Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

December 17, 2021

From Sister Jacqueline Sanchez-Small, Emmaus Communications Assistant

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It’s a week before Christmas, and I’m volunteering at Emmaus Soup Kitchen. Well, I’m supposed to be. But the crew of volunteers that’s here tonight are old pros, and they have everything–the stuffed chicken breast, the salad and roll, the special dessert–well under control. So I’m sitting by the side door with Sister Rosanne, who is waiting for the women who have made appointments with her. One by one, they come to the door and she goes out to meet them, talking for just a few minutes about whatever their most pressing problem is, and then, inevitably, Sister Rosanne hands each one an envelope–with her name written on it in her big, looping cursive–and pulls her in for a hug. 

When there’s a lull between the women, she tells me that a few days before, she had an experience she’s still thinking about. “I met with a lady and she had no coat. Now, Scripture says, ‘Whoever has two coats should share with those who have none.’ Well, I don’t have two coats; I have three. So I gave her mine. She told me–” Rosanne pauses for a minute and collects herself. “She said she’d never had a coat before. Jacqueline, how is that possible? To never have had a coat. Just think of it. I’m so glad I was able to give her one. And I made sure her children had coats.”

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Sister Val hears that Roberta, a frequent guest, is in line for her dinner. “Oh, you’ve gotta come meet Roberta. You’ll love her,” she tells me. So I go out after her, walking behind her through the line of hungry guests. Some of them greet Val, some of them stare at the ground or off into space. But then there’s Roberta, who throws her arms wide and yells, “SISTER!”

Val introduces me to Roberta, telling her I’m a new sister and I’m going to be helping out around the kitchen from time to time. Roberta is beaming. “Welcome to Emmaus! You let me know if you have any questions.” Then she asks us about other Benedictines she remembers, who have helped at Emmaus in different roles over the years, wanting to know how they’re feeling, where they’re in ministry now. As she gets closer to the window where she’ll get her food, she wishes us a merry Christmas and tells me, “You’re part of the family now!”

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I take a turn serving meals through the window, just as an elderly man comes to the front of the line. 

I greet him and he smiles and says, “You wanna hear some good news for a change?”

I say of course I do. 

“I just got a place to live. An apartment with a door and everything. I’ve been on this waitlist for more than three months, and it’s finally going to be mine. I can move in before Christmas! I’m so happy, I just had to tell somebody,” he says. “I know we haven’t met before but I figured you must care since you’re here.”

Another volunteer, walking out in the line, reminds him not to leave as soon as he gets his meal, because there are blankets being given away as Christmas gifts.

“Amazing,” the man says, “I’m going to have a nice new blanket to sit under in my apartment.”

March 24, 2021

While serving dinner at the soup kitchen the other evening, the bell rang at the back door. That usually means someone has come to drop off a donation. The 85 year-old woman who brought the donation said, “You might need a cart. There is a lot in my car.” Pushing the cart we currently use to move boxed dinners from the serving counter to the window where we distribute them, I went outside. Inside her car were bags and bags and bags of boxed snacks, apples, oranges, pasta…“You name it,” as they say.

As I brought in load after load, she said to me so sweetly, “When I have extra money, I love to go and buy food for the soup kitchen.”

I thought to myself, “When I have extra money, I love to go buy a new shirt for myself.”

Someone’s heart is in the right place.

—Valerie Luckey, OSB

March 22, 2021

I went to Dominick’s Diner the other day to buy a few gift cards to donate to the soup kitchen and got into a conversation with Tony Ferraro, the owner. Tony, of course, threw in two extra “on the house” so that I could come back for a meal or add them to the donation. I said I’d give them to our guests.

As we kept talking, I thanked him for taking such good care of our guests. He pointed over to his friend in the corner of the restaurant, telling me, “You see my friend over there? We did everything together when we were kids. Some Fridays, after school, my mom would say to us, ‘Guys, get cleaned up. We’re going out for supper.’”

“That meant we were going to the soup kitchen for a fish dinner,” he said.

Tony continued, “For me, it has all come full circle. I am glad I can give back.”

This is how a city becomes a community.

—Beth Sammartino, volunteer and Erie Benedictine oblate

December 23, 2020

It’s not unusual for someone to drop off gifts at the soup kitchen, no name attached. When a bare Christmas tree appeared on the doorstep, I left it there, thinking, “How nice, someone in need will get a free tree.”

Lo and behold, I returned the following day to see a guest of ours opening the box and setting it up smack-dab in the center of our lawn. As I left, I wanted to see if the man was still there, to ask him why he decided to set the tree up on an unusually sunny day for a December in Erie. But he was gone. I laughed to myself, smiling at the joy this tree might give to someone else.

