Dignity on the menu

Beth Redden serving meals at the Carpenter's Corner on Prince Street in Beckley.(Rick Barbero/The Register-Herald)

Right around 11 a.m. on a brisk November day, people gather outside The Carpenter’s Corner, in the annex of First Christian Church in downtown Beckley. They form a line that stretches down Prince Street.

The diverse gathering of people – men and women, black and white, young and old – are there to share a meal. They are dressed in layers.

The weather is cold, the church annex warm. The aroma of a hot meal greets folks at the door. 

The clink of silverware and clang of old-fashioned trays hitting a table are the sounds of a busy school cafeteria.

People greet one another happily and boisterously.

A young man with a tear-shaped tattoo on his face collects trays and pushes a broom. 

A young woman holds the door for others, her thick shawl carrying a whiff of marijuana.

Volunteers busy themselves in the kitchen, filling one plate after another.

After the meal, diners deposit their trays in a nearby bin of bleach and water and then filter out of the church.

They linger on the street, calling in a friendly way to one another and gathering in groups to chat.

The Carpenter’s Corner is about getting fed, they say.

It is about feeling Christ’s love.

It is a place where their lives are not a stigma or a controversy.

It is a place where being hungry is not a sin.

Not everyone is happy about the philanthropy. Downtown business owners have said that patrons of The Carpenter’s Corner have sat on their steps and blocked their doorways. They have said that lines of unemployed people – whom some have characterized as “homeless” and “drug addicts” – are not a good look for their businesses. They have said that the presence of Carpenter’s Corner patrons harms the image of downtown Beckley, now home to West Virginia University Institute of Technology.

Scott Lawson, on the incoming board of directors of The Carpenter’s Corner, announced Nov. 12 that the owner of the former Tudor’s building on Fourth Street had agreed to donate the building to Carpenter’s Corner. The move out of the church and away from downtown would benefit the ministry by cutting rent and utility fees and would offer a nicer kitchen area and better parking for volunteers.

The news was greeted with pushback from a few Fourth Street neighbors.

While the management of Dobra Zupas restaurant on Oakwood Avenue welcomed The Carpenter’s Corner to the neighborhood in Facebook posts, several business owners in the vicinity said it seemed as if the City of Beckley was “kicking (the ministry) down the street.” They said a different location could be found to protect property values yet still serve those who use the program.

When First Christian Pastor Don Snyder appeared at the regular meeting of Raleigh County Commission recently to offer the opening prayer, he told Raleigh Commission President David Tolliver that Carpenter’s Corner is not likely to be welcomed anywhere.

“They don’t want them out,” Snyder said. “They want them closed. That’s the truth of the matter. They want it closed.

“They don’t want it in uptown Beckley,” he told Tolliver. “They don’t want it on Fourth Street. There’s no place up in Beckley where it can go, where folks will be happy.” 

According to Snyder, the average client of the ministry is not homeless. Many have apartments and pay a rent in Beckley that leaves them unable to afford food, he said.

Diners all across the city wait in lines. They wait for fast food on Harper Road and at Cranberry Creek Shopping Center. They wait in line at mall restaurants.

When it happens at The Carpenter’s Corner at First Christian Church in downtown Beckley, however, as it does on five and sometimes six days each week, it is controversial. 

“Some people say, ‘Well, it looks unsightly,’” said Snyder.

The Carpenter’s Corner volunteers serve a hot lunch to anyone in need. The lunch is free. There are folding chairs and tables set up where diners may sit and chat or “find fellowship” with other believers.

Nobody is turned away, regardless of socioeconomic status.

On a typical day, 100 to 150 people step inside for a meal. Due to state fire code, Snyder said, some have to wait their turn outside.

“We have to abide by fire rules,” he said. “Only so many can be in the building at any one time.”

The Carpenter’s Corner is supported by nearly 40 local churches. Lawson said the ministry is fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ. Lawson said the charity is meeting people’s “physical and spiritual needs” by offering a hot lunch and a seat and chair to someone in need.

Matthew Myers is not bothered by a line of hungry people.

Myers, 34, works at a fast food restaurant in Beckley. He knows what it is like to look across a crowd of strangers who want lunch so badly that they will stand in line to get served.

One difference is that The Carpenter’s Corner is doing it without making a profit.

“I actually believe this program helps a lot of people who can’t afford to get their food and stuff like that,” said Myers on Thursday, as he sat eating there. “It’s a real benefit.”

Myers sees many new faces at Carpenter’s Corner for lunch, but he occasionally sees the same faces of those he met when he first came to Beckley and started eating at the church.

Myers was “looking for a new start” almost four years ago, he said, and several friends told him he could find a job in Beckley.

“I basically started coming here when I got down here,” he said. “Once I got down here ... I’m working now, but it’s still hard to get food and keep food in the house, with all the bills and stuff.

“If it wasn’t for this, I probably wouldn’t have anything.”

About 20 percent of Beckleyans live below the national poverty level, according to data posted at worldpopulationreview.com.

