Soup van's history of holy risk-taking



The Fitzroy Soup Van has blessed inner Melbourne city life for 40 years. Initially the project of student volunteers who won the support of the St Vincent de Paul Society, it has expanded to five vans with over 600 volunteers on the Fitzroy list.

Every Evening without Fail by Anne TuoheyEvery Evening without Fail by Anne Tuohey tells the story of the Soup Van and the changing contexts in which it provides food for hungry people. It also stirs reflection on how recent developments in society and in religious groups with similar forms of outreach have affected the people whom they serve.

The van began as a student initiative. It was basic: the food was predictable and cold, and the van was ramshackle — because the back doors could not be locked the contents were likely to fall on the street. The volunteers were fearless, going into boarding houses, through parks, under bridges and everywhere homeless people were to be found. Health and safety protocols were minimal.

The van was also centred in the Catholic Church. Although its volunteers came from many religions and none, with no questions asked, most of the leading spirits had been students at Catholic schools and often involved in church youth groups. The van itself responded to the decision of the Missionaries of Charity to move their accommodation for homeless men from Fitzroy to semi-rural Greenvale. Young volunteers who had helped out in Fitzroy recognised the effect this would have on homeless people. The van was to address their needs.

It was also natural for the van to find support from the Vinnies, the Catholic organisation most involved with homeless people. Within a short period the Ozanam House Kitchens became available for preparing food. Initially, too, some groups working on the Van would begin the evening with a prayer. The Vinnies ethos inevitably influenced the character of the van, and particularly the conviction that the Vannies' mission was primarily to engage respectfully and warmly with the people whom they served.

Over 40 years the scope, organisation and service offered by the soup van has grown. But it continues to be local: volunteers identify less with the Vinnies than with the van, and less with the van than with their night on it.

The contexts of the van's work have changed greatly. The Catholic Church is now much more thinly spread in the area that the van serves. As in other churches local congregations and their leadership are ageing and diminished; organisations for students and young people, particularly those with an emphasis on social outreach, attract less members. This thinning out also affects the vans. Fewer volunteers are connected to church congregations, and many share the widespread ambivalence about the Catholic Church in the wake of the sexual abuse crisis.


"The history of the soup van is a history of risk taking. So is the Christian tradition at its best."


A positive response to these changes has been the stronger connection of the vans with the broader community. The vans are supported by food businesses, and many corporations also provide volunteers for particular nights.

The vans, like similar ventures of the Baptists and the Salvation Army, have also been affected by the growth in government regulation. Health and safety regulations and those protecting child safety have affected the preparation, transport and serving of food, as well as the opportunity of school students to volunteer. More demands, too, are now made of volunteers: they must have police checks, and incidents need to be monitored and reported.

These changes are worth reflecting on. They have certainly improved the quality of the food provided and diminished the risk of providing poisoned food (although a far greater risk has always surely come from the squalor of the living conditions and obstacles to personal hygiene facing the people who are served). And the risks of exposing young people to dangerous situations have also lessened.

The culture of risk avoidance, with the limitations it places on the participation of young people in adult activities and on preparation of food outside a registered kitchen and transport, however, sits uneasily with the spirit of the soup van. It jars with a venture where highly motivated young people, who had already moved beyond school boundaries when students, ran with an idea, implemented it on the smell of an oily rag, learned from their mistakes and soon found partners in cooperative adults and organisations. The history of the soup van is a history of risk taking.

So is the Christian tradition at its best. It is about laying down one's life for others, going to Jerusalem at the risk of being killed, having higher goals than preserving one's health and life, visiting the infectious sick in lice-ridden hovels, and going out to strangers on the edge of society beyond the safe centre. It is the church of the martyrs. These values are learned in youth, not recklessly, but neither in sanitised nor completely safe environments.

The soup van is in good hands because its people recognise the tension between the need for compliance with security and safety regulations and the call to draw close to people whose lives are lived beyond those boundaries. People attracted to the vans will jump over barriers that stop them walking the extra mile.

The greater risk is to churches of having the energy, idealism and transgressiveness of youth lost to their congregations, and allowing their institutions to be controlled, rather than informed, by the avoidance of risk and the ticking of boxes. Vans and their like are signs of life and faithfulness.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, St Vincent de Paul Society, soup van, homelessness



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Existing comments

Thanks Andrew! If every Catholic parish had a similar outreach to the needy ones in our community then our Church would be much more likely to enhance it reputation, so badly damaged by the child sexual abuse crisis.

