Advocacy: Tennessee ministry has gone from soup kitchen to offering a full array of services for the homeless


The Chattanooga Community Kitchen logo states ”Help from the Heart of the City” and means it.

Founded in 1982 by seven downtown Chattanooga churches (Christ Episcopal, First Baptist, First Centenary United Methodist, First Christian, St. Paul’s Episcopal, St. Peter and Paul Catholic, and Second Presbyterian), the Kitchen has grown from a “soup” kitchen to many, many more services to the homeless community. While many of the churches were offering meals, and assisting with clothing, the times, places and amounts were irregular and loosely organized. These churches teamed together in the creation of a meal-a-day program, originally housed in the basement of Christ Episcopal Church.

This was the start. Today, the Kitchen covers a full city block with basement storage. Two of the original churches, St. Paul’s Episcopal and Second Presbyterian, host night shelters for men and women who are in the Kitchen’s programs. While housed in the churches, the Kitchen operates them with staff and volunteers.

The “meal-a-day” program has been expanded to serving three meals a day, 365 days a year. In 2011, more than 176,000 meals were served, all on an annual food budget of $4,000. Yes, a few dollars go a long way thanks to our generous community of givers.

Food drives, such as the one promoted by the local radio station WMBW which fries turkeys and gives sandwiches to people who donate canned goods and/or turkeys on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, help. In 2011, there were 1,001 frozen turkeys and 14 tons of canned goods donated; the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Percussion band performs two concerts with admission being two cans of food. These concerts collected 600 pounds of canned food. The local bakeries and drink companies keep us well supplied. Additional food is donated during the year and for special celebrations by the community.

Through the years as more needs were identified, those services were added to the programs. Currently, in addition to the three meals a day, the Kitchen offers:

  • a day shelter from the heat and cold, plus sleeping facilities for 2nd and 3rd shift workers
  • a chapel
  • an address to receive mail
  • shower, laundry and telephone facilities
  • job training and placement services
  • case management
  • thrift store (giving away more clothing, shoes and other personal belongings than selling)
  • a medical center (in association with Hamilton County Health Services)
  • permanent and transitional housing
  • medical respite care, counseling services and foot care
  • opportunities for other agencies’ assistance e.g. on-site social security, medicare and/or Tenncare registration
  • emergency shelter

Volunteers are crucial to serving the needs of so many. In 2011, over 1,000 volunteers logged approximately 30,000 hours. Additional activities provided by volunteers and staff are monthly birthday parties, a summer BBQ, traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Christmas party where people can call or write cards and letters to loved ones, recognition of Veterans, and monthly educational and/or fun themes.

Some of these services are provided through grants with HUD, but most are paid through the annual “Fast Day” campaign which began in 1989. The first was a capital campaign with a goal of $60,000. In 2011, the Fast Day campaign reached its goal of $700,000. This campaign is chaired by caring, prominent community leaders. A much smaller “Funds for Food” campaign is conducted in April-May which raises approximately $40,000 to help with the summer meals. The smaller campaign is often chaired by board members.

Emergency shelter

Since the emergency shelters in Chattanooga were limited and requirements left many people on the streets, the Kitchen opened its doors several nights in 2010-2011 when the temperatures went below freezing. Since the decision may not be made until late in the evening, this was difficult to manage with staff, volunteers, and setting up the mats, etc.

So, with advance planning and a generous donation from a private foundation, plans were made to offer a shelter each night from November 1st through March 31st. The staff and volunteers could be scheduled. Vinyl washable mats were obtained. Since the shelter is set-up in the dining room (women) and day center (men), the furniture and bedding must be set up and taken down each day.

Current records show on average 150 people are served each night with the high being 183. The youngest has been 4 months and the oldest 75 years. The shelter has served 550 different individuals. (These statistics are through January 31st.) The foundation asked that records be kept to assess the needs of the community. A review meeting is planned for April.

The Kitchen was fortunate to have Brother Ron Fender, BSG (Brotherhood of St. Gregory) join the staff in 2002. Br. Ron was a postulant and was being called to work with the homeless. Br. Ron has shared his journey with us. He took his life vows in July, 2011. He works as a case manager and from the beginning has been the “outside” case manager, going where necessary to minister to the homeless even if it is a tent in the woods or under the bridges. He also ministers to their feet, visits in the hospitals, and conducts funerals.

Br. Ron documented his journey in his book These Things I Have Seen, which may be purchased at the Kitchen website. All proceeds go to support the Kitchen.

The Kitchen was recognized in 2002 as a Jubilee Center and re-commissioned in 2011. However, it is recognized daily by its excellent work in living out the scripture, “for I was hungry and you gave me food, … I was in prison and you came to me.” Matthew 25: 35-36.

–Ann Holt is the Diocesan Jubilee Officer in the Diocese of East Tennessee. If you would like more information regarding the Chattanooga Community Kitchen, visit us online or call 423-756-4222. The Executive Director is Charles Hughes.