Keep Reading. Subscribe Today.

Stay connected with our community and support nationally-acclaimed local news coverage. Sign up for a subscription today. Cancel anytime.

  • Already a subscriber?
Hope for the Holidays

Heartfelt by the spoonful: Emmanuel Soup Kitchen provides free hot meals to anyone who is in need

Posted 11/23/19

At a soup kitchen on South Main Street, you'll get the benefits of a hot meal and a warm heart. All you have to do is follow the rules.

Jean Williams has been cooking for and serving the needy from the Emmanuel United Methodist Church Soup …

This item is available in full to subscribers

Hope for the Holidays

Heartfelt by the spoonful: Emmanuel Soup Kitchen provides free hot meals to anyone who is in need


At a soup kitchen on South Main Street, you'll get the benefits of a hot meal and a warm heart. All you have to do is follow the rules.

Jean Williams has been cooking for and serving the needy from the Emmanuel United Methodist Church Soup Kitchen since 2006. She has been volunteering there since it opened in 1982 and left in 1992 for 14 years before returning to take the reins.

"Anyone who does this for so long, she has such a big heart," said Sherry Jackson as she sliced bananas and sprinkled mini Vanilla Wafers onto what could have been passable but impersonal canned pudding.

Williams' heart is as big as the soup pot she used to transform cans of pork and beans into a Southern side complete with ham, saut ed onions and spices by the spoonful that took two to carry.

Hot meals are served Monday-Friday at 12:30 p.m. Churches take turns handing out bag lunches every Saturday and Sunday.

Wednesday's plate: choice of barbecue chicken or pulled pork served with beans, bread, banana pudding and one more choice between chocolate, strawberry or plain milk.

Giving them the choice is her choice. Williams combined bag after bag of pulled pork that was donated into a pan with yellow barbecue sauce from the shelf. That could have been it. There was plenty, and people were gracious enough to bring it by.

Instead of leaving it at that, she warmed up chicken she made at home "because the meat takes a few hours."

"Someone told me once, 'Jean, you spoil them,' letting them pick between chicken and pork and not just giving them what we have," she said. "I don't want to force someone to eat something they don't like. Some people can't eat pork, and some people just really don't like it."

She doesn't want it to be a handout. She serves the homeless and the jobless, the down-on-their-luck and the transient, the poor, the ones who don't have a car to get to a grocery store. There's no prerequisite to prove they're applying for jobs. Some don't show up for a week because they get one but return when their hours are "cut already just like that."

"We care here," she said matter-of-factly, not taking extra time to over-explain but using a tone and enough words to get her meaning across, like how she provides a generous serving to everyone but washes and reuses serving trays and containers.

'Ms. Jean is in charge.'

The room itself is both stark and with life. Foldable chairs and tables set even and neat. Plates are counted. Nothing is wasted, not even the brown bits of banana that Williams sends home with Wednesday's second volunteer, Linda Harrell, for her compost.

Yet, the similarly light-colored tile and walls offset the transparent blue-patterned white curtains that dose the room with natural light and the plants with green and pink and purple basking in it on top of the wood piano.

There are no unnecessary frills. Frills don't feed. But, it's not a shameful place where you get what you're given, no complaining allowed. It might not work, but they complain.

Williams, surrounded by decorations of flowers and faith, doesn't hide in the kitchen. She comes out and engages.

She knows them. It's both strategic and empathetic. Knowing their situation and their personality lets her keep an eye on them, prevents herself from being tricked into serving an extra plate. Plates are money, food is limited, and she's only human.

So are they, she knows.

There's the one guy who doesn't like his pudding with strawberries when everyone else gets bananas and all the ones who ask for seconds to take home. The one who wants a plate for his wife who couldn't come because she was at work.

"What's your wife's name?" she asked, knowing. "Tell her she needs to come here."

There's the one who has a kid. She gets a smaller to-go plate. There's the one guy who only likes "the chicken with the bones."

She knows when they come for seconds and when they don't come at all.

"I didn't see pass through the line," she mentioned to Jackson.

She knows when they don't come at all and when she sees a new face.

"Only one," she said to a woman who came through the line and asked for two plates. "This is your first time, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am," the woman replied.

"OK, well you have to be here to eat. How'd you find out about us? Someone tell you?"

"Yes, ma'am."

She knows when a new person comes in and knows when a familiar one does who shouldn't.

"Why aren't you in school?" she said to a boy, maybe fifth grade, in a tone equal parts mother, teacher, friend. Equal parts stern and accepting.

He missed the bus, and no one took him to school. This was his second day in a row.

She knows all their names and uses them. For their sake of privacy, their names were taken out of quotes.

The Mississippi native got used to cooking for large groups when she would cook for her family and "have to lug it 10 hours down there." That practice prepared her for the 68 plates that were served on Wednesday - 60 plates with banana pudding, one with strawberry and seven Williams-approved second servings.

"She knows them all and how they are. I don't, so if they ask me for seconds or an empty plate or something, I just say, 'Ms. Jean is in charge. It's up to her,'" Jackson said, adding the prefix because she "likes to add a little something to everyone's name."

Jackson retired from teaching last year and helps at the kitchen when Williams calls to say someone else can't make it. She may not have context on everyone like Williams does, but she did see two people she taught in third grade at Alice Drive Elementary School. Both are in their 30s now.

Williams may have a handle on the regulars now, but that was not always the case.

"They used to have me wrapping up meals left and right, not only cooking and serving but then packing them up and sending them away with all sorts of stuff," she said.

That proved to be neither sustainable nor enjoyable.

"I got tired of them using me. So, I said that's not how it's going to be anymore," she said. "They do get demanding."

Food preparation was easier for Williams on Thursday. Especially during the holidays, churches and civic groups donate more food and like to bring food and serve it themselves as service projects. The Sumter-Palmetto Rotary Club brought, plated and served fried chicken, mac and cheese, green beans, biscuits and pound cake, giving Williams time to tie the plastic grocery bags she gives out. One knot in the middle for each.

No matter the day, no matter the meal, Williams makes it work, and she makes it human. It's a family kitchen. Grab a plate and be ready for a story. Just be sure to follow the rules.