Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

Week of June 12 - 16

Someone at the kitchen really got to me today. While I was wiping down tables, I asked a guest how his meal was. “It doesn’t really matter,” he replied angrily. I must have given a concerned look because he continued, “It doesn’t matter what you serve or even what it tastes like. When you’re hungry, you’re hungry. It’s a horrible experience.” Then he put it on me: “You’ll know sometime,” he said. “Sometime you’ll be here eating instead of wiping down the tables like you’re doing now. And then you’ll know it doesn’t matter what they serve because you’ll just need whatever it is to survive.”

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Rita welcomes in all our guests by looking them in the eye, calling them by name, and telling them what the meal is. When Rita meets a new guest, she warmly welcomes them, asks their name and then proceeds to tell them: “There are two rules and two guidelines. The rules are that you 1) enjoy your meal and 2) feel safe when you’re here. The guidelines are that you 1) don’t use your phone and 2) don’t swear, intimidate others, or bully anyone.” She does this to ensure that all our guests have a safe space to come eat.

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There’s a teenager who has been coming into the kitchen with her family. She’s been going through some difficult times and I’ve been trying to be a presence of support – I think teenagers can use as many people in their lives affirming them as possible, especially as a teenager eating every evening meal at the soup kitchen. Sometimes when she comes in she’s real quiet. But last night she started a conversation as soon as she walked through the door. I was thrilled that she trusted me in talking about her personal life. I hope she recognizes Emmaus as a safe space, affirming her in her being, and encouraging her to grow into her fullest, happiest self.

Week of June 5-9

We are putting in a circular drive at the Soup Kitchen and Pantry in order that the trucks can have more space to get to the dumpsters. Our wonderful gardeners have been working all day to carefully pull out all the Solomon’s Seal and replant them in front of the garden along the fence. It looks beautiful. It’s so wonderful to see how much people are dedicated to promoting and continuing beauty at Emmaus, no matter what sorts of changes we might need to make to the physical landscape or buildings.

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In our family dining room, we seat each family, serve drinks, and bring food to them, similar to a restaurant-like setting. “I could have used six highchairs instead of three tonight!” said Sister Karen, who served in the dining room on her own. Tonight it was the fullest it has ever been with 23 children and their parents sitting down to eat at various times within the hour and a half we are open. Earlier this year, we’ve averaged about eight children plus their parents in the family dining room each evening. It’s wonderful we have this designated space for families but disheartening to see it so full.

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Right before the dining room opened, a volunteer at the kitchen asked Rita: “Are you going to be the bouncer tonight?” Quickly she responded: “No, I’m going to be the greeter.”

Week of May 29 - June 2

Third graders from Pfiffer-Burleigh Elementary School went on tours at the Emmaus Grove garden today. Master gardeners Mike Bailey and Ellen DiPlacido, coordinators of the program, introduced the students to all sorts of plants. The children were encouraged to smell and taste different herbs, onions and garlic. They made faces and squealed as they tried the different edible plants. But I think they really enjoyed it – for some of the students, it might have been their first time ever eating anything straight out of the ground.

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The only thing I can hear is Sister Mary’s side of the phone conversation: “So you don’t have an ID or money? Do you have clothes?” She pauses: “Where are you staying? Do you know anyone in Erie?” Another pause: “How did you get to Erie?” She listens and looks extremely concerned. Then: “Okay, I’ll try to help.” She hangs up. “Oh my God. 24 years old. He’s clinically depressed and struggling with psychotic breakdowns. He’s been in and out of psychiatric wards and since walking around Erie for two days. I don’t know what we can do.” But for the next 20 minutes, she calls around town until she finds him a place to stay for the night. “I wish I could do something more,” she tells him on the phone when she calls him a half hour later, “but for now, all I can do is ensure you a bed for the night at the shelter down the road.”

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Today Rita and I presented the mission of Emmaus for a class of local high school seniors. We talked about poverty as the lack of more than just financial means but as the lack of opportunity, employment, health care, familial support, and more. We highlighted the necessity of easy and affordable access to healthy food. We talked about food desserts and asked each student to name the closest place to where they dwell in which they can purchase food. Is it a grocery store? A fast food restaurant? A gas station? What sorts of food could they buy there? Is it healthy food? And how much does the food cost? Can they easily purchase a healthy and affordable meal for an entire family within walking distance of their house? Having the students think of their own personal relationships with food was helpful to begin the conversation about poverty and the regular daily needs many of our guests face.

