Soup's On: An Emmaus Journal

Month of September

Today, two children from the soup kitchen came into the Emmaus Grove Garden. They were so excited to pick carrots and tomatoes – but weren’t as excited to pick the green beans. Running from one bed to another, they gathered a few pounds of veggies to take home. As they left, I heard them tell their mother: “Mom, we need to get a garden at our house!”

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Since the end of June, over 180 individual women have called Emmaus asking for help with paying rent or other bills in order to keep their families in a stable living situation. One hundred and eighty!

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Kellen celebrated his second birthday this week. Last year, he celebrated his first birthday at the soup kitchen with us. His oldest sister remembered. “Remember?” she said to me as I brought them cake, “Everyone in the room came over and sang to him! We should do that again!”

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Katie is only a year old. She comes to the kitchen with her blended family. “She LOVES you!” Her brother said to me across the room when Katie wouldn’t stop turning to look at me while she ate her food. Her mom laughed. “It’s true,” she said, “Katie gets really excited to see you.” Hey, isn’t it great to have a fan club of preschoolers?

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Late last month, Janelle (one of the guests at Emmaus) had her baby! I was just thinking about her… I knew she had been pregnant and was due soon, but I couldn’t remember the exact date when she was due. The first day the family came back to the food pantry, the baby didn't come because she was a preemie. The hospital chose to keep her in the NICU for a few days. They’re also worried she might have been born addicted to something, so they’re keeping her to watch for that, too. The second time the family came, the baby came along. The volunteers were so excited to see such a tiny baby. "Let's feed that mother an extra hamburger!" one of them said. "We want to make sure the mom's getting enough food to keep that tiny baby growing!"

Month of August

Somedays, I listen to the voicemails we get in the office and I just want to weep. I’m devastated by the amount of suffering so many women in Erie live with day to day.

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The food pantry’s truck broke down. That means that the volunteers weren’t able to use the truck to get the food from Second Harvest to distribute at the pantry. “Do we need to close for the day?” people asked. “No,” said Sister Karen. We have to feed the people who are expecting us. Karen thought quickly, renting a U-Haul truck and picking up the food that way. Because the truck didn’t have a lift, Karen and two volunteers lifted out each crate of food by hand and moved it into the food pantry. When all was ready, the food pantry was able to open just a half hour late. Talk about prompt and dedicated service.

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The children are going back to school today. Last week, we had several requests from families for help with school supplies and uniforms.

Month of July

There’s a family that comes in every once and a while. They have ten children but they don’t all always come at the same time. Today every kid was present so after they ate, we lined them up in order of age and Sister Mary took a picture of them. We promised to print off pictures and give them to the family to keep. The mom was delighted. “We have pictures of some of them individually,” she said, “but we’ve never had a picture of all of them together before!”

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This morning I met a young mom and her one-year-old child who need help. I invited them to come to the soup kitchen for dinner. “We would come,” the woman said, “but I don’t like to be around the men. Whenever I go places, men always try to give me their number or make crude comments. I don’t want to go somewhere with lots of men.” This devastates me. She doesn’t feel comfortable going out to get the things she needs because her fear of a few men’s lewd behavior. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “but I do want you to know that we have a family dining room where you and your son can eat in peace.” But even if they can eat in peace, that doesn’t mean she won’t be approached in the food line or on her way to or from the kitchen.

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Things seem to usually work out at the soup kitchen, as if directed by some invisible organizer who plans things to work out just perfectly. For example, this morning a regular volunteer called and said that unfortunately this month her group would be unable to make and deliver deserts. Not a few minutes later came another call from a mother saying: “My son and mother-in-law decided to made cupcakes for the guests at your soup kitchen. When can we drop them off?”

Week of June 11-15

I enjoy addressing thank you notes to our donors. I’m fascinated by the amounts people donate, too. Emmaus receives everything from $1 and beyond. The donations of $1 – and there are a few – make me think a lot about my own sharing: if I share just $1 each time I think about people in need, I really could make a difference over time.

