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The Birth of the Soup Kitchen

Several large filled steamed buns called Baozi stuffed with a combination of vegetables, tofu and noodles, pots of hot soup and tea are served three times weekly, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings at the catholic church on Wu Xing Jie. At the same time two teams of volunteers also visit the streets and serve hot food and tea to the homeless who are unable to come to the Soup Kitchen. This has continued every week without fail since it began in December '05 regardless of the weather or holidays, for instance Chinese New Year, Christmas etc. As of 2014 we have provided around 140,000 meals and are currently serving around 1800 meals per month.

It would be so much simpler, to work as a small regular group but this would miss out on what is a wonderful opportunity to offer so much more, namely leaving the chance open for anyone to come along and work with their heart. This is a major reason for our very existence as an organisation. Since we began over 800 volunteers have come and given their time in any way they felt able. Several of them being the homeless people themselves who, for whatever their reasons feel compelled to regularly come and assist us helping their colleagues. Despite us being independent of any specific religion the Church where we run the Soup Kitchen has been tremendously supportive of our actions, perhaps due to them recognising the simplicity of the motivation, and in February 2007 Father Stephen Chen, decided to take the initiative to build us a new building from where we could serve the food. This was opened on Sunday May 13th 2007 and has seating for 140 people so our volunteers are now able to serve and our guests able to eat indoors sheltered from the burning heat or the freezing cold and rain.

The Birth of the Soup Kitchen

'Soup Kitchen' is a phrase common to westerners and conjures up the image of a charitable organisation that offers service to the poor and homeless usually in the form of free food, be that at a fixed location or the food being directly served to them around the streets. Since we began the Soup Kitchen has slowly and organically grown to where we find ourselves today, having provided over 16,000 meals and currently serving around 1500 meals per month in three sessions per week.

We are asked many times – “Why?” Not an easy one to answer. I can only give you my ‘why’ as best I understand it, and cannot speak for all the many wonderful volunteers who have offered their time and energy in various forms. Teaching English in remote villages in sweltering classrooms to those that some how find the time week after week to serve food to the homeless in all weathers; during the height of the summer to the depths of the winter in temperatures ranging from +45c to -11c. They will all have their own reasons and I am sure they would be wide and varied.

This project began for me with an old woman in Xi’an, on December 15th 2005. However, in reality maybe my reasons ‘why’ go back much farther, maybe as far back as more than 10 years ago to an orphanage in Romania. I was on my second trip to Romania delivering medical equipment and supplies to hospitals and orphanages for a charity I and four friends had set up. Seeing the children and observing the Mother Teresa nuns’ selfless acts and their amazing strength despite ridiculous odds was humbling and inspiring. So powerful was the experience that I am still unable to reflect back on that time without that same warm tingling feeling invading me and a lump lodging itself firmly in my throat.

That day in 1996 I made a silent promise that I would one day give more of myself to these people, both the nuns and the children, and others like them. Having no idea at the time what may lie ahead.

Then in August 2002, whilst in England, although being what most people would describe as a ‘perennial workaholic’ I suddenly felt that there was no need or point in me continuing to work for money. Something switched inside and I felt so content that I needed nothing more than enough food, clothes and somewhere to sleep. What else could I possibly need?  I have come to understand that when you want nothing, you have everything. I felt so blessed with the things that I had been gifted along the way that I felt it was time that I put my experiences, some of the lessons learnt, and skills developed, many due to 14 years of being in business in England, to a much better use than simply making money. Therefore, I sold everything that I owned, picked up my toothbrush grabbed my passport, packed a bag and departed England, with the expectation and acceptance, that apart from the occasional return visits to see my family and friends, I may never return.

Whichever country I lived in and how I spent my time was of no importance to me, I could be in England or any other country, it mattered not, for I carry my family and friends along with me wherever I go. This leaves me free to go anywhere that feels the right place to be and can give some of my time and energy to giving as much back as possible, in whatever way that feels right at that time. Before I left the UK I didn’t know what form it would take but I had a strong feeling that I would know what, when and how, whenever it was appropriate. Over the previous 4 years, through a variety of activities, this has proved to be the case. 

