Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

Week of July 31 - Aug 4

“Tomorrow is my sister’s birthday,” one of the children at the Kids Cafe told me. “She’ll be nine! She’s celebrating by going to the beach. And she’ll get whatever she wants. And… she’s going to sell my youngest sister!” She’s going to sell her? I replied. Why would you sell her? She continued: “We’re going to sell her because she’s annoying!” I laughed but then quickly explained to her that 1) she would be so sad without her little sister around, and 2) buying and selling people is unacceptable but 3) if she really wanted to sell her sister, like I’m sure all children want to sell their siblings at some point, I would buy her and take care of her. “Okay,” she said. “You can buy her for $20.”

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“Would you like some coffee?” I asked the mother and father sitting in the family dining room with their three-year-old daughter. “No thank you,” said the father. The mother replied, “He just got out of County [jail] and that’s all they served there – coffee. So he doesn’t want any more any time soon!” I looked at him and said, “Well, welcome back! We have plenty of other things to drink – can I get you water? Or juice? Or milk?” Our guests come from all different places. How difficult it must be to come straight out of jail to a soup kitchen in order to have dinner with one’s family.

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Caitlin, our summer intern, went right over to little Jimmy when he walked into the family dining room today. “How are you?” she said. “I brought the registration forms for the Kids Cafe.” Then while he ate, he and his mom filled out the paperwork. Now that school is out, some of the children visiting the Soup Kitchen are only eating one meal a day. If they sign up to go to the Kids Cafe, they will be able to get two meals instead: lunch at the Kids Cafe and dinner at the Soup Kitchen.

Week of July 24 - 28

This week the sisters are on retreat so the food pantry is closed. We’ve had several people call asking for emergency food, like the woman I just spoke with. “Do you have any emergency food?” she asked. “My food stamps just ran out and I need something to hold me over until I get paid on Tuesday.”

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Sister Rosanne called me into the other room. “I want to tell you what happened,” she said. “I went to a restaurant the other day and needed some help at the cashier. When the manager came over, she looked at me and said: ‘I know you from somewhere. Do you work at a church or something?’ When I told her my name she immediately remembered and said: ‘You helped my mom when I was a kid! Thank you for doing that. I really appreciate all that you’ve done to help my mother.’”

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A new family came into the kitchen today. The oldest of the children, about 8 years old, walked in to the dining room and immediately introduced himself to me. “Nice to meet you. My name is Trevor,” and looking around the dining room at the hustle and bustle of people getting and eating their food he continued, “This is the first time I’ve ever been in a church.”

Week of July 17 - 21

“Guess what?” Gary, one of our regular guests at the soup kitchen asked me. “I finally got on SSI. I am so relieved. Now I’ll be able to get the care I need to control my seizures.”

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At the end of the evening at the soup kitchen, Margaret pulled me aside. “While you were in the family dining room,” she said, “something wonderful happened with our guests.” Then she proceeded to tell me that Larry, a guest, came in with the soles of his shoes falling apart. Larry has a new job and asked if we had any shoes in his size but we didn’t. Another guest, Jermichael, overheard: “I’m sorry to eavesdrop,” Jermichael said, “but I heard you need some shoes. How long are you going to be here? I think I have a pair of shoes in your size at home that don’t fit me anymore. I’ll run and get them.” So lo and behold, 20 minutes later Jermichael came back carrying not one but two pair of almost new shoes. They fit Larry perfectly but he only decided to take one pair, which he put on right away. A third guest sitting nearby asked what size the shoes were, tried on the remaining pair, and left with them. Before he walked away, Larry stopped Jermichael and asked: “How much do you want for them?” Jermichael smiled and said: “I didn’t say I wanted anything for them. You just enjoy them.”

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“What did you buy at the store today?” I asked a child at the Kids Cafe who had just finished shopping at the Kids Cafe store. “I got something for my brother,” the little girl told me. “His birthday was last week and I didn’t have anything to give him.” She wiped down tables in order to earn the Kids Cafe dollars to buy his gift.

Week of July 10-14

Caitlin, Emmaus’ summer intern, has been helping in the kitchen while Shirley, our regular cook, is out of town. “I can’t believe the cooks can stand on their feet all day!” Caitlin said when she visited the office for lunch. “I’ve only been there a day and a half but I’m exhausted already! There’s so much to do!”

