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“Created in His image”: Interview with Ashley Lear, Soup Run Coordinator
7 December 2012 • Off–Campus Ministry
For two years, students and spouses, faculty members and their teens, and alumni of St. Vladimir's Seminary have joined parishioners from Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, East Meadow, Long Island, to deliver food, clothing and other necessities to the needy and homeless people of New York City at Penn Station in the heart of Manhattan, NY. The group congregates at the Germack building on many Wednesday nights, and then travels together to their destination, where they set up a simple food and clothing distribution center. Over time, the SVOTS "regulars" have become familiar with the people they are serving, and relationships have developed. Recently, Svots.edu talked with busy student Ashley Lear, the current Soup Run organizer.
How did the Soup Run get started, who is involved, and what role does the Seminary community play?
In the Fall of 2010, the Seminary arranged for interested first–year students to drive down to Emmaus House in Harlem and meet with its leaders. It was there that I met Fr. Martin Kraus (Class of '02), along with members of his parish Holy Trinity. At the time, Fr. Martin and his Holy Trinity parishioners were working out of the Emmaus kitchen to bring hot meals and clothing into areas of Manhattan with many needy and homeless people.
Eventually, it became more efficient to simply work from the kitchen at Holy Trinity so there is no longer a connection with Emmaus House. SVOTS Seminarians were invited to join them, and so we did! A few of us just started coming along on Soup Runs with the East Meadow group once a week. At one point, East Meadow had people on runs three times a week, so we had lots of options throughout the week, which is very helpful for a busy grad student.
What was the impetus for you to become a "soup runner," and what is your current role in the ministry?
Being one of the regulars and a bit of a planner, I sort of emerged as the liaison between SVOTS and East Meadow's ministry. I simply communicated the Soup Run dates, determined by East Meadow, to SVOTS, and coordinated the carpool. Overtime, we developed a ministry of our own. Many of the families, including the children, would take the time to bake and wrap cookies for distribution. Many of the people we serve looked forward to the delicious homemade treats from the St. Vladimir's community. We also had a huge number of clothing donations, probably due to the transient nature of the Seminary. East Meadow began to rely pretty heavily on our clothing donations as a significant part of the ministry.
By the Spring of 2011, we were sending a van full of volunteers, packed with clothes and treats for the Soup Run. Our contributions have become a real supplement. Now, a few of us have become quite familiar with many of the people we serve. We have learned much more about their real needs, which is why we can make more specific requests to the SVOTS community. For example, just yesterday, a women told me she is in need of a pair of size ten boots and a gentlemen told me he needs a 2X hoodies sweatshirt. I've learned which things are best to always have on hand, such as bottled water, socks, metro–cards, and plenty of toiletries.
Can you describe a typical night, if there is such a thing?
We meet at Germack and load up the donations. We take some time to familiarize ourselves with what has been donated so that we can distribute it more thoughtfully and so that we're not handing our dirty or tattered clothing. Then, we drive down to Penn Station. When we arrive, there are usually people gathering around waiting for us. The van from East Meadow will unload the serving table, coffee table, food and coffee, while we divide up our boxes/bags of clothes by gender. Sometimes I'll send one of the guys in to the Kmart across the street to buy a couple cases of water. It is nice to have that Kmart there because when someone comes to us with a specific need, we can often take the time to run in and pick it right up for them that night.
Many people provide monetary donations as well which help to offset the cost of the water and metro cards we purchase for distribution. Sometimes there are too many volunteers for the jobs (serving food/coffee, distributing clothes/toiletries), which is a GOOD problem. It is during these times that many of us have the opportunity to talk to the people or, quite often, share a meal with them. People trickle in for about an hour and a half to eat, socialize, and make requests, and we end up serving between 40 and 80 people each night.
Are there people you've gotten to know in NYC because of these Wednesday nights, and can you tell us about one of them?
I know about 30 of the regulars we serve by name. They are often very interesting people with surprising life histories. Some are veterans, some are reformed convicts, some immigrants. There are about ten or so who have been in and out since I began in 2010. We try to provide information on local shelters and even detox programs for those who need them, but unfortunately I've discovered that many of the homeless don't trust such programs. Certainly, some of this distrust is justified.
A few of the people we have served at one time or another began attending Holy Trinity in East Meadow and at least one that I know of was chrismated on Holy Saturday this past year. She is no longer on the streets but still comes out to the Soup Runs; now she serves with her church family. There are some deeply religious people on the streets. One gentlemen by the name of Claude delivered a full sermon on Matthew 25 to a couple of us Seminarians this fall. It was, and I speak honestly, one of the best sermons I've ever heard.
What you have learned through your Soup Runs, and what kind of feedback do you receive from those who join you?
These people are intimately familiar with suffering and, in that way, they resemble Christ. It is amazing to see how much more planning the homeless have to do to make it through each day, and it is moving to see how aware they are of each other's needs. If you hold up a women's jackets, a man might mention, "Oh, Charlotte's been looking for something like that. Luther, grab that jacket for Charlotte so that she can try it on when she gets here."
I have learned that the homeless are just as concerned with their health as you and I. This is one of the reasons that we stopped bringing cookies, because people are concerned about diabetes.
People who come along are often motivated to take note of and seek out the more specific needs of the people. I believe we are motivated to invest in such a way because we can no longer simply place them in a category. They are real people, real individuals, and not just statistics to be mourned over. As long as they will receive our friendship, we are blessed to be able to meet their needs in such a real way. Furthermore, when people from St. Vladimir's come along for the first time, they almost always remark upon the mutual offering taking place. We go to Penn Station to feed others, but inevitably end up being fed ourselves. This is the nature of relationship beginning with the relationship between God and his Church and extending to the relationships between all men and women, created in His image.