Restorative Practices at the House of Love Soup KitchenTamam Moncur
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At the House of Love Soup Kitchen, in Newark, New Jersey, USA, volunteers are busy heating up food and preparing for dinner. Clients file in, gathering, socializing and enjoying a brief reprieve from daily tribulations. Hope infuses the atmosphere, encouraging all to persevere through trying times and circumstances.
I began my educational journey with the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) in the summer of 2010. I had been a teacher in the Newark Public School District for 25 years when my principal gave us an article to read on restorative practices. After attending an IIRP workshop, I applied to the graduate school, not knowing then that I would soon retire from teaching. Nevertheless, I have not regretted my decision to pursue learning about restorative practices because it has been of incredible assistance to me and to the House of Love Soup Kitchen, where I am a volunteer.
The House of Love Soup Kitchen (www.houseoflovesoupkitchen.org) is a community faith-based organization that operates on the premises of the Church of God and Saints of Christ. The founders are members of this church, as are many of the volunteers. In operation for almost four years, it received official nonprofit status about two years ago. Currently the soup kitchen feeds an average of 100 people every Tuesday evening and gives out clothing as well.
The House of Love Soup Kitchen is located on Central Avenue, a major thoroughfare in Newark. The neighborhood is comprised of businesses and two large homeless shelters — one for men and one for families. Residential areas are on the side streets, with schools within walking distance. The incomes of the residents vary, ranging from independent workers to those with no visible means of income, to those receiving assistance of some sort.
A House of Love Soup Kitchen client delights in a job well done.
In the state of New Jersey, one out of five families suffer from food insecurity. This means that instead of being able to buy food, they have to pay for other necessities first, such as rent, childcare and transportation. They don’t have much money—if any—left for food.
Of the 100 people fed at the House of Love Soup Kitchen every Tuesday evening, more than 30 are children. We serve families and people from the homeless shelters in the neighborhood.
My first restorative projects for IIRP classes were done at the House of Love Soup Kitchen. An article about restorative practices explains that “the fundamental hypothesis that people are happier, more cooperative and more likely to make positive changes in behavior when authorities do things with them, rather than to them or for them expands the restorative paradigm far beyond its origins in restorative justice” (McCold & Wachtel, 2004). The soup kitchen had to move from doing things for the clients and has started doing things with them.
The first restorative meeting we had at the soup kitchen happened as a result of my Nikon camera being stolen. In my Action Research project for my 510 class at the Institute (Professional Learning Group [PLG] Seminar: Restorative Project), I had planned to address developing empathy in volunteers, then lo and behold, my camera was taken.
This incident certainly challenged the depth of my own empathy. When incidents like this happen to me, I don’t respond in anger. I usually internalize my anger and mull over my disappointment, while simultaneously feeling violated. One of the volunteers felt that I should just forget about it, knowing that many of our clients were substance abusers and/or financially strapped. The other volunteers sympathized with me and said we needed to be careful about our belongings.
I knew that I wanted to address the issue. I posed the problem to my PLG at the Institute and got great suggestions that helped me address the problem restoratively. I did not assign blame but informed the community why the camera was important to the program and how it made me feel to lose the camera. I encouraged their empathy by asking if they had ever had anything taken. Furthermore, I made it clear that I wasn’t looking to punish or blame anybody, and I told them that if the camera were returned, no questions would be asked. I also designed a leaflet about the situation for people who might have missed the discussion.
Out of the discussion, codes of behavior started emerging that would soon become part of the Covenant of Conduct, which was developed by soup kitchen clients and volunteers. The entire restorative process made me feel better because we talked about the incident. I let the clients know how the incident made me feel, and they showed genuine concern. That evening turned out great. I never got the camera back, but confronting the issue helped me tremendously in dealing with my sense of loss.
One of the outcomes of my 510 project was that we began to survey the clients to see what types of programs they would like to see developed at the House of Love Soup Kitchen. The project for my 520 class (Professional Learning Group Seminar: Restorative Skills) included forming a planning committee. Once the planning committee was formed, we administered the survey, and one of the top requests was for bible study. A minister from a local church volunteered to start this project, but because he only comes to the soup kitchen once a month, I volunteered to be his substitute.
The bible study has been a phenomenal experience for me. I act as a facilitator, as opposed to the fountain of knowledge. I am prepared with a bible passage and questions, but the discussion has a way of taking on a life of its own, as clients share their personal stories and their search for God in the midst of heartache and pain.
Recently, forgiveness was the hot topic. One gentleman shared how he had come to forgive himself and then his family after they had cut off all communication with him. He does not even know where they are. He said the process of forgiveness was like a weight being lifted off his shoulders. He felt especially good about himself because he was able to visit his mother’s grave, something he had put off for a long time. It was a joy for him to be able to do this without being high or drunk. He recognizes that he’s in a battle for his life against substances and is striving each and every day to remain drug free.
Forgiveness is part of the core sequence of restorative practices for the victim, after the offender has expressed remorse and accepted responsibility for his behavior and is willing to repair the harm where possible. Even though the gentleman above was not able to express remorse to his family, he was able to experience forgiveness in his relationship with God. I call the bible study “bible therapy,” and I benefit from these sessions as much as the clients do.
Clients from the bible study now lead the prayer to bless the food. Clients now also participate in the hands-on running of the soup kitchen, from serving to doing dishes, wiping down tables, putting up chairs and taking out the garbage. Several community members also help the person in charge of clothes. They bring out the clothes, organize them, disperse them and then pack them back up at the end of the evening. A dozen or more clients now assist in the operation of the soup kitchen.
The House of Love is now aligned with the The Community FoodBank of New Jersey as a food pantry, so we receive a large shipment of free government food once a month. Approximately 3,000 pounds of food need to be picked up and dispersed to the community. Again, community people stepped in to help bag the food. We are working with them and they are working with us.
The journey of instituting restorative practices at the soup kitchen has made both clients and volunteers more aware of how we should treat one another. When we started the soup kitchen we just jumped in and started swimming and really never discussed behavior expectations for ourselves or our clients. Prior to me starting at the IIRP, we had a few negative confrontations that were never resolved. I have learned from restorative practices that conflict has to be addressed as soon as possible and in a positive manner. The camera was the first negative incident addressed restoratively. Out of that experience, clients and volunteers developed the Covenant of Conduct, which reads as follows:
At the House of Love Soup Kitchen, we are developing a real sense of community, and we are working together to make a difference in our neck of the woods.
Tamam Moncur is on track to receive the Master of Science in Restorative Practices and Education from the IIRP Graduate School in June 2012.
McCold, P., & Wachtel, T. (2004, August). From restorative justice to restorative practices: Expanding the paradigm. Paper presented at the IIRP’s 5th International Conference, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Retrieved from www.iirp.edu/article_detail.php?article_id=Mzk5