So the activities here in China seem like a natural progression. I first arrived in China in January ’05 with the intention of staying here for only 2-3 weeks as I was actually on route to India at the time. A country I have wanted to visit for many years. However, a series of things have kept me in China, whilst never fully understanding why, I have felt that this was the place I was meant to be. So here I have remained. Whilst in Xi’an I have neither been looking for something to fill my time, nor have I been waiting for anything, it felt right to be here so I was simply that – ‘just here’.

One Thursday afternoon in December 2005, whilst out in Xi’an city center I was approached by an old lady begging, which isn’t unusual but on this day this lady was particularly persistent and followed me for several minutes, she shadowed me and changed gear in sync with my increasing pace. I don't usually like to give money to beggars so I continually refused to contribute to her pot. However, by the time she gave up on me it was too late as the damage had been done; I had caught a glimpse deep into her eyes. That evening I meditated for a couple of hours, during the meditation the old woman’s eyes haunted me. I felt a little guilty at having done nothing for her, yet I still wasn't prepared to give her money. By the end of the two hours, it was all decided. I emerged from the meditation with a plan. I had decided to return the following day, Friday, to find her, with the intention of buying her some lunch. At the same time try to glean information as to where the homeless people go to eat and if there were any shelters where they can sleep, so that I might volunteer to help. Earlier in the year I had tried to find these places but couldn’t find anybody who knew of them, when I enquired I was told that there weren’t any, something that I didn’t believe at the time. I didn’t learn very much from the old lady either but no matter, her job was done, she had unknowingly set 'my wheels in motion'. I roamed the streets asking questions the best I could with my limited Chinese, until I had all my answers. I had also decided the previous evening that in the event that I was told that there was no place where they could go and eat for free, which I now suspected was the case, that I would somehow start a soup kitchen.

By that Friday evening it was all organised. and two days later, on the Sunday afternoon, the first Soup Kitchen began. I had been told that every week a few beggars arrived at a local Catholic Church for the Sunday one o'clock mass, this seemed like a good start so I visited the church and found a priest who luckily spoke good English, after telling Father Chen of my plan and maybe despite him thinking I was a little crazy he agreed to allow me to come and provide them with food. That first Sunday afternoon I was accompanied by 3 friends whom I had told what I intended to do and they had said they would like to come along and help, Michael, his brother Daniel both from Australia and Michael's girlfriend Zhang Ying. I had ordered the food on the Friday from a restaurant across the road from the church and when we arrived we saw 8 people begging outside at the church, after serving them we still had food leftover so we then walked the streets and fed a further 17 people. Thus was born the Soup Kitchen. We have continued to run one every Sunday in the same location ever since and then afterwards walked around the streets feeding more homeless people. After my meditation that very first night, without knowing where it all might lead, I felt I was beginning a long-term project that may dominate my time and energy for many years ahead. There was definitely a feeling of fate dipping its mischievous fingers into this and pulling some of the strings.

It is surprising how far the ripples created from dropping a single pebble in a lake can spread. From a pebble that was dropped many years ago by a friend who honoured me by first inviting me to join them in their Romanian project, the ripples of that day are now being felt, amongst other places, here in China.