Week of May 22-26

Some phone calls to the Emmaus offices are really tough to receive, like the one I just answered. “We’re living with my sister right now,” the young mom said on the other line. “But it’s not a good place to be. I don’t feel like it’s a safe environment for my child. But we don’t have anywhere else to go. I’ve been trying to call landlords for the past week or so, but no one is calling me back. I’m not sure what else to do. But yes, we’ll come to the soup kitchen for dinner,” she says, “so maybe we can talk more there.”

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I can only hear Sister Rosanne’s side of the phone call. She says, “What is it?” and then pauses for a moment. “Okay,” she says, “Let’s bow our heads and pray.” She bows her head and is silent, listening. After a minute or so she says, “We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen.” She ministers even over the phone.

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Today during the lunch hour I walked over to Emmaus Grove: The Erie Urban Farm School. Master gardeners, Mike Bailey and Ellen DiPlacido were planting leeks and getting the garden cleaned up and ready for the growing season. It was still a bit chilly but very sunny. They were so happy to be out there. “We love to do this,” Ellen told me. “This isn’t anything we have to do, it’s something we enjoy doing.” Mike and Ellen, along with other volunteers, are out in the garden at least one to two days a week all summer long.

Week of May 15-19

“A while ago,” Margaret is telling us in the office, “there was a young man who came into the Soup Kitchen hiding his face when he saw me. I recognized him from when he used to come to the Kids Cafe a few years back. I stopped him and called him by name. ‘I didn’t think you’d recognize me!’ he said. ‘Do you remember how old I am?’ I couldn’t quite remember his age,” Margaret continued, “but I took a guess: 21. He was so delighted. Before he left he came back up and gave me a hug. I couldn’t believe that this young guy who walked in with his head down transformed so much throughout one meal just because I remembered him and called him by name.”

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In front of the serving line filled with new volunteers, one of our regular guests, a tall man with an unruly beard, walked up to Sister Karen and loudly proclaimed: “I’m pregnant!” The line of new volunteers stifled laughter. “Well, then,” responded Sister Karen, “if you’re pregnant you better make sure you get yourself something good to eat. You have to keep healthy when you’re pregnant!” By this time, the whole dining room was laughing and the jolly pregnant male guest was smiling wide as he stepped into line to get his food.

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I told Sister Mary about a family experience I had in the dining room at the Soup Kitchen. I was upset with the circumstances of how the family was living. “This was a great struggle for us when we opened the Kids Cafe, too,” she said, “because we knew that we couldn’t do anything to change the home lives of the children when they left our Cafe. But for a period of time we can show them another way to live and interact – another way to think about their future, hopefully one full of love and hopefulness – as they are with us in a safe, loving, nourishing environment.”

Week of May 8-12

My parents are visiting from Wisconsin this week. They came to the kitchen to volunteer. I was so excited to introduce them to some of the guests I have come to know well. John, a regular guest, was just as delighted to meet my parents. The following day he said to me, “It was so nice to meet your wonderful parents! They are so nice. Meeting them was such a highlight of my week. Thank you so much for introducing me to them.” It’s a delight when relationships here become reciprocated.

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There’s a family that comes in often lately, a mom and her two pre-teen children. Before each meal, they hold hands at the table, bow their heads and pray over their food. They are all extremely respectful, thankful, and are probably one of the most low-maintenance families we have. In the family dining room, I always ask them if I can get them anything else: “juice…? dessert…?” They rarely take me up on my offers but always profusely thank me. Yesterday, the mother stood up in the middle of eating, walked over to me, and gave me a hug. She’s never done this before. “Thank you so much for everything you do,” she said. “We really appreciate being able to come here. We feel so cared for.” I guess when the Spirit moves love into one’s heart, it doesn’t enter just one heart but many at the same time!

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There are a few people spending time in prison who always donate to Emmaus. “Do you know how much prisoners make? Almost nothing!” Sister Mary says as she opens the letter. “And this guy, he sends $20 every month.”

Week of May 1-5

At Emmaus, we experience the depth of humanity that is so often hidden or ignored out of shame. We see people struggling with everything: food, housing, job insecurities; sexual, domestic, verbal, physical abuse; drug and alcohol addictions; all kinds of mental illnesses; and being completely forgotten by their families and society. It’s difficult to experience this day in and day out but it’s the truth of humanity.

