Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Via the Reserved Student Digest, Mark Olson ‘14 spent last week petitioning students to donate unused Sharples meals to his Swarthmore Sandwich Fellowship (SSF), an organization that transforms meal points into sandwiches for the homeless. Saturday morning, in the Parrish 4th kitchen, the Fellowship members prepared close to 100 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and about 20 bottles of water for distribution at the Septa Suburban station in Philadelphia Saturday evening. This past week, The Daily Gazette talked to Olson about the organization, its formation, operation, and purpose, its relation to other student service organizations, and service in general outside of Swarthmore.
The SSF has its roots in the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship.
“What a couple members of the Christian Fellowship did from time to time is they […] had a staff member […] help fund their purchase of a bunch of food. They made sandwiches, they went into Philadelphia, did basically what the Sandwich Fellowship does. I thought that was a cool idea, so I […] wanted to do it on a weekly basis,” he said.
Olson expressed some hesitation about advertising his group through a Gazette profile when other homeless advocacy groups such as SREHUP (Student Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia) are doing more broad, and potentially impactful, work. I asked him why, in the face of this belief, he chose to create the Sandwich Fellowship rather than join an already existing service organization on or off campus.
“You have hit on a sensitive point there,” he explained. “I think that one thing I’ve become more and more aware of […] is that in general it’s better to work in a group that’s more established, that has all the connections, that has all the resources already set up.”
Olson has several reasons, however, for why, despite this realization, he continues to run his organization.
“Partly because I’m invested in it, partly because I feel that there is some community investment in it, and I also think that it has room to grow,” he said.
The growth he sees begins with partnership with other Swarthmore service organizations in the interest of combining resources and information, and a clothes and toiletries drive similar to that conducted by Trash 2 Treasure.
In discussing the work of other campus service organizations, Olson identified another important reason for continuing to run SSF. Groups like SREHUP, an entirely student run shelter, and FarePath, which works to systematize food collection from locals, serve those “who are already willing to go to shelters […].” Olson sees SSF as responsible to an entirely different demographic.
“It’s serving people who essentially are uninterested or unwilling or for whatever reason are not using the services that are available,” he said.
Finally, the very interpersonal nature of his organization serves an important purpose that is rarely satisfied by larger institutionalized groups.
“I think that it’s important to actually talk to people because one thing I […] understand is that being homeless can be a lonely experience, so maybe they’re deprived of social interaction – even if they’re not, if you’re going to provide a service to someone you should know who they are […] they’re not just a mouth to feed. They’re people who’ve hit a rough spot in their life, and that overall is why I continue to do this, why anyone who wishes to… help end homelessness or serve people experiencing homelessness should continue to work on this,” he said.
The value of this connection, on the part of both the server and the served, is lost in the bureaucracy of larger institutions. The nominal purpose large institutions serve cannot substitute the spiritual sustenance of human connection and contact.
There are certain larger institutions, namely Broad Street Ministries, that Olson cited as attempting to combine the spirit of small-scale service with the reach of institutionalized service.
Broad Street Ministries is “a Presbyterian ministry in Center City that has […] a ministry directed toward helping the homeless. Among the things it does [is] have communal meals where no one has to wait in a line… [and everyone is] actually served personally, rather than cafeteria style,” he said.
Olson agreed that the organization’s ability to do this was ultimately a question of resources. “Most organizations don’t have those kind of resources. But I think it’s a good model to consider.”
Olson’s interest in Broad Street Ministries, as well as SSF’s roots in the SCF, suggest the influence of Christianity in Olson’s work. When I asked Olson if his faith played a central role in his work, he gave a simple answer at first: “Yes.” After a moment, he elaborated with a more complex response.
“Just in the sense that fundamentally, as […] a Christian, I am directed to treat everyone as if they might be Christ in disguise. And that is especially true of the poor and needy. In the Gospels it says, ‘What you do for the least of these, you do for me.’ So right there […] that’s the Christian mission,” he said.
But Olson is critical of the historical dominance of religious groups in service. “The problem is that [religious groups] were acting largely just out of a sense of duty or pity, rather than […] any systematic plan as to how they would better those people’s lives in the long run,” he said.
Olson believes that “while a religious sense of obligation might direct you to […] render service to those who have less than you, the only way you can solve the problem is by thinking about it more systematically.”
He discussed the ways in which modern disciplines like sociology are looking at the conditions that lead to homelessness and searching to alleviate these in systematic, scientific ways.
Olson makes a reserved but strong case for the operation of small charities. They serve marginalized demographics that live, for whatever reason, outside the reach of bureaucracy, and so also avoid the impersonality inherent in bureaucracies. His view on Christianity and its role in service also presents a carefully considered perspective on the necessity of combining a sense of duty with systematic and logical action. At the heart of his arguments lies the fact that no single service satisfies every human need, and so SSF, along with every other service organization on and off Swarthmore’s campus, strives to find a meaningful purpose of its own.