Story by Bill Brewer
Photography by Bill Brewer and Stephanie Richer
Mike and Melanie Wrinkle have come to believe in wings and prayers.
The members of Holy Ghost Church rely on them when it involves providing meals and basic necessities like clothing and toiletries to the homeless.
But four years after experiencing their own parable of five loaves and two fish, the Wrinkles have seen what many wings and answered prayers can do.
The Holy Spirit is indeed uplifting and really does provide.
What began as a sudden need to care for the homeless one Christmas is now a year-round outreach of the Diocese of Knoxville, a ministry that may be rolled out to other parishes through a partnership with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.
Most successful ministries start small, and the Hope Kitchen fits that model.
“We’re basically a wing and a prayer. Parishioners step up. The Knights of Columbus steps up. The CCW steps up. And we’re quite frugal in our shopping. We’ve learned to feed the masses with not a lot, but we get it done,” Mr. Wrinkle said.
The Wrinkles’ efforts to reach out to the homeless in Knoxville’s inner city began modestly. They had worked with other groups in outreach to the most vulnerable and needy in the city. Then, nudged by the Holy Spirit to check on their brothers and sisters just before Christ-mas four years ago, the Wrinkles on their own visited various camps.
That’s when a cold serving of reality hit them like the below-freezing weather they were enduring.
“Several of them broke down and cried as they came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Michael, nobody is going to feed us on Christmas.’ For 20-something years, certain facilities had fed them at Christmas. But this year, that was not going to happen. We then scrambled. We had five days to get it together. On a wing and a prayer, we put it together. The parishioners of Holy Ghost backed us up,” recalled Mr. Wrinkle, who is a member of Holy Ghost Church.
The Wrinkles didn’t realize it at the time, but they were giving life to a project that is now known as the Hope Kitchen and involves dozens of volunteers from different parishes and a partnership with Catholic Charities.
With less than a week to Christmas in 2016, the Wrinkles put out the word to the Holy Ghost community that items were needed for the inner-city homeless. But given the last-minute appeal and the fact nearly everyone has other priorities at that time of year, the Wrinkles weren’t hopeful for much of a response.
They set out to get whatever $50 would buy to prayerfully cover the need. When they arrived at Holy Ghost, they were unprepared for what greeted them.
“I started preparing in the Holy Ghost kitchen on Christmas Eve with whatever I had — soup. I was going to make pots of soup since that was what I had, and it was freezing cold outside — 13 degrees. But when I looked around, the basement was packed full of things that parishioners had brought. I had no idea that anyone would do this. I had put out a call for any help I could get. We needed trucks to get all the provisions to the homeless. It was beautiful,” Mr. Wrinkle said.
“That’s when Hope Kitchen really started. We found the need that Christmas. We are the church that is out here now doing this. We have the only kitchen around this area utilized for this besides the missions. It’s a blessing and a godsend. The priests here, Father Bill McNeeley and Father John Dowling before him, never flinched. They both said this is something we needed to do,” he added.
Mr. Wrinkle approached then-Holy Ghost pastor Father Dowling about doing more of that kind of outreach to the area around the church. Father Dowling said yes, absolutely. When Father Dowling was reassigned to St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain and Father McNeeley was reassigned to Holy Ghost, Father McNeeley then said yes, absolutely, to the homeless outreach.
“Holy Ghost is a parish that sits in the middle of ground zero with the homeless. The Knights of Columbus, with our priests and parishioners, we got together and realized there’s a great need here. Parishioners jumped on board and have backed us,” Mr. Wrinkle said. “We just try to do what we can. We serve more meals out of Holy Ghost with Hope Kitchen and Catholic Charities than a lot of the other churches do. What we’ve found out is a number of inner-city churches have stopped their programs (to feed the homeless).”
God will provide, and as some churches and organizations in the inner city scaled back their homeless outreach, Holy Ghost and its cadre of volunteers were ready to step up. In fact, every aspect of the early Hope Kitchen was volunteer, from funding and supplies to staffing.
Knights of Columbus councils at Holy Ghost and the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus have been involved, as has the St. Vincent de Paul Society at the cathedral parish. The Council of Catholic Women at Holy Ghost also is playing a key role.
Mr. Wrinkle describes the homeless need as “huge,” going beyond what the main homeless missions in Knoxville handle. He said the homeless population covers the demographic spectrum.
“We have young people out here. We have elderly. We have mentally ill people. The list goes on and on. You can’t fill all the needs. It’s just impossible,” he said. “We work with a couple of missions that are frontline missions. We’re all pretty small, but we’re powerful. We’re the frontline people, the guys and women who walk the railroad tracks and the creek beds to reach those in need.”
After the outreach’s meager beginning, a team of volunteers again served hot meals, provided necessities, and handed out clothing on Christmas 2020, and offered Christmas stockings to each person, too. Mr. Wrinkle described it in its simplest terms: “We just want to bring some joy to these people. It’s Christ’s birthday.”
Bishop Richard F. Stika sees the Holy Spirit working alongside the Hope Kitchen volunteers and among the most vulnerable being assisted through the Catholic faith. He knows they’re the face, hands, and mercy of Jesus.
“In Holy Scripture, St. Paul speaks to us about hope. It’s more than just wishing to make something happen. It allows us to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in very merciful ways. This ministry, from its very humble beginning four years ago, and with all of the hard work that goes into it, is a genuine example of what hope can offer,” Bishop Stika said. “I am grateful for the work this ministry does to feed the hungry and serve the vulnerable on the streets and sidewalks of their community and around their parish.”
Father McNeeley, the Wrinkles, and Lisa Healy, executive director of Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, echo Bishop Richard F. Stika in saying the Hope Kitchen not only is a caring corporal work of mercy, but it also can be an effective evangelization and ecumenical ministry.
