Written by Aaron Handelsman
The Capuchin Soup Kitchen (CSK) used to be called The Charity Guild. It first opened its doors in Detroit in 1929 with a mission of feeding the poor. After feeding people in poverty for the better part of a century, the CSK leadership wanted to do more, but weren’t sure how. To figure that out, they began a multi-year learning process with BMP team member, Linda Campbell, who encouraged the organization to expand its mission from just feeding people at its two soup kitchens to also changing the structures that leave so many needing to be fed.
This change moved the Capuchins’ work beyond charity, a sometimes-frightening prospect when they considered that charity was what their donors expected from them. And yet, as Br. Jerry, the current executive director said, “Linda made me realize that the soup kitchen has some real power that we could use to effect real change.” Once they more fully grasped their own power as an organization, the leadership of the CSK felt compelled to do more with it. They emerged from that process with a new resolve to work alongside and build power with those living in poverty in order to address not just the symptoms but the structures and circumstances that keep poverty in business. This post briefly highlights two of the ways in which the CSK has worked to build the power of and with poor people who originally came to them for food and services.
The day I met Br. Ray coincided with the opening of the new location of On the Rise Bakery, a bakery sponsored and supervised by the Capuchins but run by patrons of the soup kitchen. Behind the register, Brian and several other men—men who have recently been released from prison or completed a substance-abuse program—served coffee and baked goods they had prepared that morning in their collectively run kitchen for the light stream of customers.
On the Rise Bakery is part of a holistic approach to recovery and reentry that addresses housing, healthcare, and economic security by building a community with, around, and by those who have emerged from the trials of prison and substance abuse to build new lives for themselves. The men who work at the bakery also live together. With some oversight from the Capuchins, they save the majority of the money they make working at the bakery to support their eventual transition into their own apartments. Br. Ray, who supervises the bakery told me, “It’s not about the bakery. It’s about the relationships with [the men] and with the neighborhood.” In a society whose policies make it especially difficult for returning citizens to return with dignity, holding space to for them to work, develop skills, and live in quality transitional housing while developing relationships and generating incomes large enough to build financial independence is both rare and a matter of social justice.
Dennis Sloan is an organizer with the Detroit Action Commonwealth (DAC), another project housed and supported by the CSK. DAC is a member-led community organization that focuses on the issues impacting impoverished Detroiters, such as the conditions of homeless shelters, barriers to employment, local elections, and preservation of affordable housing. The DAC is its own organization, but it receives project-related funding from the Capuchins and hosts its meetings at their kitchens around the city. The day I visited the soup kitchen on Meldrum, Dennis, who used to sleep on hard church steps around the city, led a member’s meeting during lunch. He had an audience of DAC members, soup kitchen regulars, and Capuchin staff and volunteers. He addressed the entire group, informing them of all the work DAC had accomplished, from working on a successful “Ban the Box” campaign to remove “the felony question” from city employment applications, to successfully pressuring the City Council to reverse cuts to affordable housing. “Look,” Dennis said, trying to rally the lunch room, “We’re beginning to build a real track record here. Jump on the bandwagon and we can keep doing things. You are all powerful people!”
When I reconnected with Br. Jerry later that day, I asked him about the intersection between social justice and spirituality, and whether his perspective on it has changed since he began his work with the CSK. “Oh yeah, certainly,” he said. “Now I see it as, I can’t do anything for somebody but maybe we can come together and do something with people to help them claim their own power.” Br. Jerry continued, frustrated and reflective, “It’s easier to act out of a place of charity than justice … The charitable model is so ingrained in us. Even in the Mass, it’s ‘Bring us to the fullness of charity.’ And I heard that yesterday like I’d never heard it before. And I thought, Why doesn’t that say, ‘Bring us to the fullness of justice?’”
Maybe that’s why I wasn’t surprised when I saw Br. Jerry two months later. We were assembled to protest the inhumane water shutoffs that threatened to create a massive public health crisis in Detroit. At the same time that lunch was being served at the CSK, their executive director was standing in his brown monk’s habit at the front of the crowd of thousands. He was standing for justice.