Part-time workers (30 percent) are more likely than the unemployed (28 percent) to live below poverty level in the city, statistically. Three percent of those in Beckley who have full-time jobs live below poverty level.

Myers said he loves the food and comes for lunch any day that he is not at work.

Myers, who spoke openly and smiled easily, sat next to his boss, 37-year-old Aaron Webker.

Webker, the late shift manager of the fast food restaurant, said he has worked at the restaurant for the past three years. Slightly reserved, Webker spoke in a thoughtful, polite way that caused hearers to lean forward to listen. His quiet demeanor had an authoritative quality.

“I think it’s God-given,” Webker remarked, when asked what he thought of the feeding program. “I believe in God.

“And I believe, if there wasn’t a God, I don’t think this would be here, right now.”

“Sometimes,” interjected Myers, “if they have extra stuff to give out, that’s still good, they’ll give you free things.”

Summer Dawn Roton and a female friend had also stopped in for lunch.

With their cheerful sweaters, neat hair and tasteful accessories, the women would have easily blended into a crowd of professionals at most local restaurants.

Roton perched a whimsical hat on her head.

A day earlier, she had celebrated her one-year anniversary of coming to Beckley, she said. It had also been the one-year anniversary of her decision to get help for the disease of addiction.

In a world where poverty, addiction and mental illness are stigmatized, The Carpenter’s Corner is a place where struggling people are not shunned. Everyone is served, regardless of ability to pay. Everybody is welcomed.

“I didn’t have nothing but the clothes on my back, and these people helped me get fed, and my boys,” said Roton. “It’s been hard.

“Every day.”

Roton’s dress and manners would not have placed her as someone who had once depended on The Carpenter’s Corner to eat, but she shone with a gritty charisma that shot down any notion that she was a middle-class naif, even before she told her story.

She is from Elkview. When her mom died, she “got on the street” with her two children in Charleston, she explained. 

“I felt so bad about the way I did my kids, that I had to do something,” she said. “Then a little preacher man got hold of me, and I found God.”

Myers had come to Beckley to find work.

Roton said she came to Beckley because she needed a homeless shelter that would accept her kids.

She conveyed the information in a pragmatic way. 

A shelter in Charleston referred her to Pine Haven Homeless Shelter in Beckley and brought her there, she said.

She stayed two months at Pine Haven, where she found help, she reported. She started a treatment program for opioid addiction. Eventually, she and her family moved out of the shelter to a hotel where they stayed three months. In February, she and her boyfriend got married. In April, they were able to afford an apartment. 

“I got a one-bedroom right now, with two kids, but hey, we’ve got a roof over our heads,” Roton said, in the casual tone of a friend who is chatting easily over lunch. “I got into drug rehab and have been clean a year ago yesterday.

“I go to Carpenter’s Corner every day, about lunchtime, and they feed me lunch.

“I don’t know what I’d do without this place,” she emphasized. “The program, they feed you, with no questions asked, and that’s a blessing from God.

“These people do want to help you,” she continued. “They want to get them off the streets.

“It’s hard to get off the street,” she said. “I was on the street for a year and a half, with two kids.”

Poverty is controversial. Standing in line to eat, using a restroom, holding hands with a partner and even pushing a stroller may be regarded with suspicion if the person doing it appears poor or “homeless.”

Finding a job is nearly impossible when you are actually homeless, Roton said.

“You can’t take showers and stuff. You can’t get a daytime job, because you’re walking all night, especially if you’re a woman,” Roton explained. “You can’t just lay down, anywhere, ’cause you’re scared. You know what I’m saying?

“So most of us stay up all night and walk.”

Roton said those who find a safer place to sleep in a public area during the day may face a criminal charge of trespassing.

“They’re just trying to lay down,” Roton insisted.

For people who face judgment, harsh words, critical faces and closed doors from nearly everyone who sees them, the open door and nonjudgmental care at The Carpenter’s Corner is irresistible.

“It puts a smile on their face. They get companionship,” Roton said, motioning at the others who were eating. “They get to see there’s people out there, ‘just like me.’

“They don’t have to feel so isolated,” she added. “Everybody’s in the same boat, and if they ain’t in the same boat, they’ve been there.”

Roton regained her driver’s license and got a car this past year. Her personal Facebook page is awash with positive comments from friends.

 “I hope you are so proud of yourself,” one friend posted. “You have come so far. You have always been beautiful, but now you look healthy and happy.”

Roton credits Carpenter’s Corner and Pine Haven Homeless Shelter for helping her leave the streets and does not plan to turn her back on the program now that she has a home and a car. 

“I just want to give back a little bit of what (The Carpenter’s Corner) gives to me. You know what I’m saying?” Roton asked.

Roton said she knows that some of the Corner crowd have mental health issues. Some may have criminal records. Others have not yet taken the first step to get help for addiction.

Within The Carpenter’s Corner crowd, they still matter.

“We’re reaching out to the ones we know ain’t clean, but they’ve got so much potential,” she said. “It’s not for me to judge.

“Everybody needs love, you know.”

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