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The hardest part about having children at the soup kitchen is when their adult guardians are not paying attention to them. I hate to see the littlest ones who still need their food cut into tiny pieces, or fed to them, to be ignored. Sometimes adults can frustrate me – why are they not paying attention to the children? I ask; but I always have to remind myself: I don’t know what’s happening in their lives. Maybe this is the first time all day this parent has a moment to breathe, the first time another adult is around, the first time someone else is paying attention to the kid they’ve been watching all day. Or they might just be too absorbed in themselves. No matter, while I have the opportunity to be with the families, I affirm and pay as much attention to the children as possible.

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There’s a young couple coming into the kitchen lately. They’ve been sleeping in their car for a month or so. It’s still cold outside. But, as two women, they have no other place to sleep where they feel welcomed. Their safety is at risk. “This is one of the only places in Erie we feel safe to come,” one of them told me, “because we are welcomed here as who we are. No one asks us questions or makes crude comments about our relationship. We’re always greeted, fed, and looked after. We’re so thankful for Emmaus.”

Week of April 24-28

“Today was calmer than yesterday at the pantry,” said Sister Karen. “But we still gave away another 35 cases of diapers.” Each case has four packs of about twenty diapers.

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Sometimes folks come up to our offices to make donations. I overheard Sister Mary talking to a couple today making a donation. “Like Sister Gus used to say,” she told them, “‘There will always be the poor among us, but why the hungry?’ Thanks to thoughtful donations like yours,” she continued, “there will be less hungry.”

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Last night at the Soup Kitchen a family came in with their daughter, two nieces and a nephew. The two youngest needed help cutting up their sausages and eating their meals. The mother fed one, I fed the other, and the father made sure the other two were eating. While we were doing this, the father asked me: “Are you a sister in training?” I laughed. “I don’t think so,” I said, “Why do you ask?” “Because you have a heart like the sisters,” he responded. What a wonderful compliment to receive; the sisters he knows are the women who run the Soup Kitchen and Food Pantry and Neighborhood Art House. These are the women that care deeply about the impoverished families in their neighborhoods. They have dedicated their lives to creating social change and ensuring that all have their basic needs met.

Week of April 17-21

“We were the first Kids Cafe in Erie. There was nothing else like it in town,” said Margaret while looking at a paper she just found dated March 22, 2000. “But look at this,” she said, “Within just two months of being open, the Kids Cafe already had 251 registered children.” The paper has notes written by Sister Mary: “of the 251 children,” one section says, “201 live in a single parent household and 50 in a two-parent household.” That means 80% of our children were living in single parent households. And only three of the single parents were fathers. “Of the 137 total registered households, 112 are single parents and 25 are married. Of the 112 single parents, 63 parents are working and 49 stay home.” It seems clear to me that because so many children were registered only two months after the Kids Cafe opened, the services were much needed. And because the Kids Cafe is still operating with a steady group of about 100 registered children, after school services and meals are still needed for children in this neighborhood.

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Stephanie, the coordinator of the Kids Cafe, had her husband pick her up yesterday. He stood nearby her as she dismissed the children. “Bye Ms. Stephanie!” one of the children said to her. Then the child noticed her husband and said, “Bye Mr. Stephanie!”

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Some of our families visiting the pantry have absolutely no income; no steady job, no SSI, no disability, nothing. How do they survive? How do they make it month to month without any sort of financial stability? “How will you pay for your rent next month?” Sister Rosanne asked one family this morning. “Hope friends can help,” replied the refugee in broken English. Until her family gets established here, there is not much more they can do.

Week of April 10-14

There’s a regular family who comes into the kitchen and eats in the dining room. I hadn’t seen them in a few weeks but last night they came while I was serving drinks to another family. The children, ages 11 and 7 came through the door and walked right over to give me hugs! I was so happy! For a minute, I forgot we were in the soup kitchen and placed myself back home at a family gathering where my cousins and aunts and uncles all walk through the door and hug one another before sitting down and sharing a meal together. What a gift they gave me – what a way to affirm my being there as a part of the Emmaus family.

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Our pantry serves many families who come from Arabic-speaking countries. The newest refugees are often difficult to communicate with because of the language barriers. One new couple from Iraq recently asked Sister Lucia if they can help volunteer in the pantry by offering to be translators when needed. The non-Arabic speaking pantry volunteer staff are extremely grateful for this offer of support.

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“I have to tell you a funny story,” said Sister Rosanne. “Yesterday when I was leaving the kitchen three young men were standing out back and said, ‘Goodbye, Grandma!’” Sister Rosanne laughed and continued, “Then today when I went for my morning walk, I saw one of the young men and he yelled out to me, ‘Hi, Grandma!’”