Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

Week of June 11-15

I enjoy addressing thank you notes to our donors. I’m fascinated by the amounts people donate, too. Emmaus receives everything from $1 and beyond. The donations of $1 – and there are a few – make me think a lot about my own sharing: if I share just $1 each time I think about people in need, I really could make a difference over time.

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I hate catcalls. I’m a human, not an object. I don’t want to be treated like an object – and I especially don’t want to be treated like an object of men’s pleasure when I’m walking down the street or performing my job. That said, when men yell out to me on the street, I often ignore them or offer them some kind of gesture that says “I’m not interested; don’t treat me like your object.” Today I was taking the dog for a walk in the afternoon. A man biking by yelled out to me. “Hey!” he yelled. “How you doin’?” I looked at him skeptically, ready to show my disinterest in his advances when I then heard him say: “Did you work at Emmaus tonight?”

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On top of emergency food, here are things we often get asked for: bus tickets; help paying rent; help paying electricity and fuel bills; furniture; and help finding emergency shelter. We have to remind those calling that we are an emergency food agency and can’t always help with everything else – but it is difficult to talk to people on the phone each day who need so much help with basic necessities, knowing that we can’t always help.

Week of June 4-8

I think one of our volunteers was a little overwhelmed working in the family dining room today. She seemed almost culture-shocked at what she experienced. I struggle, as someone who works there often, to allow the families to be themselves while also demanding a peaceful, welcoming environment for all. Just like individuals, families enter with all kinds of emotional baggage and trauma. The challenge for me, then, is often to help them constrain the outbursts of that trauma while acknowledging the pain and caring deeply for each individual.

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Last week a woman called asking for help to get to her daughter in China who, she said, had been stabbed while teaching there for the semester and was in critical condition. By the sound of her voice, she was obviously in distress as she struggled to articulate what it was she needed and what she hoped we could help with. Today, the local news published a short story about her situation, leading people to a Go Fund Me page to help her find the financial resources she needs to fly to China to be with her daughter in the hospital. After seeing a picture of the mother, I immediately recognized her: she is one of the mothers that has been coming to the soup kitchen lately with her children. On the phone, she was a stranger and I felt removed from the situation. Once I realized who the crying mother was, my perspective changed. Suddenly I felt a part of this situation; I know the mother and I know the daughter’s siblings.

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“A few years ago, there was a young woman serving at the soup kitchen who had to take a break from serving, went into the back room, and cried,” said Sister Claire to the rest of our staff. “I think there’s something beautiful about that. Maybe that’s what we should all remember to do sometimes – cry.” Because when we cry, we feel something: the pain and suffering and frustrations of those we encounter.

Week of May 29 - June 1

“This $40,” said Sister Mary holding up two $20 bills, “came from a woman who attends Listening Hearts. Her mother told her to give it to Emmaus. She’s a poor woman! Why didn’t she put the money in her own pocket?” Sister Mary shook her head, “This always gets me…”

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We had 45 children and two babies at the soup kitchen for dinner tonight. That’s the most we’ve had in months. I saw families again that I haven’t seen since Christmastime. It’s always nice to see them, but similarly devastating to know that these families haven’t found their way out of poverty.

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“Did you bless your snacks?” the dad asked his five children sitting at the table, already halfway done with their desserts. The kids looked up at him nervously and shook their heads no. “Well, if you didn’t,” he snapped, “you can’t blame God if you choke on them!”

Week of May 21-25

“Hi, my name is Jill and I used to go to the food pantry but I have a job now and don’t really need help anymore. But I’m just calling to ask the sisters at the food pantry to pray for my family…” said the woman on the other phone line. “Is there anyone in particular to pray for?” I asked. “Well,” the woman hesitated, “maybe my son. But just if they could pray for my family – that would be really helpful. Thank you.”

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Emmaus just got an offer to lower the price of our gas bills by going with another company. “Sounds great!” we all thought. But then we did some research. Turns out the new company is all about fracking. It might cost us a little more at this time, but we’re not going with them. I’m so happy to be working with a place that truly cares for the good of all – of the lowly and marginalized, the poor and needy, oppressed and forgotten, humans and the earth.