Grant Allen | 27 July 2018  

Volunteering is an immensely joyous experience. It breaks down barriers and connects people - people who may not have met each other in any other circumstance. There is a tension between keeping volunteers safe and taking risks for people who need that personal touch. Risk-taking thrives when the person taking the risk is comfortable and secure in themselves despite seemingly adverse conditions. It's been my experience that helping others has benefitted me, a sort of win-win for both. But there must be trust that the situation is safe emotionally.

Pam | 27 July 2018  

“sits uneasily with the spirit of the soup van. It jars with a venture….” Not necessarily. If you see the dignity of the person receiving the service as enhanced when service is provided by a smooth machine in which varying outcomes have been predicted and catered for, as opposed to a ramshackle assemblage of staccato responses to exigencies as they occur, the ‘van’ (or the fleet of vans) should be as professionally run as the food service at, say, McDonald’s. The dignity of human effort requires it to ‘progress’, ie., to move in a direction that becomes more orderly through practised skill and counter to the second law of thermodynamics which, basically, says that things, if not tweaked, will devolve to custard. Authenticity and spontaneity work best when they have been … rehearsed. Hi-vis vests, panic buttons to the police, trained reflective listening, statistics for required amounts and tastes … all grist for the mill of one of the preeminent differences between the First World and the Third, viz., that things work better in the former. The van is a representation of the difference, a First World outreach to a Third World segment.

Roy Chen Yee | 28 July 2018  

Thank You Andrew.I wonder if the Vannies have been in contact with Edmund Rice Camps Victoria to seek young adult support. If a vannies contact is available I will gladly put the two in touch. Thank you from Michael Coughlin cfc

michael | 30 July 2018  

Thanks Andrew, As a volunteer in my Parish for many years, both as Acolyte and visitor to the sick and twice in my time of ministry, the dying, I note the legal and safety hoops we now have to go through to help those in need of our ministry. I note with interest how the mission of the van(s) has now moved from the Church to the community. Maybe that is a good thing in a way. What is so sad it that with neoliberalism and individualism now shaping public agendas, communities, churches and charitable institutions are expected to take up the role of helping our disadvantaged as Governments 'wash their hands' of the problem.

Gavin O'Brien | 02 August 2018  

Well said Andrew. Yes, the biggest risk facing Christians today might well be that of not risking at all. May those who provide such service to the needy be given every possible support. And “ the Father who sees everything you do will reward you.”

Ern Azzopardi | 02 August 2018  

This is well written and very good.

Marie Bourke | 03 August 2018  

Your words touched my heart, Andy. Inculturation exemplified. Great Thanks for this piece!

Michael Furtado | 03 August 2018  

"What is so sad it that with neoliberalism and individualism now shaping public agendas, communities, churches and charitable institutions are expected to take up the role of helping our disadvantaged as Governments 'wash their hands' of the problem." Says Gavin wisely. it really is a bit rich when the contributions from governments towards caring for their citizens are regulations. These wonderful volunteers and work let governments off the hook to the extent they rely on it. Your article, Andrew, is a wonderful balance to the many cruel and inhumane we have to face about ourselves each day. There must be more people doing half decent or good things than the rest otherwise there would be more cruelty than there presently is.

Michael D. Breen | 03 August 2018  

When travellers moved on foot, with or without pack mules, monasteries held it a sacred obligation to provide rest and warm food, to minister - Latin MINISTRARE, Italian MINESTRARE - to the stranger in need, an obligation established for millennia in Judaism. cauldron of rich broth, topped up with the best meats and vegetables, bread, pasta, simmered every day and night over a fire in the visitors' refectory. This, from its purpose, was called LA MINESTRA, whose augmentative inflection is MINESTRONE, a word wherein, knowinly or not, we still thank and honour the Monks. A soup van once horse-drawn in Adelaide was probably serving its second century when, during a National Student Conference, I met Adelaide's great contribution to Cordon Bleu: the iconic Pie Floater. Back home, as undergraduates ending our Friday Night Ritual Pub Crawls, our last stop, nestled against the Swanston St kerb east of the Station Clocks, across Flinders from Y&J's (Goodnight, sweet Chloe!) stood MA'S PIE CART. Real meat pies, all night til we, blear-eyed, felt the caress of Rosy-fingered Dawn; RHODODAKTYLOS EOS - pointing the way home from our Odyssean ordeal!

james marchment | 03 August 2018  

With respect, Roy, Andy's point is surely that we are all persons, regardless from what ends of the social stratum we come. The second law of thermodynamics, while referenced with your usual elan, has nothing to do with a transaction that, in the end, relies on our shared humanity to ensure effective outreach. And, by the way, there is no such thing anymore as a Third World.

Michael Furtado | 04 August 2018  

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