It’s dark and cold outside, still five hours before sunrise. But inside the Dunning home near Lewes, an assembly line of pots crowds the stove, and the aroma of vegetable soup permeates the senses.
It’s a scene that has been repeated hundreds of times over the past four years. Each week more than 700 quarts, or 175 gallons, of soup comes out of the Dunning kitchen.
What started with a casual conversation and a hot plate has turned into a ministry that has touched thousands in the Cape Region.
Dale Dunning’s Jusst Sooup Ministry dishes out soup, hugs and the word of God from a donated RV named Beulah.
Her guiding light comes from one comment she makes wherever she goes: “You can’t feed someone the word of God if they’re hungry,” she says.
Her soup goes to feed the hungry with no questions asked. Although many of those who partake of her nourishment and caring words are homeless, she doesn’t care what their circumstances are.
“I’m not called to be a judge but called to serve,” she said.
The ministry is born
The idea for a soup ministry was born as she studied for her ordination at the Sussex County School of Theology in Georgetown. Five years ago, Dunning started cooking soup for a Bible study group. Her soup was such a hit that her classmates said she should share it with others.
She said she prayed for guidance and a light bulb went off in her head. She purchased her first crock pot, then two, and before long she was cooking soup every morning to serve thousands. Dunning says the path has not always been an easy one. “We started with a pot and hot plate,” she said. She said it took several months before she could even afford to branch out and purchase a crock pot. She had to clean houses on the weekends to support the ministry during the early years.
“We have received a lot of donations from some really wonderful people,” she said.
Now she serves her soup from six 18-quart roasters.
Soup kitchen express
She is on the road as many as five days a week, 52 weeks a year. “We really need a vacation,” she says with a laugh.
She stops at Grace United Methodist Church in Georgetown on Mondays, Brandywine Counseling in Georgetown on Tuesdays and Rehoboth Beach Presbyterian Church on Route 1 on Thursdays. On Wednesdays and Fridays, she varies her schedule to stops in Milford and West Rehoboth.
Her ministry, which is totally supported by the Dunning family and donations, has grown to encompass far more than soup. At each one of her stops in Georgetown, Rehoboth Beach and Milford during the week, she offers food and clothing to those who come for soup. She also helps those in need whenever she comes across individuals or families needing assistance.
She also helps individuals purchase prescriptions and puts people up in motel rooms when they are down on their luck. There have been times when she and her husband, Ken, have been behind on their own household bills because they have helped others first.
“We have learned to trust in the Lord, and he will send us the help we need,” Dunning said.
She said she couldn’t be confined to a church and a pulpit. She was officially ordained in 2002 and is a member of Eagle’s Nest Fellowship Church near Lewes. “I need to be out there with the people and care for them and serve them. I can’t preach a sermon – I need to live that sermon,” she said.
Dunning figures she has served at least 50,000 people over the past four years, but the number is immaterial. “It’s about bringing hope to people and showing that somebody cares,” she said. “Love is an amazingly strong tool.”
She affectionately calls those who stop by her Little Soupers. “I serve them like I would serve God himself,” she said.
While Dunning is serving soup to those in need, she also serves a message of compassion and love.
Going through foreclosure
The Dunnings have firsthand knowledge of being down on their luck. It wasn’t too long ago that the couple lost their home to foreclosure – a home near Angola they had lived in for 31 years.
Putting four children through college, and attending college herself, all while supporting the ministry, put Dunning’s family in dire financial straits.
Even that could not keep Dunning down. “I was still making soup through all of that. When you are called on, it’s set in stone. You can’t stop,” she said.
The couple says the foreclosure may have been a blessing in disguise. “We now know the pain and hurt people go through,” she said.
They ended up in a nicer neighborhood near where Ken grew up on New Road. They were “homeless” for only two weeks.
“The Lord does bless,” Dunning said.
Dale and her husband Ken are extremely close. Dale, who grew up in Rehoboth Beach, and Ken, who grew up in Lewes, met when the two school districts consolidated in the late 1960s and Cape Henlopen High School was formed. They married when Dale was still in high school.
The couple has four grown sons and three grandchildren.
Ken said he always had it in the back of his mind that Dale was destined to help people. Her first experience with volunteering was as a candy striper at Beebe Medical Center.
Ken, who works for Delmarva Power, also cuts grass and drives a limousine to help support the family – and the ministry.
Dunning said getting up at 2 a.m. every weekday morning to cook soup is nothing special. “I’ve really never felt like this before; it’s supernatural. When you are called on to do something, you don’t ask – you do,” she said.
Her life has been changed in so many ways since the Jusst Sooup Ministry began. “I never really understood love before,” she said.
The stories she tells could fill a book. She talks about the women who wore flip-flops in the winter – many of the women were Hispanic and spoke no English. She distributed socks, placing them on the women’s feet herself.
“One lady cried uncontrollably,” Dunning said. “I learned that she said she has never been loved like this. God is teaching me about humility and love. He is teaching me to be a servant.”
Dunning’s volunteer efforts were recognized in 2008 with a prestigious Jefferson Award, and she also won the state award called the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for outstanding public service.
She and her husband of 37 years attended the national Jefferson Award ceremonies in Washington, D.C. She didn’t win a national award, but it was a time away.
She was featured as a hometown hero in the most recent issue of People magazine.
The accolades are nice and help to draw attention to the ministry, which helps it grow, Dunning said. “If we can help one person, it’s all worth it,” she said – even getting up at 2 a.m.