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Jim Black has a heart. It may be shrouded in sternness and swaddled beneath a white coat and apron, but it's in there. Those who know him are sure of that.

Black has been the manager of the soup kitchen at

St. John the Baptist Catholic Church for about seven years.

"He runs the kitchen with an attitude that lets everyone know that this is 'my domain,' " wrote Gerry Bushrow, a soup-kitchen volunteer who nominated Black for this distinction. "On the other hand," she wrote, he "is as strong and sturdy as a roasted marshmallow."

Black pursues his work at the soup kitchen with the same discipline as he did his 20-year career at Wendy's restaurant on Cerrillos Road, where he worked his way up from floor staff to general manager before retiring in 2001.

Black and his wife, Ruby, also own two hair salons in town.

But for the past seven years the New Mexico native -- born in the Manzano Mountains, raised in Espanola -- has made the soup kitchen his priority.

"He's insane," said Patrick Jennings, a volunteer who has helped out at the soup kitchen since before Black arrived. "He's very focused on this place. In some aspects, it's practically his life."

Each day, a rotating cadre of volunteers appear to help cook, serve and clean up after the approximately 100 to 200 meals the soup kitchen provides daily to Santa Fe's homeless and working poor. They've kept the soup kitchen open this way for 28 years.

As the only paid employee of the kitchen, it's Black's job to keep volunteers on task, the kitchen stocked and the clientele in line. It's not always an easy one. He's been punched, spit on and even had a knife pulled on him by some of the people he tries to help.

"I've seen clients hit him and two weeks later he lets them back in," said Wrangler, a volunteer who didn't want his full name printed. "If they come in and apologize, he lets them back in. It's about mercy."

Wrangler used to live under a bridge. But Black put an end to that three years ago, when he began paying for Wrangler to stay in a nearby hotel.

Other volunteers say the soup kitchen was a much darker place, with more violence and strife, before Black took over.

"It's been a lot better, cleaner, quieter," said Larry Montoya, one of dozens Black has helped by giving of his time and money. "People have respect. It's not rowdy like it used to be. Here for awhile, it was crazy, a lot of fights. Here in God's house, it's gotta be peaceful."

Paul Hamilton, a 56-year-old man who survives by "Dumpster diving" for scrap metal, said the food at the St. John the Baptist soup kitchen is excellent: "Way better than the Salvation Army."

The soup kitchen gets most of its raw ingredients from the Food Depot. Black has dubbed himself "The Casserole King." But he's also known for preparing more sophisticated dishes for his clientele, such as turduken, a chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey.

Black said he does love to cook. But the people, not the food, are his real focus. "I'm more about social justice, helping people and trying to do the right thing," Black said.

He knows the names of almost everyone who eats at the soup kitchen and makes it a point to talk to them when they come to the noon meal.

"Feeding the hungry should be feeding the sprit, encouraging people, planting a seed of hope," he said. "It's not homeless, it's hopeless. The drink and the drugs are just a way to handle living on the streets. For some of these people, I'm their only friend. I try to love everyone. I really do."
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Title Annotation:Special Sections
Publication:The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, NM)
Date:Nov 27, 2008

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