It started with a hot plate, which turned into a Crock-Pot, which turned into 17 Crock-Pots. Then it became a ministry.
Is that business savvy, or is it a spiritual mission so intense that it fortified its leader to serve thousands in need despite her own hardships? In this case, it’s a little of the former, and a lot of the latter.
Meet the Rev. Dale Dunning, whose Jusst Sooup Ministry serves 1,000 quarts of soup a week to feed the hungry and homeless in Sussex County. Dunning has led 17 downstate soup kitchens, and helped start two new ones near Newport last year. Jusst Sooup has served more than 55,000 meals, and assisted at least 5,000 homeless people since 2007.
The press loves her. And why wouldn’t we? About the time Dunning was receiving her Jefferson Award in Delaware, People Magazine was naming her a “Hero in Hard Times.” For serving the hungry here at home, she’s earned the ink.
This isn’t just about soup, as the name suggests. This is a ministry that draws its inspiration from John 21:17 If you love me, then feed my sheep.
“I wouldn’t have called me,” says Dunning. “But God called me.”
If you want to keep up with Dunning, you’d have to wear your running shoes. The reverend sets up shop at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church Monday and Thursday mornings, where she serves soup, sandwiches, apples and iced tea. On Tuesdays, she works at Brandywine Counseling in Georgetown. Sometimes she’ll visit the Home of the Brave, a home for veterans, located south of Milford.
Dunning, a graduate of the Sussex County School of Theology, does more than ladle soup. She dispenses prayers, hugs and smiles, too. She helps people write their names, put on their socks, find temporary housing and fill prescriptions.
“For me, it’s an honor,” Dunning says. “The more I do this, the more I desire to do this.”
People can freshen up in her donated motor home that she parks outside the door wherever she visits. Named Beulah after Dunning’s mother, the vehicle is a fixture in local Christmas parades.
The community supports Dunning’s mission. People donate toiletries. Local churches make sandwiches. Kickin’ Chicken and Domino’s Pizza donate food, as do the residents of Independence, a local development. Shore Taxes and AAA Storage help out, too. “The people of this community are absolutely wonderful to Jusst Sooup,” she says.
Music plays an important role in the ministry. Dunning’s son, Brooks, welcomes visitors by playing reggae and gospel music from just outside the dining room door. Local musicians created a CD called “Just Soup.” The CD, which raises money for the ministry, features icons like Keith Mack and Ed Shockley. Its cover boasts a photo of Dunning with her arms stretched to the heavens. (The CD is available at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach.)
“There are some people who feel that all hope is gone,” says Dunning. “People need to know someone cares.”
Dunning rises before 2 a.m. most days to make soup in her Lewes home. She wakes her husband, Ken, at 3:15 a.m. They arrive at church by 5:45 a.m. Ken, a quiet man who likes a good (or bad) joke, is often at some soup kitchen well before dawn.
Ken, like his wife, is a workhorse. When he’s finished at the soup kitchens, he starts his full-time job for a utilities company. He works three jobs, in fact, and would work a fourth to support his wife. The couple has been married for 40 years. And they’ve been through some seriously hard times.
Ken and Dale Dunning know what it’s like to lose a home to foreclosure, because they’ve lost theirs. That’s why their compassion feels sincere. They see themselves in the people they serve. “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect,” she says.
The only time Dunning is anything but positive is when she thinks of the way people treat the unfortunate among us. “People tend to look down on them,” she says. “What right do I have to humiliate anyone? How can I say I’m better than she is? No one deserves to be disrespected like that.”
Jusst Sooup is a family affair, and the Dunnings could not do what they do without stalwart volunteers.
Marion Forman, 84, is one of them. “It just breaks your heart when you have a nice home and you see these people wandering around with nothing,” she says.
Demand is up for Dunning’s services. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, Delaware increased from 933 homeless people to 1,130 people statewide—about a 21 percent increase—between 2008 and 2009. Those stats reflect the impact of the economic downturn. Dunning knows there are more homeless people in Sussex County than she can help. They sleep in cars or in the woods.
In December, Schell Brothers, a local developer, donated six acres of land near Harbeson to Jusst Sooup. It’s a cornfield now, but Dunning hopes to establish her own building there soon, complete with a commercial kitchen, chapel and garden. Its name will be The Jusst Sooup Ranch.
Dunning’s smile widens when she talks about the building. The ideas burst from her like water over a dam. “We can have a mega-garden and a mega-kitchen,” she says. “There are a lot of things I cannot do, but I’m going to try real hard to put a dent in hunger.”
People in need can stay at the Dunnings’ ranch temporarily. If they’re unemployed, they can mow grass or tend the garden or wash dishes to earn a few bucks. If they’re alcoholics, they get rides to AA meetings.
“We’re going to be a family,” Dunning says. “If we all pull together, it will not be so hard on anyone. I know the Lord did not bless me with six acres of land for it to just sit there.”
Chris Schell of Schell Brothers calls Dunning “one of those rare people who truly puts the needs of others before her own,” he says. “Her unselfish labor of love has been life changing for people right here in the local community.”
The Dunnings would rather feed somebody else before themselves, Schell adds. “They’ve been helping people for over 15 years and they deserve a little help from the community.”
So, yes: It started with a hot plate. But it grew to be so much more. “I never thought it would get this big,” says Dunning. “I thought I would just keep carrying around that little pot.”