Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

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.”

Week of March 26-30

One of our regular guests, D, had a breakdown tonight in the kitchen during a busy time. From the family dining room, I could hear him yelling and when I walked over, I could see everyone staring. Sister Mary and Rita tried to help him calm down while also ushering him out the door. When he left, Rita followed him a bit and while calling crisis services to ensure he would be watched and cared for. I walked down by Sister Mary. “He was hearing voices,” she said. His mumbled yelling was his attempt at trying to quiet these voices.

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Today one of our regular volunteers, Mary Hoffman, delivered food items from St. Luke’s School to the soup kitchen. “My little car was packed to the gills with boxes of food!” she said. The students had originally collected the food for the overnight shelters, but they collected more than the shelters could hand out. So together the school and shelter organizers, of which Mary is part, decided to share with Emmaus to hand out to guests in need of emergency food.

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“Sometimes I don’t want to have to think about all the logistical things that make the organization run,” said Sister Mary. “I just want to serve soup to the hungry.”

Week of March 19-23

A man came in with his grandchildren and daughter. "This is the best soup," he said to his daughter. "Did you try it yet? Every time I'm here they always have great soup." I should tell the cooks what I overheard, I thought. Maybe they'd like to know their soup is rated number one in town!

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"How's your meal?" I asked a three-year old who was devouring her meal. "Is it good?" She looked up at me: "Not only is it good," she said, "It's deeee-lific! And yummy." Deeee-lific: a combination between delicious and terrific. I like that word. I might need to start using it.

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Today I talked with sixth- and seventh-graders at St. George Catholic School. They were extremely inquisitive and thoughtful. I bet they asked at least forty questions about Emmaus! I was almost through with my presentation that talked about our mission and what each of our ministries does and who our guests are and typical reasons of why they might need our services, and I gave stories about each ministry, etc. when one of the children raised his hand and said, "Are you even going to tell us where this place is?"

Week of March 12-16

"Last week, for the first time in my life, I was arrested." This is how I began the conversation this week with our Tuesday crew of volunteers when Sister Mary sat us all down and asked me to explain to them my involvement in the Catholic Day of Action with Dreamers. Many of them just stared at me and I thought they must wonder why - like so many others - I chose to give up my freedom to stand up for a group of people whose freedom is at risk.

"And this is why…" I continued by explaining that I was one of 40 Catholic leaders from across the United States who gathered in the Russell Rotunda (the Senate Office building) to perform civil disobedience with hopes that it would lead our country's leaders to prepare a Clean Dream Act for all recipients of the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival) and for their families. A Clean Dream Act would create a safe pathway to U.S. citizenship for the young immigrants who came to the States with their families when they were young without using young immigrants as bargaining chips to harm immigrant communities.

Our act of civil disobedience itself was completely nonviolent, respectful, and well-choreographed with the police officers. Before we even went to DC, those of us who planned on taking the action of civil disobedience sent our information to a lawyer and the Capitol police so they knew exactly which of us were planning to participate in the disobedience. We also participated in an online forum where we learned how to act nonviolently.

The actual day of our action began early in the morning with a Mass led by a bishop from Kentucky and attended by over 100 people. At the Mass, we prayed for those living in the United States under the DACA and for their families. We prayed that our act of joining together as Catholic leaders from across the country would do something to allow these families to live in peace without such fear and suffering.

After the Mass, we all walked together to the grounds of the capitol buildings and held a short press conference, in which one thing in particular stuck out to me at the press conference - a sister stood tall and said: "I've never been arrested before and I don't want to be arrested. But my community and I support the Dreamers and so they encouraged me to come out here. So to Congress and the Capitol Police, this is what I have to say: 'Arrest a nun, not a Dreamer!'"

After the press conference we all joined together and began to pray the rosary. At this point during my retelling of the story, I would interject and say to the volunteers: "I have to admit - I'm not one to say the rosary. But there was something so powerful about the 200 of us standing on the lawn saying it together in English and in Spanish. This is a prayer of the people - a prayer anyone can lead, a prayer all Catholics have said at some point in their life. This is a prayer my family taught me. This is the prayer my grandma and my mom and my aunts - these women in my life I adore but who don't know I'm doing this - go to when times get desperate and they know of nothing else that will comfort them. This prayer is a prayer that my people say when they know not what else to do. This is a prayer we said together. And while we did so, I sobbed." It's true. I did sob.

We finished saying the fourth of five decades and then walked into the Russell Rotunda and waited for the action to begin. "This part I don't remember so well," I told the volunteers who had, by this time, gotten pretty into listening to my story, "because I was so nervous. I didn't know what to expect - what would happen to us after we got arrested? What kind of holding cell would we go to? And then I had this sudden realization as I used the restroom for the last time before we all walked in to do the civil disobedience: this could be the last time I go to the bathroom with dignity until… who knows? Depending on how long the police decide to hold us and how long the processing takes, I don't know when the next time I'll be able to pee with dignity." It's a crude thought, I know, but I told the volunteers this for a reason. "I couldn't imagine," I continued, "being one of these young immigrants and knowing that at any point in my life - any time I went to the bathroom - could be the last time I had any dignity or privacy or freedom just because my parents made a decision for me when I was too young to decide anything on my own."

