HERRIN — Joan Bishun has a hard time calling the Herrin House of Hope a "soup kitchen."

That's what it's known as, but she feels the place is a bit more interpersonal, a place where she not only goes each day for a warm meal, but for the fellowship with some of the servers and guests.

"I hate calling it a 'soup kitchen' because it seems so derogatory," she said, sitting at a bistro table with her sister, Janet Palmer. "It's a place where people care about the (customers)."

If Bishun wasn't here for the food and fellowship, she'd be at home, probably not eating and laying in bed, feeling depressed, impacting both her physical and mental health.

Bishun only learned about it a few months ago, but credits the organization and its supports with helping improve her quality of life.

"Most restaurants you go to, people don't talk to you, but this is the highlight of my day," Bishun said. "I love this place. I love this place."

What it does

"This place" is the 2-year-old Herrin House of Hope, created by a collective of area churches who wanted to meet people's basic needs, such as food, shelter and clothing. Its based in the old Lombard Restaurant in Herrin, on North 14th Street, right across from the Coal Miners Memorial.

Part of its success lies in its strong volunteer network, which comes mainly from a core of Herrin churches — of various denominations — who pull together to make the Herrin House of Hope program work.

It's a combination soup kitchen, food pantry and thrift store, where volunteer Jaime, a retiree, brings to bear her 30-some years of retail experience. It also sponsors GED classes.

The restaurant side has more than a dozen bistro-style tables, where a small envelope sits among the salt and pepper shakers. It is for donations — if one cares to or has the money to donate. All the lunches are free.

At least two whiteboards announce that day's menu — either ravioli casserole with peas and bread; chicken nachos with macaroni salad; or a peanut butter sandwich, regular, not grilled. A man leaving the soup kitchen is overheard telling two women who are entering that they have nice ravioli that day, not the kind that comes from the cans.

The ministry runs on about a $50,000 budget, none of which comes from state funding, said executive director John Steve. Steve, a self-described former "menace to society" whose life was turned around during the five-and-one-half years he spent in prison, is the only paid staff.

Funding comes from donations from the supporting churches, businesses and individuals; various fundraisers; and proceeds from sales at the thrift store.

A top priority for the ministry, though, is serving people with dignity, Steve said.

"I think what makes us a little more unique is how we go beyond just feeding them, we go the extent of feeding them spiritually as well, where we get to express God’s love and mercy and grace every single day while we are there," Steve said.

That dignity is preserved by the wealth of volunteers, who are the heart of the ministry, sliding right up to take visitors' lunch orders, then serving them with a smile, or after lunch is over, spraying and wiping down the tables and sweeping and mopping the floors.

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The faces behind the place

There is Rex Mize, a retired long-haul truck driver who is the center's coordinator and greeter, from Harvest Time Worship Center; there is Jamie Gray, who took over supervision of the thrift store, also from Harvest Time; Brenda Miller, another retiree who volunteers as a server, from Herrin First Baptist Church.

Then there is Rex Ratchford, who had to volunteer a few hours at the soup kitchen as a condition of his living in a shelter for the homeless in Herrin; after he voluntarily left the shelter, he continued to volunteer at the soup kitchen, where this day he is busily washing dishes and otherwise cleaning up the kitchen's prep area.

Managing the kitchen is Perry Allen, whose day starts at 4 a.m. and runs to 3 p.m., when the facility closes. That's five days a week, all volunteers.

Allen first came to Herrin House of Hope after it opened. Then, he became ill and had to be hospitalized, almost dying, he said. When he was released from the hospital, he started volunteering at the site.

"I just wanted to give myself back to the community," Allen said.

Illness didn't bring his brother, 43-year-old Joe Allen, there, but he also volunteers at the soup kitchen. On this day, he's helping out in the kitchen.

"I like John and everybody else up here," Joe Allen said. "John and them help me through hard times."

Brenda Miller says she and her husband started volunteering shortly after she retired. The two had just finished their morning devotion, when her husband posed a question to her.

"He said, 'What are we going to do today?' I said, 'I guess we're going to the Herrin House of Hope, because that's just the Lord just told me.'"

'Mixed together and doing a job'

It doesn't matter what church or business volunteers come from, one of them said.

"We are just all mixed together and doing a job," that being to serve others, said Mize, who is now at the drink station preparing coffee.

One of the guests noted that though churches run the place, their members don't beat visitors over the head with religion or try to convert them to a particular faith.

"They're healing you with food and love," Janet Palmer said. "They generally care about you."

Her sister, Bishun, agreed: "They're really, really good people. They've been a blessing in my life."

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Stephanie Esters is a reporter covering Jackson and Union counties.

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