My guess is that he understood a truth about the Christmas season: Joy connects us to one another. —Sister Valerie Luckey

December 15, 2020

I was near our volunteers as they greeted Tina*, who was coming through our food pantry line on a Tuesday morning. I could hear the exchange begin as Tina exclaimed, with arms raised in the air, “Praise God for joy!” She didn’t elaborate as to the source of her joy; she simply declared to us all, “Praise God for joy!” Before she continued onto the food line, she also asked to talk to Rita (Scrimenti), our social worker on staff. She needed some help and knew that she could turn to her.

I hope that our guests find joy knowing we are here for them, whatever their need. —Catherine Simon

December 10, 2020

I was driving down State Street on my way to taking my friend Sister Mary Lou to a pre-dawn hospital appointment at Hamot UPMC when we spotted someone lying face down on the sidewalk in front of one of the banks. “Is that person alive or dead?” she asked aloud. I dropped her off at the hospital door and quickly returned to the bank, calling 911 as I went up State. “We already have that call,” the 911 voice answered, “someone should be there.” When I explained that I was the only one at the scene, she checked her records and said, “Oh, one of our people was there. It’s a woman and when we woke her up, she said to leave her alone, she wanted to sleep.” Imagine, this in Erie, Pennsylvania! A woman lying face down on the sidewalk in front of a bank on our city’s main street with nothing to cover her on a cold night.

How does this happen in our dear city? And I fear it’s going to get much worse as winter arrives and COVID-19 shuts down all the emergency church shelters. I feel so helpless at a time like this. Oh, we try to make a dent in the suffering by giving out new blankets and fleece-lined hoodies as Christmas gifts to our guests. But I know it’s not enough…it doesn’t change anything. That woman haunts me, and she should.—Sister Mary Miller

December 3, 2020

Bernie makes her own face masks. One day while handing her dinner through the window, I complimented it. “What kind of animals do you like?” she responded. “Cats? Dogs? Dolphins?” I love dogs so I told her that. “I usually ask $3 for them. I’ll make you a mask with puppies on it,” she said and walked away. The next week, I found a little baggie in the office of the soup kitchen with my name on it. Inside was a handmade mask with dogs on it. “Is this from Bernie?” I asked Brian, out maintenance man, when he came in. “I didn’t pay her for it!” In line with his truest character, Brian nonchalantly responded: “I covered it. No worries.” —Breanna Mekuly

November 20, 2020

Because of COVID-19 our annual coat drive was low-key this year. Instead of major blitz in church bulletins asking people to donate unused coats, our faithful organizer Kelley Glass sent an email to 17 of her friends asking for donations. And the coats and blankets arrived. I was blown-away by one woman who arrived in a van that was packed to the ceiling. When she opened her trunk there were at least 10 brand new sleeping bags, 20 children’s coats, 50 plush and thick blankets and throws that she had personally purchased. She wishes to remain anonymous—the highest form of giving. —Sister Valerie Luckey

November 16, 2020

I am always impressed watching our volunteers greet each food pantry guest. The names just roll off their tongue like people who have known each other forever. “Hello, David!” “How’s the family, Joanne?” And in some cases, the reality is that our volunteers and guests have known each other for years.

The other day, Theodore*, who had been coming to the pantry regularly, walked up to register himself for the week. When we greeted him with a “Good morning, Theodore,” he replied, without missing a beat, “Call me Teddy.” He hadn’t been around for a while, but right back in the Emmaus family he was.

Quite the woodworker, Teddy told us about the model bridges that he builds. He is able to sell his bridges for $250 a piece. Thrilled to have sold one of his models, Teddy said that he used the earnings to pay bills. But when he sold a second? “Now I’ll have some money to save!” he exclaimed. Sharing our joys makes us family at Emmaus. —Catherine Simon

November 6, 2020

A few months ago, I ran into one of the guests of the kitchen near my house. He’s having a hard time with the pandemic. “I’m hungry,” he said, “and I need food. But I don’t really want to go to the soup kitchen to just stand in line. I feel like a number, not a human.” Of course, that is the furthest from what we are trying to do as we cope and adapt during this difficult time. But I get it. It’s hard to feel like a member of a community when things have changed so much. “Is there anything we can do to make things any better?” I asked, “How can we respect and ensure your dignity when we can’t have normal conversations or sit down together to eat?” His response has stuck with me all this time: he suggested we get two iPads – one to put outside where the guests line up and one where the volunteers are serving the meals. That way, he said, “we can all see one another, interact, and have Emmaus be a little more like before.” Maybe these are the kinds of creative ideas we need to use to remain connected; to affirm one another’s dignity daily. —Breanna Mekuly