"Praise the Lord! Give me a hug!"
That enthusiastic greeting comes from a charismatic 58-year-old Utah woman who devotes her life to feeding, clothing and educating the poor. Her name is Jennie Dudley, and she operates the Eagle Ranch, 3340 S. 7540 West, Magna, where she has lived for the past year and a half. Prior to that she worked out of a garagefront at her son's house on 4100 South."Ranch" is used loosely, based more on mission than physical layout. The ranch sits on a small tract of land, occupied chiefly by a small home converted into a headquarters for Dudley's far-flung operation. The house and property were donated by a man who sympathized with Dudley's worthy pursuits. In the front of the house, one room serves as a classroom for Dudley, who has no college degree, to tutor those in search of a high school certificate. It is stocked with a computer, copying machine, some desks and several books.
At the rear, the garage has been converted to a pantry, well-stocked with food items. Between the house and the garage is a patio Dudley calls the "closet," where winter coats hang next to boxes loaded with clothes and shoes. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, people come to the ranch to fill their needs for food and clothing. People either come in search of supplies or to donate them. A few even donate cash. Furniture comes and goes so quickly that there is no place designed to keep it. In fact, Dudley says, "I don't store anything."
Dudley says many people search her out in the early morning hours and on weekends when shelters cannot serve their purposes. She doesn't mind. She bubbles with energy as she talks about her work with the poor.
Dudley operates this ranch on her own, depending on contributions from those interested in her idealism, and she is never disappointed. Otherwise unemployed, Dudley's very existence depends on voluntary contributions.
Eagle pictures pervade the house and act as a biblical symbol for her, suggesting commitment. "Run and not be weary, walk and not faint." She says, "Christians are going to stand as Eagles in the latter days."
For the past four years, one of Dudley's major efforts has been a massive breakfast for the homeless every Sunday morning beneath the I-15 overpass in Salt Lake City's Pioneer Park, at 400 South and 400 West. There, between the hours of 7 and noon, some 500 to 700 homeless or needy people gather to eat doughnuts, ham, potatoes, hot cakes, vegetable soup or whatever food shows up.
A prayer session is held from 5 to 7 a.m., then from 7 to 9, preparations are made to serve the many who count on this traditional boost in their otherwise dark weekend. Dudley opens the festivities with a heartfelt prayer. Although not a member of any organized church, she cultivates a "personal relationship with the Lord." Religious hymns follow. Dudley then circulates, supervising the dispensing of food, offering encouraging words to all.
Eagerly, they load up their plates to overflowing, sit and eat, then unhesitatingly go back for seconds. When satisfied, they pick up "handle bags" and take additional food for lunch and to tide them over the weekend.
Seemingly without direction, people appear with youth groups, Boy Scouts and young women and work on the tables, cooking and serving. Others drive up and unload car trunks of donated food and clothing. Dudley herself brings her "chuckwagon," a large truck (also donated) carrying her "ranch kitchen" and prepared to bring the leftovers to the ranch.
But she never takes food "to the street." "The Lord said he would provide the food and the people to help, and he does," she says with perfect confidence.
Dudley offers more than food and necessities. One Sunday morning during the breakfast, a Chicano man asked her to pray with him. She put one hand on his head and began praying, while he quietly repeated much of what she said. Afterward, he said that he comes regularly, not for food but to receive spiritual strength from her. Originally from New Mexico, he is retired now, receiving Social Security. He is typical of many who do the same.
Dudley started all this because of a message she believes she received from God. The message was "Feed the poor," and "the Lord just wouldn't be quiet." She and her husband, Harold, now deceased, worried about people who were deprived. "We wanted to help, and I saw a vision of a ranch kichen. My husband saw a gray-haired man, whittling and teaching young children, and his wisdom poured out to those kids. I saw a white-haired lady teaching a young girl to bake an apple pie."
To the Dudleys, this vision symbolized people in need. She feels that she was prepared for a life of serving others by reading the Bible and five years living in the Idaho wilderness.
Originally from California, Jennie and Harold Dudley worked as loggers and professional outfitters, living in Oregon, Idaho and Utah. Jennie was becoming increasingly concerned about life's active demands, including community and school activities. The five children had little time to help at home. So they sold their home, bought a huge truckload of food and supplies and moved to the main Salmon River canyon to live on the White Water Guest Ranch, one of only six ranches located along a 100-mile strip of wilderness. There, Jennie Dudley taught her children at home every day, using a long shelf of reference works and books supplied by the Idaho State Library.
"I hated history in school, but my husband loved it. When he told anecdotes, he could make history come alive. I realized that this was a special skill, and I had always wanted to share knowledge with young people."
The mail plane's visit every two weeks, and their two-way radio were their only contacts with the outside world. The Dudleys believed that it was easier to transmit American ideals and old-fashioned integrity when the family was isolated in the wilderness.
After their return, they devoted themselves to helping others. When Harold died of a heart attack, Jennie knew her life's mission. "The Lord said to me, `these are my children, and THIS is the wilderness.' "
Initially, she had not the slightest idea that Pioneer Park would be the site of her new venture. "I knew that the poor made fires in old oil barrels near there, and so I set up my stove on the sidewalk. That was October, 1985, and one of the homeless people suggested that I move under the viaduct for shelter from a bad storm, and we've been there ever since."
She sometimes puts on her insulated coveralls, left over from the Idaho wilderness. Her trademark cowboy hat, flannel shirt, jeans and boots allow people who want to help at the breakfasts to identify her.
People often ask her why she continues to put up with the ringing telephone. "Jennie," they say, "why don't you take a Sunday off?" She could never do that.
"I'm having the time of my life!"