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I hate catcalls. I’m a human, not an object. I don’t want to be treated like an object – and I especially don’t want to be treated like an object of men’s pleasure when I’m walking down the street or performing my job. That said, when men yell out to me on the street, I often ignore them or offer them some kind of gesture that says “I’m not interested; don’t treat me like your object.” Today I was taking the dog for a walk in the afternoon. A man biking by yelled out to me. “Hey!” he yelled. “How you doin’?” I looked at him skeptically, ready to show my disinterest in his advances when I then heard him say: “Did you work at Emmaus tonight?”

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On top of emergency food, here are things we often get asked for: bus tickets; help paying rent; help paying electricity and fuel bills; furniture; and help finding emergency shelter. We have to remind those calling that we are an emergency food agency and can’t always help with everything else – but it is difficult to talk to people on the phone each day who need so much help with basic necessities, knowing that we can’t always help.

Week of June 4-8

I think one of our volunteers was a little overwhelmed working in the family dining room today. She seemed almost culture-shocked at what she experienced. I struggle, as someone who works there often, to allow the families to be themselves while also demanding a peaceful, welcoming environment for all. Just like individuals, families enter with all kinds of emotional baggage and trauma. The challenge for me, then, is often to help them constrain the outbursts of that trauma while acknowledging the pain and caring deeply for each individual.

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Last week a woman called asking for help to get to her daughter in China who, she said, had been stabbed while teaching there for the semester and was in critical condition. By the sound of her voice, she was obviously in distress as she struggled to articulate what it was she needed and what she hoped we could help with. Today, the local news published a short story about her situation, leading people to a Go Fund Me page to help her find the financial resources she needs to fly to China to be with her daughter in the hospital. After seeing a picture of the mother, I immediately recognized her: she is one of the mothers that has been coming to the soup kitchen lately with her children. On the phone, she was a stranger and I felt removed from the situation. Once I realized who the crying mother was, my perspective changed. Suddenly I felt a part of this situation; I know the mother and I know the daughter’s siblings.

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“A few years ago, there was a young woman serving at the soup kitchen who had to take a break from serving, went into the back room, and cried,” said Sister Claire to the rest of our staff. “I think there’s something beautiful about that. Maybe that’s what we should all remember to do sometimes – cry.” Because when we cry, we feel something: the pain and suffering and frustrations of those we encounter.

Week of May 29 - June 1

“This $40,” said Sister Mary holding up two $20 bills, “came from a woman who attends Listening Hearts. Her mother told her to give it to Emmaus. She’s a poor woman! Why didn’t she put the money in her own pocket?” Sister Mary shook her head, “This always gets me…”

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We had 45 children and two babies at the soup kitchen for dinner tonight. That’s the most we’ve had in months. I saw families again that I haven’t seen since Christmastime. It’s always nice to see them, but similarly devastating to know that these families haven’t found their way out of poverty.

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“Did you bless your snacks?” the dad asked his five children sitting at the table, already halfway done with their desserts. The kids looked up at him nervously and shook their heads no. “Well, if you didn’t,” he snapped, “you can’t blame God if you choke on them!”

Week of May 21-25

“Hi, my name is Jill and I used to go to the food pantry but I have a job now and don’t really need help anymore. But I’m just calling to ask the sisters at the food pantry to pray for my family…” said the woman on the other phone line. “Is there anyone in particular to pray for?” I asked. “Well,” the woman hesitated, “maybe my son. But just if they could pray for my family – that would be really helpful. Thank you.”

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Emmaus just got an offer to lower the price of our gas bills by going with another company. “Sounds great!” we all thought. But then we did some research. Turns out the new company is all about fracking. It might cost us a little more at this time, but we’re not going with them. I’m so happy to be working with a place that truly cares for the good of all – of the lowly and marginalized, the poor and needy, oppressed and forgotten, humans and the earth.

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After meeting with a benefactor, Sister Mary came back to the office with tears in her eyes. “Her family’s story is so difficult,” she said. “It breaks my heart.” A little while later, sitting at her desk, Sister Mary looked up and said, “I feel like I should apologize for my emotions before, but I’m not going to. When we start to feel nothing about the stories we hear, it’s time for us to move on from this ministry. And when we start to become overwhelmed by and cannot move forward from the stories we hear, it’s also time for us to move on from this ministry.” I think she’s right. There’s a good balance of crying and laughing, feeling things deeply and moving forward that we must do to keep ministering to all sorts of people in this town just by being the constants at the soup kitchen.

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?”