Each Wednesday, Sheldon Diggs gets up early to prepare and cook meals for approximately 50 people in the Nashville community.
He arrives at First Lutheran Church around 10 a.m. and begins his prep work—peeling potatoes, seasoning meats, dicing onions—doing whatever necessary to ensure a healthy, balanced meal is being made. While the food is simmering, he walks around the church to greet and engage with those who have already started lining up for lunch. After he has spoken to everyone, he hops back into the kitchen to put final touches on the food.
The meals are ready around noon, and Sheldon along with a few volunteers, begin the hour-long task of serving the dozens of men, women, and children who have shown up for a bite to eat.
From speaking with Sheldon, you’d think he owned a restaurant and acted as the manager, the host, the cook, the waiter, and the dishwasher. He juggles multiple duties to ensure each detail is taken care of and everyone is served. But this isn’t a restaurant. Sheldon is the founder of Souls United, an organization dedicated to feeding and serving Nashville’s homeless population.
Souls United was founded in July of 2017 after Sheldon felt compelled to help those in need. He started with a single table outside at Church Street Park, serving food he provided himself.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I just knew this was something I wanted to do, so I just started doing it,” said the 38-year-old.
It didn’t take long for the food on the table to disappear, which proved to Sheldon his services were much needed.
“I had to use the resources I already had,” he explained. “I started asking friends for donations, and I started putting up Facebook posts for additional help. I got such a good feeling from it. I always wanted to feed people because I am a cook, so I knew I found my passion.”
As Sheldon’s passion began growing, more and more people started showing up. Before long, Sheldon’s single table wasn’t big enough to support all the food and a bigger space was needed.
The same year Souls United was founded, First Lutheran Nashville offered their church as a shelter for the growing organization.
While the main focus of Souls United is to feed those who are hungry, the church serves as a much-needed sanctuary for those experiencing the trauma and stress of homelessness. There are board games and a TV to help boost morale. It offers a place to do laundry and a place to shower, both for personal hygiene, as well as to get cleaned up for a job interview.
There is love and compassion and an all-around sense of community for the dozens of people who have nowhere else to go. That devotion to the community can be seen in Souls United’s mission:
Remember those who may have been forgotten. Our brothers and sisters living in the streets. Helping to nourish their bodies, and where possible their souls, through expressions of caring.
Sheldon and his team of volunteers work around the clock to collect donations, such as clothing, shoes, and toiletries. They also go out in the community to talk to the homeless population, both to learn what is most needed and to lend an ear to those who may be lonely. They recruit other volunteers and speak to businesses about getting involved. The work never really ends.
Other groups, including Room in the Inn and Nashville Rescue Mission run similar organizations but with more volunteers and funding. Sheldon, meanwhile, is operating virtually on his own, working well over 40 hours a week. And with new people showing up each week, Sheldon finds himself working more and more.
As Nashville grows, so does its homeless population. A 2016 Tennessean article reported that, while homelessness was decreasing in major neighboring cities such as Atlanta and Louisville, Nashville’s homeless population increased by nearly 10%, putting it around 23,000 people. Among those thousands are parents, students, and veterans.
“It’s easy to assume that these people are taking advantage of the system, and that’s not true,” said Sheldon. “These people need the help, and we are here for them. Many of these people don’t have identification to get a job or struggle with a disability so aren’t able to work. These individuals need any assistance we can offer them.”
Souls United isn’t just impacting the over 3,500 people the organization has fed. It is also affecting its founder.
“As someone who identifies with those suffering from mental illness and homelessness. This helps me,” stated Sheldon. “It’s also a reminder that I do have a place to stay. I do know how I can get from one place to another. I do know where my next meal is coming from.”
At 18, Sheldon enlisted in the army during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. The policy prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual or service members or applicants, while barring openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. The policy kept Sheldon closeted during the nearly three years he served.
Transitioning from the military to civilian life wasn’t easy for Sheldon. It left him confused and alone to deal with mental issues and feelings of not being accepted.
“I got impacted,” said Sheldon. “I can identify with these people—people with illness or difficulty with their families. Homelessness is an issue because of several reasons. I have had friends who were homeless. I have been practically homeless myself, not to the point where I was living on the streets, but I honestly struggled with being ex-military and then having issues related to that. I felt like I needed to be there for the people. I connect and resonate with them.”
Sheldon’s connection with the homeless population not only fueled his desire to help feed the hungry, but also to ensure they had other important resources they needed.
Over the last few months, temperatures have dipped below freezing. Souls United worked to collect sleeping bags, blankets, scarves, knit hats and hand warmers to make certain the community stayed as warm as possible.
Expanding the organization to doing more than just provide a weekly meal does come with its fair share of problems, though. Resources such as food, clothing, toiletries and bus passes are needed, as well as additional volunteers. Souls United asks for any volunteers available to give back to the community by donating their time. Volunteers come in all ages and backgrounds: some are retired and some work full time jobs. But all leave Souls United with a greater appreciation for the work that Sheldon is doing.
These efforts are seen first-hand by those who know Tony. Tony, a Nashville native, has been coming to get a meal weekly from Souls United for the last nine months. Recently, Tony came to Souls United with a big smile on his face. Tony couldn’t keep it in anymore, “I finally have my own apartment. I am no longer living on the streets!”
Sheldon sees testimonies like Tony’s all the time and knows that the work Souls United is doing is helping, but there is still a lot of work left to do. “Nashville is a very expensive place to live. “It’s great that our city is growing and prospering, but we can’t forget about the people. We are humans. You can’t treat people any other way. We can’t give up on humanity.” To learn more about Souls United or to donate or volunteer, please visit soulsunited.org.
Photos by Sheldon Diggs