In his essay collection Heretics, G.K. Chesterton extols, “Once men sang around a table together in chorus. Now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason he can sing better.” In other words, as our scientific age has grown in competency and achievement we have become isolated from the rootedness which gave rise to our confidence in the first place—experts in everything but being human. Can there be any question this is more true today than when Chesterton wrote almost a century ago?
In an interview with Fortune magazine, renowned University of Chicago social neuroscientist John Cacioppo paints loneliness as a real time epidemic driven largely by the flux of people’s isolated living situations. “We aren’t as closely bound. We no longer live in the same village for generations,” he tells the Fortune interviewer regarding what drives modern loneliness. Cacioppo goes on to describe the physical and mental toll this state is taking on our physical bodies and society as a whole. His prognosis is dire.
Jackson native and social media entrepreneur Jon Mark Walls and a cadre of like minded, globally connected professionals are striking back. They believe there is a powerful solution are launching the whisper of a revolution across the planet. The engine of this revolution: soup.
While working overseas in international relations in the fall of 2011, Jon Mark and his roommate invited a group of friends over for his mom’s “Monday Soup.” The recipe, a chicken noodle soup knockoff, was invented some ten years earlier on one cold Monday night when Jon Mark arrived home hungry from his Jackson Middle School soccer game. The improvisation took, and soon “SoupNite” became a staple of the Walls household.
Naturally, when on far continent with other driven but isolated young professionals, Jon Mark knew SoupNite would be a perfect fit to foster friendship and community. Thus, in a run of the mill apartment on the border of France and Switzerland (or “Swance” as the roommates referred to it), the first SoupNite was birthed. It was a group bubbling with energy, and the friction of camaraderie and connection was needed to sustain the globally minded purposes for which these young people had crossed oceans. Those present that first night included a youth minister from Uganda, a business consultant from Mississippi, a fisherman from Alaska, and several others in between.
As it had years before back in Jackson, SoupNite soon became a weekly staple. The gatherings quickly grew from an original six to at times around thirty. As time passed, SoupNite became not only a hatchery for friendships, businesses, jobs, and even marriages; it also struck directly at the heart of Chesterton’s anarchy by offering passionate but isolated people a place of home-cooked warmth and safety.
As original SoupNiter Connor Sattely puts it, “Geneva is a place where social networks are often silo’d. You arrive to work for the World Health Organization, for example, so all of your friends work there, too. Social interaction outside of that circle is difficult.”
Sattely, a Pennsylvania native now working in The Hague for a startup working to improve justice/legal technology continued, “SoupNite was a way to bring little pieces of those circles together, broaden people’s social groups, and most importantly give a safe, fun, regular space to hang out every week.”
Due to constant stress of long working hours far from home, for many people who came to SoupNite, it was the only real social event on their calendar every week. Sattely especially remembers one young man who confessed to being intimidated in his new city. Naturally he was plugged into SoupNite and quickly became a regular. Later as Sattely was preparing to leave Geneva, the man told him after that first SoupNite he called back to the United States to tell his family that “he’s already met the cool people” and was so glad he moved.
“Man, that about moved me to tears,” Sattely said. “Being able to be a landing pad for someone and give them the social confidence to keep reaching out to other people was what SoupNite became about. That conversation stuck with me, to know that one little bowl of soup made such a difference to someone.”
Other early Soup Niters struck a similar chord.
“There are certain emotions that come along with the expat life: nostalgia, homesickness, and (regrettably) loneliness at times,” said Charlie Sell, now coordinating natural disaster responses in the Marshall Islands. “Normally, we keep such emotions to ourselves; it is part of the transient nature of expat life and interaction. But SoupNite was something special because it brought these emotions to the forefront and allowed us to create our own home away from home. For me, that is what SoupNite is all about: being at home no matter where you are.”
Emily Caudwell, a British native employed by Samaritan’s Purse serving in Liberia similarly described SoupNite as “a simple idea but a great way to create community in a transient city. . . . After a few months the group felt like family and provided familiarity in a place where many of us were far from home.”
Many participants were also captivated by the both the comfort of seeing familiar faces every week after a hard day’s grinding and the exhilaration of seeing what new folks might show up. Lynn Gertiser, whose mother’s family is from Jackson, is another early SoupNiter blown away by what she would learn from SoupNite conversations with everyone from physics researchers at the nearby CERN laboratory to au pairs to United Nations bureaucrats.
SoupNite, she said, is a “mentality that no matter where you are, there are people around you who probably are craving community and acceptance, and there is no better way than through eating together. Look around. Nothing fancy, no pretensions, just you and your afterwork/school tired face. A place where everybody’s in, open to all.”
Gertiser’s husband David, a former U.S. Air Force pilot now studying to run a winery in France, went a step farther: “[I]n a city full of pretension, posturing, and one-upmanship, this was a sacred space for just being.”
As the years passed, the original “Swance” SoupNiters dispersed around the globe from Congo to Argentina to Nepal on a range of tasks to better our world. SoupNite continued in many of these new locales, and in the fall of 2016, five years after the original gettogether, questions begin to creep in: What if Soup Nite was scalable? What if in whatever city you happen to find yourself, anywhere on the planet, there was a standing invitation to gather in someone’s home to learn, grow, and (of course) gorge on delicious, homemade fare?
With such thoughts swirling Jon Mark and his team began work on soupnite.com and coordinated a fresh round of SoupNite events across the world in cities such as Paris, Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Barcelona, and even our own Jackson, Tennessee.
Where is it all going? To those of us making our home in Jackson, it’s easy to get excited about the numerous events and new initiatives here at home, to be consumed with inward-focused improvements in our own backyard. While those things are certainly valuable, the temptation we face is neglecting to remember and celebrate the contributions Jackson natives have and are making around the world. Is it possible one of the most transformative and original might be SoupNite—that “being home no matter where you are,” as Charlie Sell put it, might connect thousands in community and incubate untold initiatives, businesses, and world-changing relationships?
There seems to be an awakening among this generation that solo success has always been an illusion. We need each other—to hear and be heard. Certainly generosity, hospitality, and community are bigger than any one initiative. However, there is no doubt that SoupNite has the potential becomes a powerful model for giving people the tools to practice those disciplines in uncertain places and times.
ComeUnity Cafe is hosting their first SoupNite event on Monday, March 20, at 74 Lands End Drive. Tickets are $20 (reservation only), and all proceeds benefit ComeUnity's benevolence fund. Click here to purchase tickets. In addition to this Jackson SoupNite, SoupNites will be being held around the world from Switzerland to South Africa all supporting ComeUnity's efforts to love, feed, and dignify.
Don’t hesitate to get involved today by hosting or attending a SoupNite. Contact Jon Mark at email@example.com to get started. To learn more about SoupNite, visit their website and follow them on Instagram.
Ben Burleson is a Jackson native, husband to Jenny, and dad to there energetic kids. He is a Union University graduate with a background in education, ministry, and most recently accounting. His main hobby is reading history or fiction, preferably while floating.
Photographer Courtney Searcy likes to design things, take pictures, and write words that tell good stories about their community. Jackson became home after she graduated from Union University in 2014, where she studied Graphic Design and Journalism. One-half of Souvenir Design Company, she currently works as a freelance graphic designer. She thinks the best things in life are porch swings, brunch, art, music, and friends to share it all with.
Additional photography by Katie Howerton.