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“Wow,” I said to the nine-year-old girl at the Kids Cafe, “I really like your boots. Are they new?” She smiled really wide. “Yes! They are my cowgirl boots. I love them. And you know where I got them?” she asked me. “I got them here at the Kids Cafe store.” Children who help with different chores around the place earn Kids Cafe dollars that they use to buy things like school supplies, snack foods, clothes, and shoes. The little girl continued: “I wear these boots all the time. I never take them off.” A Kids Cafe staff member laughed: “Even when you sleep you keep them on?” “Yes!” the little girl responded happily.

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This morning Sister Mary said, “Look at the paper. There are three Emmaus friends in the obituaries this morning. Here’s Frank, one of our guests. Did you ever meet him? He would come in to the dining room, stand in the front and sing out loud to everyone.”

Week of July 3-7

A mother with two young toddlers pulls Sister Mary aside, “Can we talk?” she asks. Sister Mary takes her to another table where they have more privacy. I help the father continue feeding the two children. Sister Mary’s head is bowed and she is holding the young woman’s hands. A few minutes later, they stand up and find the nurses who come in on Tuesdays to meet with our guests. Then they’re on the phone calling pharmacies and free health clinics. Sister Mary asks the father something and he says he needs to run to the car to get it. I continue to sit with the children, clean them up when they finish their dinners, and give them some toys to play with while the mother talks with the nurses. After a half hour or so, the family says lots of “thank yous” to Sister Mary and the nurses and leaves. Then Sister Mary tells me: “Yesterday their landlord locked them out of their apartment. Everything is still in the apartment – all the children’s clothes and things. All the mother’s medicines….” she sighs. “Thank God for the nurses who knew the right people to call to help her until she can get back in to get her stuff.”

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Last night at the kitchen we had 241 adults and 15 children. That’s a lot of hungry people. Thank God for this soup kitchen that feeds the hungry people of our town, but oh, how I wish these numbers were lower. I can’t even imagine what it might be like if we opened the kitchen one day without anyone waiting in line, without anyone coming in for food, without anyone hungry.

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“We had 32 children in the family dining room today. Thirty-two!” Sister Karen said a few weeks ago. “Luckily I had help delivering the meals, but that was a lot. I had to set up extra tables to accommodate everyone. I wonder if this is just the beginning of what summer will look like for us here at the kitchen…” Judging by the numbers we’ve seen, it was only the beginning. Many families have been regularly visiting our Soup Kitchen since school let out.

Week of June 26-30

Our staff meeting today was really thought provoking because we talked about our role in practicing Benedictine hospitality. “We’re a soup kitchen,” someone said, “that always feeds people and welcomes our guests wherever they’re at mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.” But there’s more to it than just that: how does Benedictine hospitality teach us to address poor behavior or disrespect without dismissing the person completely? And how does Benedictine hospitality trickle down from the sisters to the lay staff, volunteers and guests to become something we not only practice at our ministry sites but within our own homes and neighborhoods?

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“The kitchen is full of flowers this morning,” said Sister Mary. “A family donated them after their mother’s funeral. It’s really lovely in there with all the bright colors.”

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Today we celebrated one of our regular guest’s birthdays. When he came in, our entire serving crew started singing “Happy Birthday” and soon the guests at the tables in the dining room joined in singing, too. Our birthday guest blushed and looked down at his food but we could tell he was grateful we remembered his special day.

Week of June 19-23

I sat and talked with a regular family at the soup kitchen tonight. It turns out they don’t have a stove… or a refrigerator. What sort of food can one keep and prepare without a refrigerator? “We’re on a waiting list to get a fridge,” the mother told me. “But we’re not sure how long it will take. Maybe another month or two.” Her son’s face lit up: “Once we get a fridge,” he said, “we can have milk and eggs and cheese and butter…! I can’t wait!” These are such staple foods – necessities, even, to make different kinds of meals. “We got him some milk yesterday,” said the mom, and then she laughed. “He drank the whole carton right away!” I’ve never before thought of milk as a privilege.

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Little Freddie came in with his father, Fred, to the kitchen. Freddie is the sweetest little guy – he’s about 8 or 9 years old and has blonde hair. Usually he’s pretty shy but he always eats his whole meal. He was so dirty today. There wasn’t just dirt under his fingernails – but his shirt looked like it hasn’t been washed in a while and his face looked like maybe he hadn’t bathed in a few days. But after they ate and left, I saw Fred take little Freddie across the street and play on the playground with him for a half hour or more. Freddie’s family might not groom him well, but they definitely love him well.

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“I don’t always do this,” Sister Mary told me, “but yesterday at the kitchen I walked up to one of our guests who has unruly, long hair, pointed at the servers and said, ‘You see that woman on the end of the serving line, Kathe? She’s a professional haircutter. I bet she’d cut your hair for you if you’d like.’” The guest was elated. He asked if Kathe had her scissors with her right then! She didn’t but promised to bring them the following week.

