More than 4,000 cans of tomato, chicken noodle, cream of mushroom, clam chowder and other soups flanked the altar of the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Northwest Baltimore on Sunday.
The 10,000-member congregation in Park Heights gathered the soup over the course of the last month in a donation drive organizers dubbed “Soup ’n’ Soul Sunday.” It’s to be donated to homeless shelters and handed out door-to-door for those who live in the largely impoverished community next weekend.
The Rev. Jamal Bryant, the church’s pastor, said Jesus performed 87 percent of his ministry outside the temple, tending to the poor, sick and suffering.
“For us to be one of the largest churches in Park Heights and not make an impact on the community would be a blight on the church,” Bryant said. “We can’t be a megachurch and have a minor impact.”
Members worshipped with — and served a hot meal to — about 70 people from three different homeless centers: the Weinberg Housing and Resource Center on the Fallsway; 2 God B The Glory Inc. Supportive Housing Program in Penn-North; and Loving Arms Inc. in Gwynn Oak, which offers food, shelter and other services to runaway and homeless youth, young adults and veterans.
The salmon and spinach, shrimp Alfredo and homemade chicken noodle soup meal prompted Cindy R. Williams, executive director of Loving Arms, to stand and address the room, giving thanks to the church members who prepared and served it.
The young people in her care, she said, often “don’t believe they have a supportive God and people in the city.”
When strangers reach out with their time, money and love, Williams said, it proves them wrong — and gives them hope.
“These children are talented,” Williams said. “They have purpose and worth.”
Bryant led a round of applause for the volunteers who prepared and served the meal.
“Our doors are always open," he told Williams and the others.
Chef Debbie Cooper, who runs Debbie’s Cuisine Catering LLC, said she prepared Sunday’s meal as if she were cooking for her own family. In addition to catering roughly 50 events per year, she said, her company serves disabled people in the community seven days per week.
“I want to remind them of Nana or their mom,” Cooper said. “I want them to say, ‘My life was good at one point — and it can be good again.’ ”
Sartoria Taylor, 30, a mother of three living at 2 God B The Glory, held her youngest, 7-month-old Norman Patterson, on her lap.
Especially in a time when society feels as divided as ever, Taylor said, having someone invite her and her children in for a meal and worship made her feel good.
“It means a lot for our community to make everyone stronger and love each other,” she said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
Rowena Simmons, director of 2 God B The Glory, used another word: “awesome.”
“For them to open their arms to people like us — it’s an honor to feel like we’re part of the community,” she said.
Katrina Bagwandeen, who has been a member of the church since 2006, ladled out chicken noodle soup in the food line.
“It’s so much better to give than to receive,” said Bagwandeen, 47, of Randallstown. “We as Christians have to show people who Christ is through our words, thoughts and deeds.”
Bryant said a growing online Empowerment Temple membership who watch his live-streamed sermons — 8,732 people tuned in for this Sunday’s — was responsible for sending in about a quarter of the cans of soup.
“I’m just glad they’re watching when they could be on Netflix or Hulu,” he said.
The number of soup donations was extraordinary, Bryant said, because many of the donors are facing economic challenges of their own.
“These are everyday, hardworking, regular people, not billionaires or philanthropists,” he said. “Little becomes much when we pull it together.”
Jordan Devega, a 19-year-old who lives at the Weinberg Center, had heard about Bryant and the Empowerment Temple. He expected a powerful service on Sunday.
“So it was,” he said. “I very much enjoyed it.”
The home-cooked shrimp Alfredo and salmon, Devega added, was a big step up from the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he’s used to.
“It makes people feel heart-warmed,” he said. “It makes me feel appreciated.”