Two-by-two, we proceeded into the Rotunda and began to sing and pray. "This is where the act of civil disobedience becomes a pre-planned choreographed event between the police officers and the demonstrators," I continued, making sure that the volunteers knew the police were well aware of and prepared for what we were doing. "The demonstrators begin to pray as a group. The Capitol Police provide a little space and then, when the demonstrators do not quit, the police offer a first warning. This goes on until the police offer a third and final warning. After that, we were told before the event, the police officers will come behind us, tap us on the shoulder, and arrest us."

When it came my turn, I felt a police officer tap me on the shoulder and I turned around, shaking with fear and tears in my eyes when I saw not one but seven officers standing there staring at me. "Do you want to be arrested?" the main arresting officer asked me. For a long moment, I paused. "Do I want to be arrested?" I thought. "No! I don't want to be arrested! But he's not supposed to ask me this. He's just supposed to be arresting me." "Ma'am," he interrupted my thoughts, "they already got you on the cameras demonstrating. Are you sure you want to be arrested?" This time I thought about all the Dreamers - all those people my age and younger who will never be asked this question but might be taken and put in cuffs at any point. "Yes," I said and put my hands together behind my back.

An officer cuffed me and walked me to the side where my photo was taken and we waited for the others to be cuffed. There was one Capitol police officer for each of us arrested. Often during this time, my officer checked in with me: "Are you okay?" "Are your handcuffs too tight?" Eventually, we were taken out of the Rotunda to a place where we were patted down, our possessions were taken from us, and we were set to board the paddy wagons - which were really nice busses that would escort us to the holding location while we waited for our information to be processed.

As I waited to board the bus, I asked my officer: "Do you know who we are and why we're doing this?" He had been told that it was a group of mostly nuns interested in protecting the Dreamers. (Later, on Twitter, someone found a tweet from one of the Capitol police officers saying "It's strange going to work knowing you'll be arresting a group of nuns.") The officer and I talked about why our group thinks it's necessary to protect the Dreamers. He understood and agreed. "My wife told me something the other day about how horrible life is for the Dreamers lately," he said. "I just can't believe that's happening."

I was shocked. I'm not sure what I expected from the arresting officers - maybe I feared they would disagree with us and in some ways take that out on us while putting us in handcuffs and keeping us in holding cells. But I was completely wrong. The officers were just as kind and understanding with us as we had practiced and prepared to be with them. After all, this wasn't about us or them; the entire action was about asking Congress to move forward with a bill to support the Dreamers and their families with dignity as they continue to live in the United States.

The forty of us were only in the processing center - which turned out to be not a jail cell like I had imagined, but a large garage in a Capitol police maintenance building with open garage doors to let in fresh air - for about four hours. When we arrived, we were patted down and searched again, before ushered to sit in folding chairs and offered bottles of water.

The processing officer, again, was wonderful. To his entire staff, and in front of all of us, he stood up and announced: "Listen, I just found out that this sister here is in the same community as my aunt. So, you all better be on your best behaviors and treat these nuns with respect and kindness because otherwise she'll report back to my aunt and I'll get in trouble!" He laughed and we did too.

The whole experience was filled with passion, deep care for one another, and love.

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Emmaus' regular volunteer, Jean, walked over to Sister Mary. "Do you see that man sitting over there alone?" Jean said. "He looks really sad." Sister Mary replied: "Well, why don't you go over there and see what's wrong?" "What would I say to him?" Jean asked. "Just tell him the truth," said Sister Mary. "Tell him you're a mom and you can't help but notice when people are sad and you're wondering what's going on and if there's anything we can help with."

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What's our success rate at Emmaus Ministries? At the Kids Cafe, we measure by this: "Were the kids safe, fed, and loved?" If so, we were successful. At the Soup Kitchen, we measure by this: "Did everyone who came to the door hungry leave filled?" If so (and always, yes), then we were successful.

Week of March 5-9

Yesterday I went to Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Erie to talk with their Lenten group about the work of Emmaus. The theme of their Lenten journey is "How do I care for my neighbor?" so we talked about the Emmaus motto: "Bread for the Body; Care for the Soul." We provide everyone who walks in the door with food - feeding their body. But we also try to recognize the Christ figure in each individual by really looking at him or her, calling another by name, and coming to know their story. After the talk, a fourth-grader at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School came up to me and said: "Wow. Thanks so much for presenting that. I mean, I've heard of Emmaus before but I never knew what it was about. I just thought it was a place for homeless people… but now I know it's much more than that. And that a lot of people are involved in making it work!"

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One of guests at the soup kitchen that Sister Mary has known for a long time came in tonight and told her he has a new girlfriend. "What do you like about her?" Sister Mary asked him. Without hesitation he replied: "She has a compassionate heart; she has a great personality; and she loves me a lot."

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Today Chris Fetcko, the man who swam across Lake Erie to raise money for the Kids Cafe last August, visited the office with his wife and their six-month old baby. "We think about you all the time!" His wife, Emily gushed. "And we loved reading your newsletter. It's so spiritual." Chris continued: "I look forward to visiting the Kids Cafe again. I think often about how the children there were deeply concerned about me while I prepared to swim - and how much I thought about them during my actual swim. Those thoughts helped me to keep going when I got tired."