Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

Week of February 5-9

Lately, the snow has started to partially melt and then refreeze each night. Walking on the sidewalks, then, is like walking on bendable ice. I've been thinking a lot about this specific form of ice and how I, too, ought to be this way: solid but flexible. Then this morning, Sister Mary and I had a conversation that solidified my thoughts. "A unique part about working with Emmaus," she said, "is that each new day when you wake up, you never know what you'll encounter."

+++

During the serving time at the soup kitchen, a young man knocked on the door and asked to talk to whomever is in charge. When Sister Mary came over, he said: "My car just broke down. Is there any way that I could keep it in your lot until tomorrow morning? I promise my friend will be able to come help me repair it then. But I have four kids in the car and need to get them somewhere warm right now." Sister Mary immediately said yes, pull the car into the driveway and then said: "bring those children into the kitchen and get them something warm to eat!" So in came a beautiful new family, with a ten-month-old who slept through the entire experience, and three little ones who talked to me the whole time they ate. "Do you like my doll?" one asked. "I really like these potatoes!" said another. Before they left, the father made a point to thank Sister Mary again: "This is really good food! Thank you so much for everything."

+++

When I was studying abroad, my host mother used to go grocery shopping every day. She would walk to the neighborhood markets, buy fresh produce, meat and bread, and make the meals for the day. There were very few leftovers (if any) because she knew how to buy for the day. And she would repeat this process each day. I just saw a commercial yesterday about a package of strawberries that a family took home, stuck in their refrigerator, forgot about them, and soon after threw them away. Then writing comes across the screen that says: "40% of all food in America gets wasted." How much of my own food do I waste? Might there be a way - other than serving at the soup kitchen, donating food to the kitchen, or providing financial support to a kitchen, that I can help to alleviate hunger in my own neighborhood? Maybe if I buy less fresh food at one time - if I grocery shop twice a week instead of once a week and buy smaller amounts of produce at a time? Maybe if I learn how to preserve and can my own food so I don't waste what I have grown in my own yard because I can't eat it quickly enough?

Week of January 29 - Feb 2

"Guess what?" I said to the last few families that were in the soup kitchen's family dining room. "It's my friend's birthday today. She's here! See that woman letting people in at the door? It's her birthday!" When the first family left, the little children ran up to Ann and gave her hugs and wished her a happy birthday. The second family walked down the ramp, saw her, and immediately burst into song, filling the entire soup kitchen with their "Happy Birthday" wishes. It was quite a sight to see. And it made me so happy - mostly happy that our guests care just as much about us and our volunteers as we do about them.

+++

In the family dining room, there were three different languages being spoken at the same time: one family was speaking English, one family was speaking Spanish, and a third was speaking Arabic. What a beautiful sound this created.

+++

I sometimes forget about how the soup kitchen brings together people from all over the city that have been in all different places and interacting with all different people…. until the flu starts going around! Today, I'm highly aware of how many people come into the kitchen to serve and to eat - last night there were 198 adults and 17 children. Today, three of our staff are out sick with the flu. And two of our volunteers for the soup kitchen are unable to make it because they are sick, too.

Week of January 22-26

Jason's mom was really upset. "He got two detentions today!" she told me. "What's going on?" I asked him. Jason just looked at me and smiled, the way a witty 10-year-old can when he knows he's getting in trouble and doesn't care. "It was fun to be in detention," he said. This broiled his mother's blood. "Detention is punishment! It's not supposed to be fun! And you being grounded won't be fun either." I could tell his mom was furious - but how much can she do to encourage him to change his ways when he's clearly thrilled to be rebellious? "You need a little vacation or rest time," I said to his mom. "Yes, I do," she agreed, "and I'm taking one as soon as his father comes home." I have known this family for quite a few months but I've never seen or heard of a father. "Where is he?" I asked. She responded: "Jail." I can only pray that this cycle of poverty and rebellion doesn't repeat itself.

+++

"Late this morning at the food pantry," said Sister Karen, "a young man - about 30 - came in the door clearly crying. Harriett, our volunteer who works with new guests to sign them up for our services, sat him down and talked to him about what was going on in his life. About ten minutes later, Harriett had him laughing and in line to get some food. "I was really impressed," Sister Karen said, "to see Harriett so naturally care for this man."

+++

"Please give my regards to the chef," said a guest at the soup kitchen. "This meal was so good that I didn't have to add salt, pepper or butter!"