Every time we venture out to serve food there is not only a verbal reaction from one or more people who simply witness or experience our actions, but often visible evidence of a reaction, and sometimes a change, which can be seen on their faces or in their eyes. By way of an example, one Sunday afternoon whilst serving food outside the church, a man passed on the street pushing a cart, he as do many people stopped to see what we were doing and what the crowd of onlookers were staring at. He started to ask many questions, what we were doing and why, as he grew redder and redder in the face it became obvious he was very unhappy about what he was hearing. I didn’t react to this as I had already grown used to a wide variety of responses and though my views may differ from other peoples it is of little importance and unrealistic to expect everybody to share the same viewpoint. Hence, I merely smiled and said it was all ok and no problem, this obviously didn’t remove his cause of frustration so I carried on about my business whilst one of the Chinese helpers took the brunt of his frustration. Three Sundays later, I had arrived at the Soup Kitchen early so I sat quietly in the street a little distance away for a few moments of quiet before we began. As I sat contemplating I noticed the same man from three weeks earlier pushing his cart at the side of the road, we both did a ‘double take’ as we recognised each other. When I arrived at the church a few minutes later, he was already there with two or three women serving fried noodles in cartons to the homeless. He obviously had some form of  food business which would go some way to explaining his initial anger. He told me that he had some food left over and rather than waste it he wanted to give it to the homeless, also that in future if he had extra food he would come and serve it to them again. A big shift from his reaction only three weeks earlier, and a huge step to so publicly change his opinion and risk losing face.

This is just one of many little stories of our experiences so far but it is partly due to this kind of reaction that it feels like the projects we take on are worthwhile for everybody involved. It is not just about the volunteers or the less fortunate people, but also about every single person that sees or comes into contact with whatever we are doing and the small change within them that may result from the briefest of encounters and perhaps the simplest of acts.

This kind of opportunity to do flexible volunteer work and give something of oneself is not widely available in China if at all. Over the previous 20 months around 450 volunteers have given their time, it has been people who have heard about or seen what we are doing and have been curious or moved enough to come and join us for whatever period of time they have had available. At no point have we had to ask anybody for help yet week after week volunteers keep appearing, it has and will continue to be very much a team effort, no one person could achieve this on their own. It is the collective energies that keeps all of this rolling and it is due to these reactions that this work must continue, as long as it has value.

In order to keep the momentum going and to enable the Soup Kitchen and other projects to continue The Yellow River Charity was formed. Providing a vehicle and structure where people who wish to give of themselves to help others, yet don’t know how to do so or where to go, can come and volunteer and give, to a variety of projects, in whatever way they are able. Thus giving more and more people the opportunity to experience volunteer work and working with their hearts. We are at the stage where the charity is established in England and we have also applied for Charity Commission approval, classing us as a NGO, thus enabling us to more easily continue and expand our activities in China.

We all work on a voluntary basis, as it is my belief that if the motivation to come along is to help others and not to earn money, then the acts are much purer. 

Many people have mentioned to us the ‘Teaching people to fish and feeding people fish’ analogy. Some of the projects we may get involved in will be teaching people to fish whilst others will be solely about feeding people fish. Whilst it may be an ideal situation to teach everybody to fish, with the hope that they may become independent and be able to provide for their own needs, it is not always possible. The process of teaching them takes time, yet in this period they still need their basic needs catered for. E.g. food, clothing, shelter and healthcare. Whilst others, for a number of reasons, may never be able to take care of their own needs. Hence I feel the two approaches need to co-exist, ensuring that there are organisations and projects that educate and train people who are able to become independent, yet people who may never be able to be are not neglected and have there basic needs provided for to some degree.

So what is next? A continued focus will be on improving and expanding the Soup Kitchen, as there will always be homeless people that need feeding. We ran an English Summer School teaching English to 180 students in a small village, this may be something we will run again or have as an ongoing project. Weekly we provide clothes and in the winter blankets for the homeless and have begun to make regular visits to poor mountain villages to do the same. Early in 2007 we began our medical project and expanding this will be a key focus for the future. We are at the same time considering other projects. 

Needless to say since December '05 it has been a very full, interesting, and on many different levels a challenging 20 months, introducing new concepts that initially may be mis-understood yet slowly have become welcomed by many. As with anything new, none of the challenges were small and there will undoubtedly be many more, yet I feel sure that whatever lays ahead all hurdles will be overcome.

“It is my faith, based on experience, that if one's heart is pure, calamity brings its men and measures to fight it”  M.K.Gandhi

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