As she mixes together the simple ingredients of flour, water, salt and yeast, volunteer bread baker Connie Shreffler marvels at how this sticky pile of dough will soon be transformed into 20 loaves of delicious, fresh-baked bread. "It's a magnificent thing," she said of the baking process.
Every week, Shreffler treks to Catholic Charities' Loaves and Fishes kitchen at Holy Name Church or the Nashville Rescue Mission to bake as many as 100 loaves of bread for the homeless and hungry of Nashville.
A long-time home baker and self-described "bread geek," Shreffler began baking for local community meal programs in 2016 after she retired from a career in healthcare.
"After retirement, I knew I wanted to bake, but I had no idea how much I would like it," she said.
Shreffler got connected to Loaves and Fishes through her neighbor and friend Paul Ney, former board chair of Catholic Charities of Tennessee.
Knowing that her bread is served to people who may be experiencing "a really low point in their lives" helps motivate her baking mission, Shreffler said. Bread "connects with people in surprising ways ... in ways that other food doesn't."
"There's always bread on every table," Shreffler said, "but so little of it is really good bread."
This could be why it took some Loaves and Fishes guests a little while to adjust to Shreffler's bread.
"It was actually a tough transition at first," going from serving the more familiar Wonderbread to serving Shreffler's bread, said Wendy Overlock, Loaves and Fishes program coordinator. "Her bread is so healthy," Overlock said. "It was new and different at the beginning but it's much more accepted now."
Shreffler usually bakes the bread on Tuesdays and Overlock and her volunteers will slice and serve it with butter or eggs and sausage for breakfast on Wednesdays.
Loaves and Fishes has served hot meals to the hungry every Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for more than 35 years. Within the Nashville homeless community, it's known as a safe and welcoming space where people can get a good meal, no strings attached, no proof of need required.
Each week Overlock and a rotating team of volunteers from churches, schools and community organizations serve approximately 600 meals, breakfast and lunch, three days a week. In addition to the meals, Loaves and Fishes guests also have access to a number of services, including referrals to assistance for housing, additional food and clothing.
Sheffler said she has considered baking as a part-time small business, but keeping it as a volunteer effort, "it feels less like employment and more like ministry.
"This feels right in the most basic way," she said of baking bread for the guests of Loaves and Fishes and the Mission. "I'm doing what I should be doing," she said. "There's no bad news when you talk about feeding the hungry."