Week of January 15-19

“Today we have meatballs,” I told the little kindergartener. “I love meatballs!” he exclaimed and threw his hands up into the air. A little while later, his plate was empty and Sister Mary announced that anyone who was still hungry could come up for seconds. “More meatballs?” the little boy asked, excitedly. When his mother told him yes, he got up and did a little dance!

+++

A man sitting at a table with a bunch of other young men was swearing. I walked over and just stood near them. “Why the language?” I asked. He responded: “That’s just the way I’m used to taking.” “Well, not here,” I said warmly. His friends quickly apologized for him. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m just angry.” About ten minutes later, he was gone and his friends were just finishing up eating. They called me over to their table, “ma’am,” they said, “we just want to apologize for our friend. He was really upset with something that someone at the table next to us said. Please forgive us for using that language in here. We know it’s not right.”

+++

Last week Sophie’s dad came into the soup kitchen by himself and called me over: “It’s her birthday next week,” he said. “I looked into taking her to Chuckie Cheese but I don’t think it’ll work out.” Someone earlier that day had donated a few stuffed animals for children. I went in the back, found a Minnie Mouse doll, put it in a big black bag, and carried it over to Sophie’s dad. “I don’t know if you’ll want this,” I said, “but if Sophie will like it, please give this to her for her birthday.” He took it with so much gratitude. Tonight, he came into the kitchen and again called me over to his table. “Breanna,” he said and pulled out a picture, “I gave Sophie the Minnie Mouse. Look how happy she is!” Sure enough, there was Sophie standing with Minnie Mouse and the biggest smile on her face. “She had a wonderful birthday,” he said with a smile that resembled his daughters’. “Thank you so much for contributing to it.”

Week of January 8-12

“A lady came and gave me three pomegranates and two pieces of Russian chocolate when I was working at the pantry,” said Sister Lucia. “She said ‘thank you so much for what you did for me.’ I don’t even remember what I did! Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest impacts on others. Her gift of thanksgiving did so to me.”

+++

One of the women who comes to Sister Rosanne for some help just got out of jail. “For what?” Sister Rosanne asked. “For truancy. My kids weren’t going to school.”

+++

Last weekend, I went for a walk with my friend and her dog through her neighborhood, an area in which many of our guests at the soup kitchen live. Only a few houses down from hers, we ran into four young children who ran up excitedly and asked to pet her dog. “Hey, I know you!” one of them said to her. “Don’t you work at our school sometimes?” Then the children looked at me. “Hey, we know you, too! We’ve seen you at the Soup Kitchen!” I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to be recognized by children as part of their community, as adults who care for them in different settings.

Week of January 2-5

“My boyfriend, who comes to the soup kitchen all the time, has been in and out of the hospital and rehab for the past few months,” said the woman on the phone. “And the paramedics just came to get him,” she continued, beginning to get choked up. “In the ambulence, he told them ‘I don’t want to die in my girlfriend’s house. She just saw her grandson die there. I don’t want to have her see me die there, too.’” She inhaled and caught her breath. “Can you please send someone from the soup kitchen to go see him? He’s in room 354.”

+++

“A lady came and gave me three pomegranates and two pieces of Russian chocolate when I was working at the pantry,” said Sister Lucia. “She said ‘thank you so much for what you did for me.’ I don’t even remember what I did! Sometimes the smallest things make the biggest impacts on others. Her gift of thanksgiving did so to me.”

+++

Last weekend, I went for a walk with my friend and her dog through her neighborhood, an area in which many of our guests at the soup kitchen live. Only a few houses down from hers, we ran into four young children who ran up excitedly and asked to pet her dog. “Hey, I know you!” one of them said to her. “Don’t you work at our school sometimes?” Then the children looked at me. “Hey, we know you, too! We’ve seen you at the Soup Kitchen!” I can’t tell you how wonderful it felt to be recognized by children as part of their community, as adults who care for them in different settings.

Week of December 18-22

Last night at the soup kitchen, Sister Karen asked a family what they were learning at school. The fourth grader said he’s learning algebra. So Sister Karen gave them a few problems to solve. With a lot of encouragement from her father, even the second grader answered some of Sister Karen’s math questions correctly. “It is so nice to be able to interact with the families like this,” she said, “because we come to know and trust and care for one another.”

+++

A young woman, fondly called “Godmommy,” came to the soup kitchen with her Godchildren. When she saw Sister Mary, she said, “I think I know you from when I was a child. Were you involved on East 22nd Street?” Sister Mary said yes. And Godmommy replied: “Of course you were! I always remember someone who was good to me, especially in that neighborhood where I was growing up in chaos.”