“We’re out here with other missions. We’re out here with other denominations, whether it be Baptists, Presbyterians, or whatever. We’re able to rub elbows and discuss our beliefs with them and find out how much we have in common because we’re out there together. It makes for incredible camaraderie,” Mr. Wrinkle said. “Now on the streets, they call us either the Holy Ghosters, or here comes Holy Ghost Mission, or here come the Catholics. It’s kind of cool when you pull up and people realize who you are, not only the homeless, but the other missions, too. They’re cheering us on. It’s a loud statement.”
When Father McNeeley watches what takes place each Saturday the Hope Kitchen is at work in his parish, he sees love, compassion, and appreciation, as well as the reflection of Christ’s love in those who are participating in the ministry, both giving and receiving.
“It’s a great opportunity to live out our Gospel obligation to serve Christ in the face of those in need,” he said. “What I see in their eyes is the love of Christ reflected back to us. When we serve Christ in our neighbors, it makes us aware of our own poverty. One thing I’ve seen over the years is we receive far more than we feel we have given.”
2021 promises to be a breakout year for the Hope Kitchen. After getting involved during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Catholic Charities of East Tennessee now wants to replicate what the Wrinkles and Father McNeeley are doing at Holy Ghost in other Diocese of Knoxville parishes.
Mrs. Healy is all in. She has watched firsthand as Mr. Wrinkle cranks up the Holy Ghost kitchen and volunteers fill the church’s basement and parking lot. She also has noticed how homeless men and women and others in need make their way down the alley just behind the church to be touched by Christ. She, her husband, her staff, and their family members are among the volunteers.
After presenting Mr. Wrinkle with Catholic Charities’ Pope Francis Service to the Poor Award last March, which honored his work to feed the homeless and live out the call of faith and love, Mrs. Healy met with him, Father McNeeley, and Jimmy Dee and John Hitt of the Knights of Columbus. They discussed expanding the Holy Ghost homeless ministry and officially recognizing it as the Hope Kitchen.
She believes the time has come.
“Meeting people where they’re at is what we’re trying to do. That’s why taking Hope Kitchen on the road is important to us. It’s difficult for people to get to services, and if we can bring a little hope to where they’re at, and meet them where they’re at, that’s what we want to do,” Mrs. Healy said.
The need to be mobile was made critically clear during the coronavirus pandemic, when people have had to follow safety guidelines by remaining isolated. Many businesses and organizations have told employees to work from home, and even physician visits are being done remotely.
Catholic Charities has had initial discussion with the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic about teaming up. Mrs. Healy said there is interest in the Hope Kitchen joining the mobile clinic at the sites where the clinic visits each month.
She also is interested in setting up the Hope Kitchen at diocesan churches that have kitchen facilities, from where they can serve those in need in their communities.
Mrs. Healy emphasized that the initiative must have buy-in from parishes and volunteers for it to be successful. While Catholic Charities has access to resources, it has a very small staff. Catholic Charities operates 10 social-service programs, including Hope Kitchen.
“It’s grassroots. There is no staff hired for this. We go out and do it ourselves,” she said. “We just want to be a little ray of hope. It’s just a small thing, but we just want people to know they are loved and that we care. Maybe we can give them a hot meal, or a toothbrush, or some wet wipes. This is so grassroots, and we want it to be mobile.”
This time next year, Mrs. Healy hopes to see the Hope Kitchen and the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic side by side, being the face and hands of Jesus at several diocesan locations. She also hopes to see the Hope Kitchen operating out of different parishes, led by their volunteers, and reaching out to those most in need in areas outside East Tennessee metro areas.
The mobile clinic visits Washburn and Rutledge in Grainger County, Decatur in Meigs County, Crab Orchard in Cumberland County, Athens in McMinn County, and Gatlinburg in Sevier County each month.
“Hope Kitchen wants to partner with the Legacy Clinic to bring the charity of the Church to the areas they already are in. This is the dream, to affect East Tennessee. Then maybe for those churches that have a small kitchen, maybe we could go in on a day they pick, and with their volunteers we could bring the Hope Kitchen for people in need. They’ll be there with the volunteers, and we’ll be there with the food, the basic needs packages, and the resources,” Mrs. Healy said.
“That’s a way we can bring it to the parishes and not just Holy Ghost. Food pantries and feeding the hungry are not new. We want to do it in a way that we can meet the needs of more communities by being more mobile and collaborating with the resources already in place in the Catholic Church. Ultimately, we would like this mission to grow so then we get to the parishes that would want to do this,” she added.
The possibilities for collaboration do not end there. She hopes to work more with the Ladies of Charity, Second Harvest Food Bank, FISH Pantries, and others. And there is the possible opportunity to collaborate with other faith denominations in the spirit of ecumenism.
Does she believe a mobile Hope Kitchen can work, especially during a yearlong pandemic?
“I really believe we’re doing the Lord’s work. That in itself will be why it works. We really are trying to be the face of Jesus to the communities that we touch. This is when we’re needed most and why we’re needed most. This is where Catholic Charities needs to be,” Mrs. Healy said. “How can we not do this? How can we not be there in some way? You have no idea how big we want it to be and how small it is right now. That’s all right. If it’s good work, and if it’s the work the Lord wants us to do, it will bear fruit and grow. I honestly believe that with all my heart.”
Earlier in his life, Father McNeeley worked as an emergency-room technician who saw people in the most dire of situations. He called the Hope Kitchen an emergency room for the homeless.
“Right now we’re longing for the coming of Christ in His Nativity. He is the source of all hope, and we see it manifest when we’re able to feed the hungry and clothe the needy,” the Holy Ghost pastor said.