’ll take you one session of a couple hours at the Soul Kitchen to experience it and say ‘Ah, now I see’.
Really. Because it’s about the philosophy of work. You know what I mean? Catholic workers thought about this a lot and playing off Lenin actually, the idea of work having a philosophy. And the philosophy of work that is overwhelmingly true at the Soul Kitchen is one of cooperative work. Ain’t no bosses there. I tend to be just a facilitator. But overall, if people see a task and then they just go do it.
There’s a certain anarcho-syndicalist feeling about the way people work at the Soul Kitchen. It’s certainly not a capitalistic work feeling. There’s no looking over your shoulder, no wondering if I might lose my job to this other guy. No worrying about how fast do I have to do this? And people are just friendly. Everyone is just friendly with one another.
Respect… There it is again.
Ever volunteer brings a unique skill set to the table and it’s muy appreciado. Again, this is not a capitalistic type of labor situation. I really want to emphasize this. This is definitely more socialistic. And it works just fine thank you very much, Mr. Rockefeller. It works just fine.
JL: To take that even further, would you consider the Soul Kitchen to be an act of resistance against the capitalist system? Given what you just described but also considering that you’re feeding the very folks that capitalism has left behind. Because as I hear you describe it, you’re introducing a different model – a model based on solidarity and a model without hierarchies.
MC: No question. There’s no question about it. It is an act of resistance in a tender way. Including the subtleties that we talked about like racial barriers being broken down over a turkey dinner and about how people work together, cooperate together.
Mutual aid is an old, old socialistic idea. And it assumes that we’re all in this shit together, on a certain level, and there’s a certain beast that will eat us if we do not protect each other. The beast will eat us and shit us out. William W. Burroughs said the money machine eats quality and shits out quantity.
Huey Newton from the Black Panthers talked about it as “survival pending revolution.” A lot of people forget or were never taught that in the late sixties, the Panthers were serving free breakfasts to something like 20,000 children around the country.
The other thing is that, even in a situation where you are giving to somebody who is there and who is hungry, you are doing that without any kind of judgmental bullshit at all. It’s just human being to human being. So, yeah, let’s face it: In a way it is very anti-capitalist.
JL: Because capitalism doesn’t leave space for love and comradeship and that special kind of work, does it?
MC: Capitalism doesn’t leave a lot of space for love and in fact it commodifies love, right? Love becomes a commodity. Like anything else – like tires or internal combustion engines.
So this is different. This model is different. Well, more than model, I’d say this philosophy and this activity are different. It’s a model maybe in the sense that I have a way of getting large groups to cohere and keep their eyes on the prize. But the prize itself is deeper: Your fellow human beings are hungry. Your fellow. Human beings. Are hungry. They’re ragged. They’re thirsty. They need new clothes. Baby needs a new pair of shoes. Whatever it may be. They might need diapers, which are really expensive, and by the way, we give away a lot of diapers.
Many volunteers over the years have said to me: This just makes me feel so good. They have a sense that they’re getting something from it. As they say, sometimes it is better to give than receive. You have to know how to balance that shit out though, right? But the notion of giving, if there’s strings attached, or if it comes with bullshit paperwork to fill out, that’s fucking capitalist nonsense.
JL: Right on. Before we wrap up, do you want to say something about how you hope to see this project expand?
As I said, while we’re not desperate for volunteers, we’re always welcoming new volunteers. Someone who comes in won’t have a hard time finding something to do, especially in Hazleton. But I think it would be more important if folks in other towns around the “Anthracite Unite reading area” would think about starting their own Soul Kitchen. We are more than willing to give you a hand to get something started, wherever your hometown is, especially if it’s in the coal region here.
Say you want to start a Soul Kitchen in, I don’t know, Shenandoah. You need a venue, get a venue. Churches are preferable. Make sure your first meal is easy to do: Spaghetti and sauce. Start with Spaghetti and then you’ll experiment as you go along.
We’re talking about feeding the masses! So we are more than willing to help anybody out there get anything off the ground. If you’re interested, just call me.
My number is (410) 627-8774. The next Soul Kitchen meal in Hazleton is on Tuesday, December 10th at Trinity Lutheran Church, 100 North Church Street.
Marcus Colasurdo is the author of 11 books and a member of Anthracite Unite. Over the years, he has worked as varied as Los Angeles taxi-cab driver to Job Corps counselor. He is the founder of the Soul Kitchen, a community meals and clothing program (in Baltimore, MD and Hazleton, PA) that currently feeds 400 folks monthly and provides various other much-needed items to needy folks in those communities.
Also by Marcus Colasurdo
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