A Bowl of Compassion

In my spare time, I volunteer at a local domestic violence shelter. I do something fairly unique in that I go in once a week and cook a meal for the women and kids who are there, so there is something special for them to look forwards to. I take requests and honor them as best as I am able, and clean up after myself and usually, I go into the pantry and organize it so that stuff is easy to find so that the women who cook the rest of the week can see at a glance what materials they have to work with.

What I have found in doing this is that I become a quiet presence in the kitchen.

Women and kids come in out of curiosity at first. Then, they ask if they can help, so we cook together. They sometimes ask me questions about cooking, and I answer. Other times, they get curious as to why I am there and I answer, “Because once I was in a situation where I was abused and some friends helped me get out and go on with life, and so I am repaying that debt.”

Usually at that point, the women open up. And talk.

And I become an ear, a shoulder, a pair of arms. I listen, I comfort and I reinforce. I understand.
It is hard to do. Listening to these stories is difficult, not only because it reminds me of darker times in my past, but because it is hard to be truly open to the pain of another being. However, anything that is truly worth doing is seldom easy; I know that nothing is more healing to a human being than telling her story and having it truly heard. It gives the soul strength to go on. So, I listen.

And I love them. All of them. And it is not always easy, because some of the women there are not kind, gentle “victims” in the sense of the word that we usually think of them. Some of them have abused their kids. Some of them are so caught up in self-hatred and the need to escape that they are alcoholics or addicted to drugs, and they can’t stop even when they are pregnant.

But these “difficult” women deserve compassion and understanding if they are ever going to stop the cycle of abuse and help themselves and their kids grow in a positive way. They have made bad choices, but sometimes, bad choices seem to be the only ones available. And often, they cannot see another way, until someone else reaches out, and touches them with love and shows them another way.

So, that is what I do.

Food is the connecting point, and compassion is the result.

In a sense, I consider what I do a kind of lay ministry to a congregation of the forgotten. Every meal I cook is then a prayer that the sustenance I give might open them to healing from within and without.

This is a soup that is a favorite at the shelter, one that I got requests for several times after the first time I cooked it. If you cook it, I ask that you remember the women and kids who are stuck in bad situations at home, or who are hidden in safe houses and shelters, and send a prayer for their health and safety.

Or, if you have a chance, stop in to your local shelter, and cook up a pot of soup and share it with those who could do with a bowl of love from a friend they never knew they had.

Pasta Fagiole Soup

Serves 10-12

3 tbsp. olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, diced finely
1 green or red bell pepper, diced finely

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 stalks celery, diced finely
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. chile flakes or to taste

½ cup dry red or white wine (optional)
1 pound Italian sausage, removed from casing and crumbled

½ tbsp.dried basil

dried rosemary, thyme, oregano and marjoram to taste

1 ½ quarts chicken broth

3 14-ounce cans diced tomatoes with juice (seasoned, if you like)

1 30 ounce can dark red kidney beans, drained

1 14 ounce can green limas or cannellini beans or garbanzo beans, drained

3 carrots, peeled and sliced thinly

6 red new potatoes, scrubbed and quartered

¼ pound fresh kale leaves (optional)
4 ounces small dried pasta (small shells, elbows, wheels, rotini, small penne) cooked and drained

Fresh flat leaf parsley or basil, minced (optional)


Heat olive oil in bottom of soup pot on high heat. Add onion and saute until golden brown. Add bell pepper, garlic and celery, cook another two minutes or so. Add bay leaves and chili flakes and cook another three minutes.

If using wine, add at this time. Boil off alcohol, then crumble Italian sausage into pot. Cook, stirring until sausage is completely browned.

Add dried herbs at this time, and continue to cook, stirring, until very fragrant–—about three minutes.

Add broth, tomatoes, drained beans, carrots, potatoes.

Cook until vegetables are nearly done. (Carrots should still be slightly crunchy.)

Wash kale and remove thick stems. Roll up cigar style, and cut into very thin (1/4 inch) ribbons. Add to soup, and allow to soften.

Add cooked, drained pasta, stir in well. Add freshly minced parsley and/or basil just before serving.


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  1. I too testify when called on–it is only in commonality that abused women find the strength to act.

    Goddess, cover us with Your wings;
    In that good place let us find,
    The peace that safety brings;
    The strength of the single mind.

    Let it be so.

    Comment by wwjudith — February 28, 2005 #

  2. Hi Barbara,
    Thanks for the info on why crusts split (on The Impetuous Epicure). The numbers on my oven knob are rubbed off, so the only way I gauge temperature is by using a thermometer. I think I just don’t let the bread rise enough–I get impatient.

    Comment by Jessica — February 28, 2005 #

  3. Thank you, Judith. That is a lovely prayer.

    You are welcome, Jessica. I can’t do much to help you gain patience in letting dough rise enough, except to say, it is rewarded in the result of fantastic bread.

    Good luck with your further baking adventures.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 2, 2005 #

  4. Beautiful post Barbara. You’re an amazing woman for giving out so much of yourself to people who truly needs it. I admire you for that.

    Comment by Zarah Maria — March 3, 2005 #

  5. Thank you, Zarah.

    I don’t often talk about what I do in the shelter, because I don’t want to sound like I am tooting my own horn. I very strongly believe that one gives of one’s self, not to be congratulated by others, but because to serve others and to help those less fortunate is the correct thing to do.

    I wrote about it though, in order to see if I could inspire some of my readers to try doing similar projects in their own parts of the world.

    We never know how large an effect small actions we take can have. But even just cooking dinner for someone who is feeling low can ripple out and really make a difference in a person’s outlook. It is a reminder to them that they are worthy, that they are loved and that there are those of us out there who care about them. Sometimes, that little bit is what can really help them pick themselves up, dust themselves off and move forward in life.

    Comment by Barbara Fisher — March 4, 2005 #

  6. This is such a beautiful post. Thank you for doing it. (not the post, but cooking at the shelter)

    Comment by Maninas — March 24, 2009 #

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