Karin Schall had lived in the neighborhood for more than 25 years, but never noticed a small but significant sign outside Saint Luke’s Church, on New York City’s Restaurant Row, until mid March.
Walking home from work at Lincoln Center, through a deserted Times Square as the shutdown took effect, she took a turn down W46th St – 8th/9th Ave. “And I saw this church that, of course, I’ve walked by thousands of times over the years. And I noticed the sign that said, ‘Soup kitchens Tuesdays and Thursdays.’”
Her interest was piqued. “I was looking for something to do in between Zoom cocktails, home cooking, and checking work emails,” she says. Once home, she fired off an email. “Basically, ‘Hi, I live in the neighborhood. I’m currently not having to go to work. And if you need an extra set of hands or a donation, I’m happy to help.”
The following Tuesday, she was set to work on the conveyor belt of activity that feeds between 150 and 200 hungry people. “At the end of those couple hours I said, ‘Can I come back? Can I spread the word? What do you need? I want to make this part of my working from home routine.”
To be clear, this is not Karin’s first rodeo when it comes to putting herself out there. She considers herself an activist, is involved in the group Rise and Resist – “sometimes we do angry political things” – and is on the board of a not for profit called Stockings With Care.
“I like doing things that are outside of me,” she says. “I like being reminded of the fact that I have a privileged life, with a dream job and a happy marriage and the friends that I have, in the city I dreamt about living in.
“I just wanted to be helpful,” she adds. “I wanted to feel like my being there perhaps was a good, positive thing for people.”
Hell’s Kitchen was a very different place when, in 1977, the then pastor of Saint Luke’s Lutheran Church saw a need for a soup kitchen, explains Bob Wechtenhiser, current parish administrator. There was crime. Drugs. Prostitution. And hunger – always hunger. So, for more than 40 years, they’ve served up a hot meal, twice a week, to anyone who needs it.
“Our motto has always been ‘all are welcome at the soup kitchen’,” says Pastor Arden Strasser. “We don’t register people, or ask for IDs. It’s a simple sign-in procedure. And now, of course, we don’t do the signing in. I just count them outside and record the adults and seniors – that’s all that’s required by the city – and children, if we get them.”
Those numbers have almost doubled since the start of the pandemic. “I’m seeing more women now,” says Pastor Strasser. “I’m seeing more Asian people, and more younger people in their twenties and thirties. We’re seeing a broad section of age and students for the first time.” And, he adds, there are clearly people there who have homes, but have lost their jobs due to the shutdown.
They had to adapt quickly to social distancing regulations. Their health permit changed to allow them to serve takeout instead of sit-in (it’s still the only hot meal program for a huge stretch of Midtown, says Pastor Strasser), and each lunchtime he puts chalk marks on the sidewalk to mark the six-feet mark between guests.
“I try to maintain that,” he says. “And I’m also kind of out there to keep everybody happy, watch for any kind of arguments. Because it took a little while for our guests to understand the importance. Many of them don’t get the news like the rest of the population, so they didn’t see how dangerous it was.”
Unlike many similar programs, however, they have kept their bathrooms open. Simple human dignity in action.
And Karin insists it’s done much more than just give her new work-from-home reality some structure. And, while her day job, often arranging fancy fundraisers, is very, very different, there are parallels. “It’s the other side of that coin,” she says. “I really appreciate how a meal, whether you’re making it at home for your loved ones, or sharing together under special circumstances, or at a $10,000-a-plate dinner, is something that we all can gather around. The community of a meal is more than just the calories or the nutrients.
“Oh my gosh, I’m definitely getting more out of this than they’re getting from me. It makes me feel that I’m physically doing something that’s outside of me. I’m very, very lucky.”
If you’re able to contribute financially, donate face masks, or give your time, see stlukesnyc.org or email email@example.com.