By Laura Valentine | Photo Courtesy Sheldon Diggs
Editor’s note: The opening sentence was altered from the print version to say “A female volunteer” so there is no confusion as to who the term “she” is referring.
A female volunteer stands no taller than the huge pot of beans perched atop a commercial stove, but she stirs with conviction and delight. And she’s not alone in this bright kitchen, humming and swirling like bees on a hive, turning nectar into honey. There are half a dozen volunteers who’ve shown up, working in tandem to prepare a hearty meal for the hungry and homeless. They all seem to possess the same secret smiles, for they know when their souls get united, folks won’t be hungry for long.
This scene is played out every Wednesday to the delight of Sheldon Diggs, Founder of Souls United. I wouldn’t say he’s the “Queen Bee”, but he does elicit a lot of smiles, waves, and shouts of “hey come here!” from those coming in off the streets of Nashville looking for a hug or to share a quick story before the noon meal is served. He glides from table to table, welcoming everyone and flashing his signature smile, all while remaining alert to what needs to be done next to make sure that a big ladle of hope is served with the food.
Diggs sees the work of Souls United as a way to “give hope to people [in need] and empower others to be thankful for what they have.” And that’s a long way from where he started, when he witnessed the widening gap between a growing and prospering Nashville and those around him who were struggling to keep up. “It felt unfair,” shared Diggs, “and I didn’t know how to help others because I was struggling to help myself.”
Sheldon knew from an early age he would be one of the few in his family to leave his childhood home in Smithfield, Virginia. Like many young black men, he saw service in the military as an option to move up and out into the larger world. At the age of 17, he enlisted and was stationed at Fort Campbell, KY. Unfortunately this was during the height of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” era and while living under a government-sanctioned shroud of secrecy, he suffered. After serving 2 years and 2 months, he could no longer live with the hypocrisy and left the military for a new life in Nashville. Young, gay, and liberated, he fell into the heady and sometimes addictive world of partying, drinking, and recreational drugs. Nearly a decade later, he was near rock bottom and knew this was not the life he wanted to lead. Thankfully, he had built a strong friendship with James Howard who “was there through thick and thin and helped me crawl out of the hole,” Diggs recalls with gratitude.
He quit cold turkey and used prayer as a rehabilitation tool. The Souls United Founder explains, “I prayed to my Higher Power to show me what I needed to be doing with my life.” It didn’t take long for his eyes to be opened to the struggles of the poor and homeless in “It City”.
Souls United began in July, 2017 as #StreetTeamLegal. “I just started with what I had in the kitchen…beans and wieners, which I cooked in a big pot and took to the Church Street Park across from the Downtown Library.” For the uninitiated, this is a common gathering and temporary resting site for the homeless. Remembering with clarity, Diggs paints a word picture, “It was a hot, sunny day and there were so many different kinds of people in the park. I set up a card table, the pot of beans and wieners and they lined up for the meal. The love I felt from the people was the greatest gift anyone could give me. It was more about the relationship with the people than the food.”
The experience of that first feeding made him want to do more. Not wanting to miss a week of bringing food, comfort and hope to the homeless, he started asking friends to get involved. Using social media, word spread and he soon had volunteers, donated food and supplies to serve even more people who frequented the park. “That’s the blessing that comes forth when you start doing this kind of work,” Sheldon explains. In September, 2017 #StreetTeamLegal became Souls United, a registered non-profit corporation. In the next month, he was connected with a food supplier who would donate fresh, organic food on a regular basis, which changed everything. As summer turned to fall, an offer came from First Evangelical Lutheran Church to house Souls United every Wednesday in their Dining Hall, complete with a commercial kitchen! “It was a perfect location, on 8th Ave South between Broadway and Demonbreun. They gave us a place to call home and not only offer a hot meal, but give the homeless a place to get out of the weather, watch TV, wash clothes, take a shower, “shop” in the clothes closet, or just hang out,” Diggs relays gratefully. Church Council member Ron Tharp sums up the effect of their invitation, “Hosting Souls United has had an important impact on First. We have a dining hall full of people reminding us of specific, actionable needs in our own neighborhood.”
In operation for almost a year, Souls United is looking to the future, with both short and long-term goals.
In the short-term, they are actively seeking:
1) support to meet their increased capacity to serve more people. To that end, there will be a yard sale on Saturday, July 21st from 7:00 a.m. until late afternoon @ 1118 Kenwood Dr, Nashville 37216;
2) in-kind donations from their wish list [see inset];
3) monetary gifts through the original GoFundMe Campaign at: https://www.gofundme.com/streetteamlegal; and
4) volunteers every week on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
In the next 6 months, they intend to secure their official 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. This will expand their ability to write grants and allow for tax-deductible donations.
In the long-term, Diggs is nurturing the vision of a Homeless Food Truck to deliver hot meals and hope to the homeless across the city. Souls United is also seeking partnerships with other faith communities, modeled after their Wednesday presence at First Evangelical Lutheran Church. The idea is to have feeding and fellowship in a different location every day of the week.
For more information: https://soulsunited.org/
For donations: contact Sheldon Diggs at 629.333.8572 (cell) or by email