Kitchen of Hope
One Thursday afternoon in March, nearby club had donated a “survival pack” of dry food of rice, noodles and eggs to every household in our community. I remember receiving mine, taking inventory, and realizing that a family of 5 could probably eat off this survival pack for about 5 days. It was substantial and very needed by my neighbors, many of whom had been out of work for weeks now. This is why I was so surprised the next day when I walked past the community meeting point to find P’ Biak* and another community leader distributing a cooked meal of curry and rice. I was offered a bowl, which I gratefully accepted and the conversation began. Behind the enormous pot of curry sat a stack of 5kg bags of rice, numbering about 15 bags. Next to the stacked bags of rice were about 15 flats of eggs, and countless packets of dried noodles.
“Families have returned their survival packs to me,” P’ Biak explained.
“What? Why?” I asked in disbelief, “What happened?”
“They don’t have enough money to pay for gas and electricity to cook their food, so it’s no good to them. They returned it to me and I’m going to use the community gas and electricity to cook it for them.” This was P’ Biak's first day of cooking for the community. It was unplanned, unadvertised, and unsupported by anyone.
This was the first time I realized that the situation was much worse than I realized. P’ Biak and I had already been in conversations about transferring money from the Servant Partners Covid-19 Community Support Fund to help the Suan Plu community. She had already met with the other community leaders to discuss what to do with it. In fact, we had already mapped out plan A, abandoned it, and then moved to plan B. Plan B was supposed to be survival packs like the ones we had just received the day before. Plan B was obviously not going to work anymore.
So what do we do now? You can’t imagine how difficult those first few weeks were as I lived with a group of people who were more frightened by the thought of starving than the possibility of catching the coronavirus. Before I left P’ Biak and the other community leader, we had concluded we needed to use the money to start a soup kitchen to feed the neediest of people. She knew that not everyone would come and eat every day; she knew those who had enough would stay home and allow those who were in the greatest need to come and get food first; she knew we needed to produce about 200 meals per day to make sure everyone got fed; and she knew that we were expecting enough money for about 10 days of food.
It was overwhelming at the time. It was at about the time we were starting to realize this would go on for months, not weeks. I refrained from voicing the obvious question of “what do we do after 10 days?” and instead something much more basic came out of my mouth. “I can’t cook,” I sheepishly told P’ Biak. “No worries,” she said, “I’ve got that covered.”
P’ Biak seemed undaunted by the task of starting a soup kitchen. So when the money arrived from Servant Partners channeled through my local church in Bangkok, Newsong Church, we began to produce 200 meals per day to feed our neighbors. We had 8-10 volunteers each time, including a recently laid-off manager of a hotel kitchen who ran our Community Kitchen. Seriously, we couldn’t have planned that better.
"We found a model that is working. You should fund this and you should reproduce it in other places. You need to decentralize and empower community leaders."
I don’t fully understand how, but our 10 day supply of food was stretched into one month through the random and unexpected generosity of others. And in the middle of that, we received a visit from a community organizing group who came to assess our needs. Instead of walking away with a list of ways they could help us, they left with a video of the Community Kitchen. Complete with interviews from myself, P’ Biak and a few members of the community, they took this video to the government with the words, “We found a model that is working. You should fund this and you should reproduce it in other places. You need to decentralize and empower community leaders.”
On the second to the last day of food distribution that was sponsored by Newsong Church/Servant Partners, we received a visit from the Inspector General of the Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, who approved funding to support the Suan Plu Community Kitchen for 20 more days. She also approved the funding of similar kitchens throughout Bangkok, 39 in total, and we trained 3 additional communities in how to plan for and manage a kitchen. As not all communities surrounding us have the leadership or resources to do this, our kitchen began producing 500 meals per day and distributing meals to 3 other communities.
On that day that we received the support of the government for 20 days of food, others celebrated. But P’ Biak became a bit more reflective. I think the weight of leadership was starting to take a toll. We were actually chopping something, probably carrots, and she spontaneously said to me, “What do we do at the end of 20 days?” The question was exactly the same question I had as we were preparing to receive the money from Servant Partners/Newsong Church over a month ago. But this time I had an answer for it, I just wasn’t sure if P’ Biak would be willing to receive it.
“You know,” I said, “we started with 15 bags of rice and money for 10 days of food. That was over one month ago. But God provided. And now we have enough money for 20 days of food. At the end of 20 days, God will provide.”
P’ Biak looked surprised…in a good way. “Your right, God will provide.” P’ Biak has never ceased to amaze me.
"God has blessed us so much so that we can help others." P' Biak, Community Leader
At the time of this writing, we've been running the kitchen for 3 months, we have money for 4 more days of food for ourselves and 3 surrounding communities. Our Community Kitchen recently provided emergency assistance to a neighboring community that was severely damaged in a storm. Last week channel 7 news recently spotlighted Suan Plu in their nightly newscast with the headlines, “Local Community is Transformed from Recipients to Givers.” As we unexpectedly opened the kitchen that day, P’ Biak looked at me and said, “God has blessed us so much so that we can help others.”
P’ Biak, who is a Buddhist, gets it. She is beginning to understand who the source of all our blessings is. She also understands the purpose of those blessings. And she’s beginning to trust the Giver of those blessings.
*Names have been changed