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After meeting with a benefactor, Sister Mary came back to the office with tears in her eyes. “Her family’s story is so difficult,” she said. “It breaks my heart.” A little while later, sitting at her desk, Sister Mary looked up and said, “I feel like I should apologize for my emotions before, but I’m not going to. When we start to feel nothing about the stories we hear, it’s time for us to move on from this ministry. And when we start to become overwhelmed by and cannot move forward from the stories we hear, it’s also time for us to move on from this ministry.” I think she’s right. There’s a good balance of crying and laughing, feeling things deeply and moving forward that we must do to keep ministering to all sorts of people in this town just by being the constants at the soup kitchen.

Week of May 14-18

“Hi,” said the woman on the other side of the phone, “My name is Pam and I often come to the food pantry. Whenever I come, Sisters Claire and Lucia always welcome me and ask how I’m doing. I haven’t been in a while – because of my work schedule – but I just wanted to call and let them know I’m doing well.”

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I’m currently in the search for a new apartment. While at the soup kitchen, I overheard two mothers talking about their family’s living situations. “We need to move,” one said. “Our landlord is a slumlord.” I thought about how difficult it has been for me to find a place to live and I have a decent amount of resources and support; I can’t imagine trying to find a clean, safe place for a family – with children – with a meager budget. The housing and rental market really isn’t organized to benefit the poor.

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Lauren Casey, who helped to organize two drives for the guests of Emmaus at Erie Insurance, wrote to me today: “I love bringing new co-workers to the soup kitchen. I love seeing their faces as Rita explains what you all do there. It’s a 20-minute drive over from our offices, and each time the way back is filled with wonderful conversations about my colleague’s experience at the kitchen and how they would like to help more. The ladies (and gentlemen) at the kitchen are so kind and welcoming…and hilarious! We have many fundraisers throughout the year for bigger organizations. It’s a different feeling to go somewhere in your own community, like Emmaus, and see that you can help your neighbors here in Erie. We truly appreciate what you do there. Thank you for being our connection to the community.”

Week of May 7-11

A young child, J, coming into the soup kitchen lately is cracking me up. She’s about four years old and has an attitude like no other. She’s so funny and she knows it. Playing up her dramatic tendencies, after dinner tonight she picked a packet of Smarties candy with a cookie for dessert. I watched her open the Smarties, try one, make a pucker face, and then turn to me, take my hand, and pour four into my hand. “Here, you can have some,” she said, acting like she was just sharing out of the kindness of her heart. I ate one, gave one to her sister, and watched her try another one: “This is disgussssssssting!” she said.

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At the food pantry this morning, a mother came in with her daughter, A. I know them from the soup kitchen. “How are you? I haven’t seen you in a while,” I said. A responded, “I’m okay. I can’t go to school today.” Mom said: “It’s a long story… we won’t get into it now.” When her mom wasn’t looking, A came over to me, leaned in close and whispered: “They found lice eggs in my hair at school so I’m not allowed to go. I don’t know how they got in there!” I quickly backed away from her thinking I hope these lice can’t jump! and said: “Well, sometimes lice spread quickly at school. You must have just gotten them from someone there,” and walked away. Then, for the rest of the morning, I had the creepy-crawlies – where you feel phantom bugs crawling all over you. And now, reflecting on my actions I think: so much for being with the leper, when she came close and told me her situation, my first reaction was to jump away, to protect myself from “catching” what she has, rather than comfort and support her when she’s already been shunned from school…

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This morning I went to listen to a panel talking about the population of homeless young adults (ages 16-25) in Erie. Unfortunately, the number of youth without permanent housing is growing. Why? The experts on the panel explained several different reasons children and youths experience homelessness ranging from their own personal choices or lifestyles to their parents’ choices, struggles, or lifestyles. Meaning: if a child is born to a parent with a severe untreated mental illness or addiction, her chance of having a stable home is much less than a child born to a parent in good health.

