It's a Saturday afternoon in Confederate Park, and Chester Claxton is witness to something far less contentious than rallies over park names.
Claxton is passing by when he notices a group gathered in the park. The volunteer organization Food Not Bombs has set up a table and is serving food to all comers. "You have a special spirit I could feel when I came up," he says to members of the group. "You are bringing civilization back where it belongs."
Food Not Bombs is a worldwide volunteer movement that provides vegetarian meals to the hungry and to protesters. It was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, after an antinuclear protest in May 1980.
The Mid-South chapter was formed in 2002 and lasted about a year. In January 2005, the group came together again. This time they hope to stay. Food Not Bombs serves lunch on Saturdays around 2 p.m. in Confederate Park and sometimes serves meals at the Orange Mound Community Gardens. They also provide food to those involved in community protests.
Around 11 a.m. every Saturday, the volunteers -- mostly in their teens and early 20s -- arrive at the kitchen of Galloway United Methodist Church.
The meals are created from food donations by local businesses. A bruised plum won't sell in a store but will taste fine in a fruit salad. The potato chips may be past the sell-by date but aren't ready for the dumpster.
Today, the volunteers settle on a potato dish, fruit salad, Mexican rice, cherries (a no-brainer since they have 22 containers of cherries), a corn and green-bean dish, and garlic bread. All of the meals are vegan, to keep the risk of food spoilage to a minimum.
At Confederate Park, the temperature is 95 degrees. An occasional, slight breeze off the river makes things a bit more tolerable for the seven or so people sitting around the park. A minivan pulls up, and group members unload the food and tables and set them up in a shady spot.
A visitor to the park gets a plate for herself and a friend. "I am glad they are doing this," she says. This is the second time she had eaten with Food Not Bombs.
Politics has always been a part of Food Not Bombs. The group supports an end to nuclear power -- for both peacetime and war use. They want the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel out of Palestine. They also support open borders and environmental causes. However, food delivery is noticeably nonpolitical.
"We don't make them sit through anything in order to get fed," says Food Not Bombs member Amanda Kohr. They may talk about social and political issues, but the idea here is to respect all world views.
But not all are happy. One man says, "You gonna eat your rice and your food, but they ain't gonna give you a place to stay tonight." Others say the food distribution encourages panhandlers and the homeless to gather downtown.
Claxton, a carpenter from Arkansas working in Memphis, does not fit the stereotype of someone looking for a free meal. He is drawn to the park because he admires the members of Food Not Bombs.
"They are reaching out where help is needed," Claxton says. "They are looking for people out of their own comfort zone." He says the connection between the people gathered today in Confederate Park is a refreshing change in a community overwhelmed with crime and other problems.
"This is a necessity," Claxton says. "I thank God."