For the past 17 years, Mary Judd has shared breakfast with men and women who spent the night sleeping under tarps in the woods, huddled in the back seats of cars that don’t run or tucked in the crawlspaces under rainy overpasses.
Her guests arrive dirty, wet, lonesome, broken-down or addicted – their last pennies clinging to the bottom of a holey pocket.
Judd makes them eggs, cracking five dozen a day.
She cooks them sausage, six boxes daily at 2.5 pounds each.
“God told me to go in the streets and feed his people,” she explains. “Anybody who says it’s hard is somebody he ain’t called.”
But on Saturday night, somebody decided to feed Judd for a change.
For her 76th birthday, friends laid out a feast to rival the most lavish church supper: fried chicken, country ham, potato salad, green beans, biscuits, rice with gravy.
They cooked this spread for a woman who spent much of her life stirring soup for strangers late into a weeknight, scrambling eggs for men most people wouldn’t let stand on their driveway in the rain.
They made it for a woman who persists in the endless task of offering hope to the hopeless, giving alms to people who will almost certainly squander them.
They prepared it for a woman who feeds 140 people a day, three days a week, even though she doesn’t have her own building, who has continued God’s Helpers ministry even after the city of Raleigh has come after her twice for zoning violations.
“Take care of somebody’s children,” she said, just before the buffet line formed. “Take care of God’s little angels. They’re just as good as you are.”
In a city and a county that require poor people to obtain a license to seek charity, that listen attentively to those voices that call poverty an eyesore and a nuisance, Judd dutifully does the job so few others will do.
You can find a free lunch in Raleigh. The line stretches more than 200 deep outside Shepherd’s Table on Morgan Street every day at 11 a.m.
But breakfast pangs arrive at dawn, and they come fiercely if life has knocked you down hard enough to sleep outside.
At Judd’s birthday party, emcee Ken Leonard reminded the crowd that the faces at God’s Helpers aren’t always worn by people whose misfortunes are their own fault. “You can be broke,” Leonard warned, “but hungry and broke? Keep thinking that money is forever, and it won’t just flip on you.”
Judd has held makeshift services in her backyard.
She’s seen men walk 15 blocks for breakfast, then preach to a flock of fellow homeless men with pants muddy to the knees.
She told me Saturday about a man who asked her for advice. He was strung out and homeless, and he wanted to make some money washing cars.
She told him: You don’t need to wash cars. You need to get to rehab and try to get your family back.
Years later, the same man pulled up to her porch and spoke to her through the open window of his car. Is that you, Momma Judd? he asked.
She didn’t recognize the man, and she was wary until he introduced himself as the guy she sent to rehab years ago. He’d gotten his family back, and now he was working two jobs.
As she finished the story, Judd tucked into her birthday supper and told me, “I ain’t trying to die yet. I’m out here on the battlefield.”
With that, she finished her whole plate.