For the the first time in the 15 years of her ministry, the Rev. Dale Dunning has had to turn people away from her Jusst Sooup kitchen.
One man who was looking for food at the soup kitchen July 31 was so hungry he was rummaging through garbage outside the church hall used by Dunning for the past nine years. Dunning's husband, Ken, stopped by a fast-food restaurant to get the man some food.
Instead of serving hot soup and sandwiches, early that morning Dunning and her volunteers cleaned out their equipment and supplies. “This is a very sad day,” said volunteer Lois Carter.
Dunning and her volunteers were fighting back tears as they moved out. Dozens of people looking for a hot meal were turned away.
For the past nine years, Dunning has used the Rehoboth Presbyterian Church of Midway church hall along Route 1 near Rehoboth Beach as a soup kitchen and ministry to serve the area's homeless and others in need. She used the site every Monday and Thursday to serve breakfast and lunch to more than 100 people; the small, white building had become a beacon for those in need.
But this week, following a discussion with the Rev. Keith Offen, minister of the small congregation, Dunning decided to move her soup kitchen out. Whether Dunning will work out issues with the church or move to another location is still up in the air.
Offen said it was Dunning's decision to leave. “She has not been asked to leave,” he said. “She has some issues with other groups that meet there, and she would like us to speak with these other groups. She is reevaluating the situation.”
Volunteers said there had been reports of vandalism, break-ins, loitering and drinking. Offen said the hall is used by groups – such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – almost every night.
Dunning said she feels the church congregation is blaming the soup kitchen for the problems. In addition, she said, she has to clean up after other groups when she arrives in the morning. “The pastor told me there was a lot going on the church didn't like,” she said. “I asked him if he wanted me to leave. He said the church would have a meeting and let me know.”
It was then that Dunning decided to move out, at least temporarily. “I do not want to be a problem for the church,” she said. “I could come back, but there would need to be some changes.”
In reality, she said, she needs a larger building for her ministry to continue to grow.
“She is more than welcome to stay,” Offen said. “Dale is a very special person. She never wants to cause a problem and is always doing good deeds. I encouraged her to keep the kitchen open.”
He said he hoped Dunning would return soon.
Prayers before shutting the door
Before she shut the door Thursday, Dunning gathered volunteers for a prayer. “I knew this day would come, but I didn't know it would be this day,” she said.
She finished her prayer asking for blessings on the church and its congregation. “Help us to not get angry and keep our focus on the Lord,” she said.
“This is not over – it's a new beginning,” said volunteer Marie Robinson. “The Jusst Sooup kitchen will be greater and bigger than before.”
“Dale has had so much opposition that it's becoming exhausting to her,” said volunteer Michelle Clarke. “It's wearing her out.”
“People need to come to the realization that there are homeless people in Sussex County and that there are hungry people in Sussex County,” said Robinson, a former preacher. “Those of us who can help those in need should try to do something. This place is always warm and inviting. If all churches had this kind of atmosphere what a wonderful world this would be.”
“The first time I came here it was a soup kitchen; the second time I came it became my church. Dale feeds the belly and also feeds the soul. You can't help but not be touched here,” said volunteer Francis Sieg
Sieg said one can only wonder how many lives Dunning has touched and changed through her soup kitchen ministry.
Dale's husband, Ken, sweating from helping move out the ministry's equipment, still had a smile on his face. “If we had it easy, we wouldn't know how to act. The Lord has a plan for us,” he said.
Dunning's ministry subject of TV show
Dunning has been getting out of bed before sunrise for more than 15 years to cook soup for area soup kitchens and organizations. Her grassroots ministry has expanded to serve those in need with clothing, lodging, food and even help with purchasing medicine. She even washes clothes for people who frequent the soup kitchen who have jobs but no place to live or wash clothes for work.
The Dunning family received national attention during a segment of the TV show “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” The show was filmed in August 2011 and aired as a Thanksgiving special. Hundreds of volunteers and dozens of contractors mobilized over a week to construct the Jusst Sooup Ranch for the Dunnings, which includes a large soup kitchen as the answer to her dream to have a permanent site for her ministry.
That dream still has not materialized. Because of concerns expressed by area residents, the Sussex County Board of Adjustment unanimously denied a special-use permit to operate a soup kitchen on the property. A public soup kitchen is not permitted under regulations for uses on agricultural-residential zoned land.
The Dunnings are pressing forward to use the building as a church, a permitted use under the AR-1 zoning on the 6-acre parcel.