Week of June 12 - 16

Someone at the kitchen really got to me today. While I was wiping down tables, I asked a guest how his meal was. “It doesn’t really matter,” he replied angrily. I must have given a concerned look because he continued, “It doesn’t matter what you serve or even what it tastes like. When you’re hungry, you’re hungry. It’s a horrible experience.” Then he put it on me: “You’ll know sometime,” he said. “Sometime you’ll be here eating instead of wiping down the tables like you’re doing now. And then you’ll know it doesn’t matter what they serve because you’ll just need whatever it is to survive.”

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Rita welcomes in all our guests by looking them in the eye, calling them by name, and telling them what the meal is. When Rita meets a new guest, she warmly welcomes them, asks their name and then proceeds to tell them: “There are two rules and two guidelines. The rules are that you 1) enjoy your meal and 2) feel safe when you’re here. The guidelines are that you 1) don’t use your phone and 2) don’t swear, intimidate others, or bully anyone.” She does this to ensure that all our guests have a safe space to come eat.

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There’s a teenager who has been coming into the kitchen with her family. She’s been going through some difficult times and I’ve been trying to be a presence of support – I think teenagers can use as many people in their lives affirming them as possible, especially as a teenager eating every evening meal at the soup kitchen. Sometimes when she comes in she’s real quiet. But last night she started a conversation as soon as she walked through the door. I was thrilled that she trusted me in talking about her personal life. I hope she recognizes Emmaus as a safe space, affirming her in her being, and encouraging her to grow into her fullest, happiest self.

Week of June 5-9

We are putting in a circular drive at the Soup Kitchen and Pantry in order that the trucks can have more space to get to the dumpsters. Our wonderful gardeners have been working all day to carefully pull out all the Solomon’s Seal and replant them in front of the garden along the fence. It looks beautiful. It’s so wonderful to see how much people are dedicated to promoting and continuing beauty at Emmaus, no matter what sorts of changes we might need to make to the physical landscape or buildings.

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In our family dining room, we seat each family, serve drinks, and bring food to them, similar to a restaurant-like setting. “I could have used six highchairs instead of three tonight!” said Sister Karen, who served in the dining room on her own. Tonight it was the fullest it has ever been with 23 children and their parents sitting down to eat at various times within the hour and a half we are open. Earlier this year, we’ve averaged about eight children plus their parents in the family dining room each evening. It’s wonderful we have this designated space for families but disheartening to see it so full.

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Right before the dining room opened, a volunteer at the kitchen asked Rita: “Are you going to be the bouncer tonight?” Quickly she responded: “No, I’m going to be the greeter.”

Week of May 29 - June 2

Third graders from Pfiffer-Burleigh Elementary School went on tours at the Emmaus Grove garden today. Master gardeners Mike Bailey and Ellen DiPlacido, coordinators of the program, introduced the students to all sorts of plants. The children were encouraged to smell and taste different herbs, onions and garlic. They made faces and squealed as they tried the different edible plants. But I think they really enjoyed it – for some of the students, it might have been their first time ever eating anything straight out of the ground.

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The only thing I can hear is Sister Mary’s side of the phone conversation: “So you don’t have an ID or money? Do you have clothes?” She pauses: “Where are you staying? Do you know anyone in Erie?” Another pause: “How did you get to Erie?” She listens and looks extremely concerned. Then: “Okay, I’ll try to help.” She hangs up. “Oh my God. 24 years old. He’s clinically depressed and struggling with psychotic breakdowns. He’s been in and out of psychiatric wards and since walking around Erie for two days. I don’t know what we can do.” But for the next 20 minutes, she calls around town until she finds him a place to stay for the night. “I wish I could do something more,” she tells him on the phone when she calls him a half hour later, “but for now, all I can do is ensure you a bed for the night at the shelter down the road.”

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Today Rita and I presented the mission of Emmaus for a class of local high school seniors. We talked about poverty as the lack of more than just financial means but as the lack of opportunity, employment, health care, familial support, and more. We highlighted the necessity of easy and affordable access to healthy food. We talked about food desserts and asked each student to name the closest place to where they dwell in which they can purchase food. Is it a grocery store? A fast food restaurant? A gas station? What sorts of food could they buy there? Is it healthy food? And how much does the food cost? Can they easily purchase a healthy and affordable meal for an entire family within walking distance of their house? Having the students think of their own personal relationships with food was helpful to begin the conversation about poverty and the regular daily needs many of our guests face.