+++

Abby, who usually attends the Kids Cafe, sometimes comes to the Soup Kitchen with her aunt and cousins. Last night she came in holding two papers. “What are those?” I asked her. She proceeded to tell me she’s planning her birthday party (which is quite early planning, since I later found out that her birthday is not for another few months). The “rules” for her birthday were written in six-year-old’s handwriting on one of the papers and said: 1) girls only; 2) no peeing in the pool; 3) no fighting; 4) no babies; 5) no being bad; 6) be nice.

Week of December 11-15

One of our bills from Curtze came in with hotdogs and hotdog buns already paid for by one of their employees. “Thank you so much,” said Sister Mary to the employee on the phone. “You didn’t have to do that.” The employee responded: “My family is blessed. This is one small way we can give back.”

+++

Margaret hung up the “No Smoking” signs at the Soup Kitchen while the guests were in line. “Beware,” Margaret teased the guests in line: “Sister Mary is going to come out here in a few minutes and give a speech about no longer being able to smoke around here. So you better put out your cigarettes now!” About ten minutes later Sister Mary went outside to talk to the guests in line and they said out loud to her: “Oh no, here she is to give her speech!” Everyone laughed but the cigarettes all went out.

+++

Maybe there’s a privilege in preparation. A few of my friends just had babies and prepared for months for these children to come – getting diapers and beds and clothes and all. I just spoke with a woman on the phone who asked: “Do you have any newborn diapers? I have twins on the way and don’t have anything.” How does one prepare when they’re living paycheck to paycheck, day to day, moment to moment? How does one save money to buy “new” necessities?

Week of December 4 - 8

One of the women who comes to the Soup Kitchen pulled Sister Mary aside and said, “I would like to have a thank-you party for Sister Rosanne. God put it in my heart to do this and I think we should. We could invite everyone that comes to the Soup Kitchen and everyone that Rosanne has helped.” This might be impractical, but it’s sure a thoughtful idea.

+++

“Yesterday,” said Sister Mary, “I was at Wegmans in the café and saw a man buy a can of tomatoes then sit down, open the can, add some salt and pepper, pour the tomatoes into a cup, microwave it, and begin to eat it. After he finished, I walked up to him,” she continued, “and said to him: ‘I’m sorry if I’m being rude, but I’m wondering if you’re hungry. Is this all you have to eat?’ He said yes. So I sat down, told him about our soup kitchen, and then handed him a few dollars and asked him to please get himself a sandwich or something more substantial to eat.”

+++

At the Food Pantry, we celebrated Dmitry’s 90th birthday. Dmitry doesn’t speak a lot of English and, for years, has been cordial with other volunteers at the pantry but since the party, he’s been bringing in pictures of himself, his family and his garden to share with the other volunteers. There’s something touching about the way in which Dmitry has begun to share more about himself – and how the staff and volunteers at the Food Pantry are taking a great interest in learning about his life – through a form of universal communication: pictures.

Week of November 27 - December 1

There was a fight at the soup kitchen. Rita, who attempted to break it up, was unsuccessful but at least was able to get the two main men fighting out the back door. In the process, she sprained her wrist. Word spread like wildfire among our guests. The next day, in an act of saying “We don’t put up with fighting at the kitchen,” we closed. But rather than completely closing our doors, the staff of Emmaus stood at the front door, greeted each person who came with a to-go peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and explained to them that we were not serving a warm meal that night because we were upset with what happened the night before and wanted to send a message out that we do not put up with fighting and hatred at the kitchen. The responses we received from our guests were amazing: some cried about what happened, many prayed for us and for the kitchen, and most thanked us for what we do every day and especially for being a place that refuses to put up with violence.

+++

Before we opened, Joshua came up the back stairs at the Food Pantry and announced: “I got a new heart!” He’s been on the heart transplant waitlist for at least three years. Three weeks ago, he got a call at 3 in the morning saying: “You have to be to Pittsburgh in three hours.” He had a discharge bag and people ready to get him there planned for weeks before. The surgery went well and he was discharged in record time. Today, he was so excited to come to the food pantry to come in and tell us all that he got a new heart.

+++

Yesterday at the soup kitchen no families came so I was cleaning tables down in the main dining room. Two middle-aged women, whom I’ve seen before but I don’t even know their names, called me over to their table: “There must not be any families tonight if you’re down here with us!” I was surprised that they recognized me as the family dining room hostess. “You’re right. And I’m sad my children aren’t here tonight!” I replied. “Well,” one of the women said, “we’ll be your children!” We all laughed.