Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

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

October 30, 2020

I was serving at the soup kitchen the other evening when someone coming through the line asked to talk to a sister. I went over to the window where we hand out meals and saw Michael*. Michael has been a faithful donor to Emmaus for a couple years, offering monthly what he can to support our ministry while also coming through our dinner line regularly. He wanted to explain to me why he hadn’t sent donations in a while. Michael had been in prison and was recently released. He said to me, “Sister Mary, I want to begin making my monthly contribution again. And I want to thank you for these great boots Emmaus gave me,” as he lifted his leg to show me his foot.

I replied, “No, Michael, you must take care of yourself first.” But, he insisted, “This is what I want to do.” During these times when so much has changed, I continue to be struck by the consistent gratitude and generosity of the poor in our city who come to Emmaus.—Sister Mary Miller

Months of January and February

Tim is one of the friendliest guests of the soup kitchen I’ve ever met. He always smiles and enjoys joking around. The other day as I walked past he called me over and, chuckling to himself, said: “Breanna, are you a nun yet?” I laughed and told him that’s not where my life is headed. “Well, if you keep working here,” he said, “I bet they’ll get you soon!”

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Someday are better than others. Today was hectic at the soup kitchen. The cops came looking for one of our guy guests. A woman had a bad reaction to a drug she had taken and paramedics had to be called. Then another woman came in with a nasty attitude. But our volunteers and guests, of course, took it all in stride and treated one another with goodwill.

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Students in 11th grade stopped by the Soup Kitchen and Kids Cafe on a tour of the Benedictine Ministries. While there, we talked a lot about the Catholic Social Teaching call to Family, Community and Participation. This teaching suggests that all humans have a right to participate in society and that we are called to reform society to meet the needs of all. At the soup kitchen, we bring people together – donors, volunteers, guests of the kitchen – to gather as community in which all are acknowledged. The more we get to know one another, especially those who are most unlike us, the more we recognize the gifts and struggles each person brings to our society. The more we recognize how to include people who have been left out, the more we might feel called to reform society to meet the needs of all.

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“Yesterday was my birthday,” said an 11-year-old at the soup kitchen, “and the volunteers here sang to me and gave me a birthday gift! I got a warm blanket, fuzzy socks, and even some fancy Chapstick – you know, the kind rich people use.”

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I often ask kids at the soup kitchen the same thing: “How was school today?” And I get all kinds of responses. Usually it’s something along the lines of: “fine,” and I get an occasional: “we didn’t go today,” but this time I got a: “not good!” So I asked the ten-year-old why her day wasn’t good. “I punched a boy in the face and broke open his lip,” she said. “You did?!” I responded. I’m not one for fighting and always encourage peaceful interactions, especially at the Soup Kitchen. “What happened? Why did you punch him?” I asked. Immediately she replied: “He touched by butt. I told him not to but he did it anyway. He never listens and doesn’t respect my privacy.” Then her mom jumped in: “Well maybe you shouldn’t be wearing those tight pants to school!” This really threw me off – this ten-year-old is being sexually harassed, struggling to figure out how to best address the situation, resorting to fighting because that’s all she knows that works, and at the same time her mother is victim-blaming her for her clothing choices rather than supporting her in identifying good touch/bad touch or teaching her how to address the situation in a non-violent yet constructive way.

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I’m intrigued by this statement put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services: “Families with low incomes are 50 percent more likely to have moved in the past year and nearly three times as likely to rent, rather than own a home.” That, combined with knowing that many students in this area switch schools when they move and that switching schools can set a child six months behind in their education compared to their peers, makes me wonder how some of these children will ever have a chance to get ahead in life.

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We just got a thoughtful letter from a donor who is paying attention to governmental policies: “I have enclosed a small donation. I hope your food pantry and soup kitchen does not show a large increase in people needing help due to the recent SNAP changes. Blessings.”

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At the Soup Kitchen tonight, there was a special tray of cupcakes with a note on top: “Today is our guest Tyrone’s birthday! He wanted coconut on his cupcakes. Soup Kitchen volunteer Katherine made them for him. Please give these to him.” This, to me, is true love: paying attention to and celebrating another.

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“I just love to be at the Food Pantry and hear you address each guest by name,” said Sister Mary to a volunteer. “Well, I always think it could so easily be me on the other side of the table,” the volunteer replied, “so I want to make sure everyone is treated well.”

Months of November and December 2019

Two years ago, one of the mothers at the soup kitchen was pregnant. And the mother knew I was thrilled to meet the new baby. When the day came that she was born, the mother walked in the door with a huge smile on her face, announced, “This is L,” and handed her right over to me. She was 11 days old. Today she celebrated her second birthday at the soup kitchen.

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I met a woman today who seemed distracted by her phone – and possibly like she was purposefully distracting herself so she didn’t need to interact with others. When she asked for help, though, she mentioned something about her job as a nurse’s aide in a hospice unit of the hospital. Our conversation quickly became deeply intimate as we shared with one another our experiences (mine being very limited) working in hospitals with the dying. We talked about what kind of feelings death of strangers brings up and how we learn to cope with the constant reminder of death in our lives. At one point, she said, “The first time I experienced a patient’s death, I just sobbed. I couldn’t help but thinking of my grandmother and wondering if the nurse’s aides took good care of her body at the end.” I was deeply moved by this young woman and her story, but mostly how quickly I had assumed she wanted nothing to do with talking to me but when we started talking how in-depth our conversation became and how much we connected and comforted one another while sharing similar experiences.

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Sometimes children give me such silly little gifts, but they mean a lot. Today, after a five-year-old finished her hot dog, she used the grease on her fingers to “paint” a cross on a paper plate. She was so proud of her artwork as she gave it to me. “Please hang it up in here so everyone can see!”

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As we served hamburgers in the family dining room, I asked a six-year-old: “Do you know what kind of animal hamburger meat comes from?” He looked at me, then down at his burger, and responded: “McDonalds?”

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I pulled out a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly for a three-year-old who wasn’t keen on eating the meal we were serving. His seven-year-old older sister looked at the jar and said: “We’ve got that same kind of peanut butter at home but my dad put it in the window to hold the window up.”

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George, one of our older beloved guests fell a few weeks ago and broke his shoulder. He’s been having a really hard time getting around. Our volunteers have stepped up to help him. One day when it was especially icy outside, volunteer Colleen drove him home. Another day, his sling was falling off and volunteers Cindy and Ann took special care to rearrange his arm in the sling so it wouldn’t hurt so much.

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“Hi can I talk to…” the woman on the other side of the phone hesitated. Often the women calling have forgotten the name of the sister – Rosanne – that they hope to speak with but they know they can reach her at this number. “Umm…” the woman on the phone continued, “can I talk to… Mother Teresa?”