Soup Kitchen Patrons turned Ph.D. candidates and Marry
When you extend a hand,
you never know who will grab it.
This is a love story. A success story. A story for those who say there are no good stories in the newspaper. This is a good one. So good, it is too good to be true. But it is.
Manu and Teena got married Saturday at St. John’s in Newark, surrounded by friends who came up from Princeton, where Manu is working on a Ph.D in medical-related engineering, and Johns Hopkins, where Teena is doing the same.
But some only came up from the church basement, where just hours before they worked the daily soup kitchen line.
"We changed from our work aprons into tuxedos," said Vincent Smith, the parish manager, who gave away the bride.
Those friends had once served Manu and Teena. They fed the couple, gave them clothing, found them housing and embraced them into St. John’s family.
"When they came here, they were so desperate they were boiling the leaves off trees to make tea," Smith said.
That was four years ago. Saturday, Teena James wore an elegant white gown with a simple wine-colored sash and held a bouquet of white roses. Manu Sebastion-Manoor wore a classic three-piece charcoal tuxedo, with a wine tie. The church was filled with people who once fed the couple, then worked beside them to feed others.
"Their American dream was fulfilled by the people at St. John’s," said the Rev. Rijo Johnson, who performed the ring portion of the wedding Mass.
St. John’s is the oldest Catholic Church in Newark, built in 1826 from ship ballast stones by Irish immigrants. In 1967, after the riots, a rectory housekeeper made sandwiches for a few street people. From that simple act, the St. John’s soup kitchen has blossomed to feed between 500 and 700 people a day. All food, clothing and personal care items are donated and distributed by volunteers. There are health and housing referrals, and a special center for women and children.
Manu and Teena showed up on the line in the fall of 2006.
"These are two of the most brilliant people you’ll ever meet," Smith said. "But they didn’t have the street smarts to survive in a city like Newark."
Their story begins in the Indian state of Kerala, where Manu and Teena studied at the Government Engineering College in Thrissur. They fell in love but it was complicated. Caste systems and traditions got in the way.
"In this part of India, marriages are usually arranged," Manu said. "It is very bad to choose your own spouse, especially for the woman."
But love is love, and Manu and Teena were in it. They decided to come to America. Both were accepted into the master’s programs at New Jersey Institute of Technology, which had a "bio-MEMS lab," Manu explained. "This stands for bio micro electro mechanical systems, and this is what we were most interested in."
That, and being together.
The next part of the story is where the street smarts comes in. They came with partial scholarships, a month’s worth of rice and $1,500. The plan was to get jobs right away.
"We didn’t do a good job researching, I admit," Manu said. "We didn’t even know what the weather here was like, so we didn’t have proper clothing."
The basement apartment they found cost $450 a month. Just to move in — one month rent, one month security — left them with $600. And work was not easy to find. By the end of September, their rice and money was gone.
"The night Teena said ‘this is the last cup of rice’ we prayed. But I thought, ‘This is the end. We have to return to India.’ It would have been a disaster. Teena would have been disowned. Worse."
The next day, they walked a different way through town, and saw the line at St. John’s on McCarter Highway, a block from NJPAC. They joined the line.
Teena James, left, and her husband, Manu Sebastian Mannoor walk down the aisle after their wedding at St. John's Church in Newark.
Smith saw them, and asked them their story.
"I know our regulars," he said. "When I see new people, I ask what we can do. They stood out, frankly, because we don’t see many Indian couples."
Smith arranged housing for them in exchange for work, and the people at St. John’s rallied around this young couple with so much promise.
And they delivered, as Msgr. Neil Mahoney said during the wedding.
"God brought you to us, and you lifted us with the generosity of your spirit and sensitivity to people," he said. "We know the good you received here will be spread to humanity through your contributions to medical technology. Your gifts will touch so many people."
Mahoney called the wedding a new "chapter in Manu and Teena’s love story." And the moral of the story of this: when you extend a hand, you never know who will grab it.