“‘Keep the focus on me — it’s just soup.’” That was what Dale Dunning, in a voice she attributes to the Holy Spirit, heard more than 10 years ago. She and one of her sons were trying to figure out a name for her new soup-kitchen ministry. With a background of the white walls of her home, in a vision, and with the thought of keeping focus on the Holy Spirit, the name spread across the walls, spelled in its own unique way… It’s “Jusst Sooup.”
She started the ministry while studying theology. Dunning said she used to host a prayer group for about 10 to 12 ladies, and one day it came to her to make some soup.
“I had some chicken, some onions, some noodles, and I called my professor and said, ‘Do you mind?’ And I started then with one pot and his wife’s hot plate,” recalled Dunning.
“The more I did it, the more I loved it,” said Dunning. She said she would prepare soup and get biscuits and crackers and drinks and scour thrift stores for plates and placemats that she could iron to pull together the whole setup. And whatever soup recipe she found, she always tweaked it so she could call it her own.
After four years of studying at the Sussex County School of Theology in Georgetown (she was its first student) and serving her soup to the community there, she became ordained and made her ministry official by giving it its unique moniker and serving those who were in need.
Over the years, from the one pot and hot plate, Dunning’s ministry has come to include a donated RV, a donated van and six acres of donated land, and has helped birthed 17 Jusst Sooup ministries across the state. That’s not to mention a national nod as one of People magazine’s People’s Heroes in Hard Times and recognition from Oprah Winfrey for her efforts – although she is quick to remind herself to keep her focus, because it is “jusst sooup.”
Dunning still works at the Rehoboth Presbyterian Hall on Mondays and Thursdays, and in Brandywine on Tuesdays. She cooks on Wednesdays and is in Newport and at the Home of the Brave on Fridays.
“Lewes has been opened six years in April,” she said of the ministry there, explaining how it came to involve 17 churches in all. “I would get them started and move on.” She said she will have personally been at the Rehoboth Presbyterian Church for six years this July.
Dunning said she never realized homelessness was a problem until she started her ministry, and now, through its growth – in addition to a hot meal and a hug – she can offer people a place to lie down and help them with things like prescriptions or school supplies, or motel stays or fuel.
She has grown from her humble beginnings of 50 quarts of soup a week to around 950 quarts at one time and now, with 17 churches offering the Jusst Sooup ministry, she said she can’t even really put a number on the quarts of soup or the volunteers it takes to make the kitchens run, but she did say it’s a lot.
“We have done 350 people in one sitting,” she recalled. “We done kicked out some soup!”
As an ordained minister, Dunning said she has “married people and buried people.” On days with small crowds, such as a Monday in Rehoboth, for example, they might serve 50 people, and on Thursdays they might serve 90 to 120, with around 195 being the highest.
Not one to preach about being what it means to be a Christian, but rather one who tries to live out her Christianity, she said she enjoys the intimacy of a smaller group because she can minister to people in her own charismatic, non-judgmental way, without them feeling “preached to.”
“Every day there is a time of prayer, and we have the gospel music on, but I don’t preach,” she explained. “God didn’t call me to preach to his people, but he did call me to love them.”
She explained that the ministry was really built out of the gospel of St. John, 21:15-17, which states, “If you love me, feed my sheep.”
She said that, while she physically feeds people, she always tries to feed their other needs by being the ear they might need to listen to or a person they might need to lean on in times of trouble – sometimes just being a person to listen and let them cry.
Dunning has known times of trouble herself. After 31 years in their house, she and her husband and their family lost their home to foreclosure a few years back.
“It was a rough time,” she said. “And we spent some time in our van, but I still served and helped others.”
She said she felt comfort from the Holy Spirit again during that time and heard “it is well.” After feeling led to double up on her tithes one day at church and leaving herself and her husband with just $1 each, they watched TV when they got home from church, she recalled. One of the pastors on television was talking about someone who had doubled their tithes being blessed.
“He said for the camera to come in close and said ‘You, in the blue shirt, that doubled up on your tithes’… — and my husband had a blue shirt on,” she said, excitedly. “He said [they] would find a house for rent or sale near where [they] grew up.”
Dunning explained that she and her husband had gotten in the car and gone to look for places to live. They found a house less than mile from where Ken grew up – just like the preacher had said. She said that experience, of not knowing where they would live and what would happen next, and trusting God, has helped her to serve others.
“It showed me what other people go through,” she said. “The Lord didn’t call me to judge, he called me to serve. And when you are broken, it humbles you.”
Dunning, originally from Lewes, has always had the support of her husband, Ken, who hails from Rehoboth Beach and who she calls a “wonderful husband” and her high school sweetheart. They will be married for 40 years this July and have four sons and three grandchildren.
Ken works three jobs to support the family and helps at Jusst Sooup by setting the RV up at 5 a.m. on soup days. He recalled a story of a time when his wife had helped an older gentleman learn to write his name on the sign in sheet, because, at 77, he hadn’t ever learn to read or write.
“It’s the little things like that,” he said, “that add up.”
Daryll, a volunteer, said he has known Dale for about 12 years and said she “really has a heart for these people.”
“A lot of people are a couple of paychecks away from this,” he said, referring to the many people who call tents placed near the ministry their home. “She is just an awesome lady and just loves everybody. There are no barriers. You’d probably get the same message if you interviewed 100 people.”
Lois Carter, another volunteer, who has known Dunning for about 25 years, said Dunning doesn’t remember it, but she used to sit in church and say, “I’d like to start a soup kitchen.”
“I feel like God planted it before she even knew it,” said Carter. “She is so giving and charismatic, there is something special about her. If you need it and she’s got it, she’ll give it to you. She feeds people and helps people, and it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you’ve done. It’s a beautiful ministry.”
Carter said volunteers often think they are being a blessing to others, but many times it is the other way around. She spoke of a well-dressed, albeit dirty, gentleman, whom she said looked like he had obviously had a good job at one time, by the way he was dressed.
“Something about him really got to me, and I went over to him and asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Honey, don’t worry – it’ll be warm in a couple of months.”
“You think you are ministering to them, but really they are ministering to you,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “It changes your life. Everybody should volunteer somewhere. There’s more of Christ in the people walking through that door…”
Dunning was to join 39 other people in the Dispatch’s “Charitable Souls” event (the only one from Delaware) at Fager’s Island this week.
Jusst Sooup ministry has no set budget, and all of the donations they receive are spent as the need arises, said Dunning. None of the volunteers, including Dunning, receive any compensation, and they do not receive funding or support from the State of Delaware or other government agencies. For more information, or to donate, visit jusstsooup.org.