Week of April 30 - May 4

Last night one of the guests asked me for the number to call the shelters. “I know it’s one number but I can’t remember what it is,” the guy said. Sister Mary called a friend and quickly found the number: 814-SHELTER.

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I attended a “Take Back the Site Vigil,” in which sisters from the three religious communities in Erie come together to reclaim a space (in which a murder took place) for nonviolence. The location of the Vigil today was in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in Erie – just a reminder that violence doesn’t only occur in the poorest of neighborhoods.

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It’s the beginning of the month and our phone has been ringing off the hook all morning. Many of the phone calls I’ve taken are from women in need of some kind of financial assistance, which Sister Rosanne helps with if she can. One, in particular, really caught my attention. “You can’t heal when people around you don’t want to see you succeed,” she said. “So I know I need to get out of this situation. Can you help me?”

Week of April 23-27

Five thousand. That’s how many people, since July of last year, have used the services of the Emmaus food pantry to supplement their food. Five thousand people. In this small area. Five thousand people that need additional food. Five thousand people that are hungry. Five thousand people living in some sort of poverty. Five thousand.

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Today is National Poem in Your Pocket Day. Emmaus board member Sister Mary Lou Kownacki is a strong lover of poetry. She organized a group of people and places around Erie to hand out free poems to anyone interested. When Rita, Emmaus’ social worker, heard about this, she asked for poems to hand out at the soup kitchen too. Recipients from all around downtown Erie were delighted to receive the small gift from a stranger.

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“The beds are ready!” said Emmaus Grove master gardener, Ellen DiPlacido. “Last Saturday was so refreshing being outside in the sun. We had a great group--once again! We planted peas, onions, beets and lettuce.”

Week of April 9-13

Yesterday we delivered a single mattress to a woman in need. “I’m so worried she’s on the verge of a break down,” Sister Rosanne said about the woman. “She’s working nights, trying to take care of her teenage daughters, and sleeping on the floor. I’m glad you brought this mattress over to her so she’ll have something to sleep on. Hopefully now she can at least get a good rest.”

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Sometimes the family dining room feels like a home. We have guests who come regularly and others who only come once or twice. One family has been coming for years off and on whenever they’ve needed some extra support. I hadn’t seen them for a few months – since summer – until they came in tonight. Nothing had changed, dad still knew where to get the sugar and creamer for his coffee and the son still knew to look in the fridge for his hot sauce. There was something really familiar about this – they acted in the way I do when I visit my grandparents’ house: with respect but comfort of feeling welcomed and at home in a kitchen that’s not my own.

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A man in his seventies just visited the offices to make a donation in honor of his sister’s birthday. “Oh wow,” he said, looking around the old monastery building with wide eyes, “this is great. When I was young, I went to Cathedral Prep and the Benedictine sisters were my teachers. After school, I would drive them home – here!”

Week of April 2-6

This morning I worked “on a box” at the Food Pantry, which means I helped to sign people in when they came to get their food. What shocked me – in my mere two hours spent there – are the relationships between the guests and the regular volunteers. The relationships are mutual: a volunteer will greet a guest by name and ask how her children are and the guest will respond by inquiring about the volunteer’s health or family. I suppose it’s easy to make acquaintances with people one sees weekly or bi-weekly – but that also means one must be willing to open up and share on multiple occasions.

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“You look really familiar,” said Ronny, one of the regular food pantry volunteers, to a man who just arrived and asked to volunteer. Sister Karen smiled as she introduced Tom Leib, the older brother of the late food pantry volunteer Jim who recently unexpectedly passed away. Tom, who had been sitting next to Sister Lucia at Mass two days earlier, was responding to Sister Lucia’s prayer for another truck driver to take the spot Jim left.

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“How was school today?” I asked the second grader. “It was a lovely day,” she responded. “Lovely?” I asked. “What made it lovely?” She looked at me and hesitated. “Well,” she said slowly, “I didn’t get hit.”