An honor to serve

Over the past year, one of the high points for me each week has been the hour I spend early Wednesday mornings in the kitchen of Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Tulsa helping with basic food prep tasks for the Iron Gate soup kitchen. As Iron Gate Executive Director Connie Cronley wrote in this guest blog, Iron Gate is a 26-year old organization with a simple mission: To feed people. As a kitchen volunteer, I’ve known that the food I help prepare goes to the roughly 1,500 to 2,000 guests who receive a hot meal at Iron Gate each week. This past Tuesday, Election Day, I decided to finally spend a morning with those Iron Gate serves – and to take some notes for the blog .

I arrive at the Church at 8:30 just as a line-up of some 75-100 people is being led through the outside doors to the medium-sized dining room. Iron Gate actually serves two meals each morning: a breakfast at 8:30, followed by a lunch starting around 9:00 (on weekends they serve a single morning meal). The guests – as they are always called – eat well at Iron Gate. I am quickly put to work dishing out large helpings of  Cream of Wheat and biscuits for the first meal, which goes along with sausages and applesauce. Once the sausages run out, the second meal quickly materializes – chicken pot pie, a green salad, and a croissant, along with fruit salad and a donut for dessert. Their food comes from a variety of sources – baked goods and fresh produce from Reasor’s, canned goods from the Food Bank, meat and other supplies from donations.

Tuesday turns out to be a relatively slow day at Iron Gate. The volunteer I am serving with, Mark, explains that things are always slower early in the month when workers have been paid and families have received their food stamp benefits. By the end of the month, demand increases substantially. The week before, they went through 12 casseroles in one day, each of which can serve 125 people. But they’ve never run out of food.

As the guests came through the line, Mark, greets many of them by name and spends time bantering with them about what’s going on in their lives.  A retired Marine and data processor for American Airlines, Mark has been volunteering once a week at Iron Gate for 12 years. He tells me that as he has gotten to know the folks who come there to eat, he has grown to understand that he is truly no different from the people on the other side of the food line. Recalling his own life experiences, he says, he realizes that the simplest occasions in our lives can make the difference between being successful and needing help. Most of the regular guests at Iron Gate struggle with chronic health problems, mental illness and substance abuse issues; some are former felons. However, since the onset of the economic downturn, they have seen a sharp rise in the number of families with children who are turning to Iron Gate for short-term help.

Even though it is my first time serving, some of the guests quickly become familiar as they return for second and third helpings.  At Iron Gate, guests are invited to come back through the line to eat as much as they want. The idea, explains Ernest, the program’s Operation Manager, is that no one should ever leave hungry. Some of the guests may be fed dinner at a shelter in the evening, or prepare other meals for themselves at home, but for some, this will be the only meal they eat this day.

Ernest, who holds court over the dining room like a master of ceremonies, explains to me that 95 percent of their guests come every day. They come for the togetherness and friendship, and because they know they will be treated properly. “Just because you’re standing in that line, doesn’t make you any less of a person or less deserving of respect”, he says, echoing Mark. One of the other staffers tells me that when people who first started coming to Iron Gate while homeless move on to find work and shelter, they will often come back just to check on their friends and get caught up.

When I leave, it’s 11:00 and the food line has been shut down for 20 minutes. A young man walks in carrying a plastic bag that looks to contain all his wordly possessions. “Sir, did you eat anything today?’, Ernest asks. “No”, says the man. “You stay right here,” says Ernest. He heads into the kitchen to find some leftover food to feed one more hungry Oklahoman.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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