This is where Christ eats
Mary Jaskowak Emmaus volunteer

By LIZ ALLEN
Walking into Emmaus Soup Kitchen can be a life-changing experience – for the volunteers, that is, says Greg Baker.

Greg is director of campus ministry at Mercyhurst University, whose students and staffers have been volunteering at Emmaus for 25 years.

“So often we see that what students understand as service changes during the years,” says Greg, 39, who views service work and ministry as “wrapped together.” He met his wife, Jennifer, at Gannon University. After they graduated and married, they joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Kansas. He worked at an alternative high school; Jennifer volunteered at an inner-city elementary school.

Tuesdays (and Thursdays) are heavy class days at Mercyhurst, but nevertheless, between six and eight students, accompanied by Greg and two other staff members, volunteer to work at Emmaus on the first Tuesday of every month when school is in session.

“So often we see that what students understand as service changes during the years. At first, they’re giving their time and talent,” he says. But after spending time with the “poor and marginalized, they realize it’s much more reciprocal,” as the students absorb the gifts that the Emmaus guests have to offer.

Mary Jaskowak, a junior math and physics major, with a minor in Catholic studies, confirms what Greg has observed.

“Honestly, every time I go to Emmaus, something happens that really touches me. When some of the guests stick around to help clean up, all the jokes and compliments they give us and just how genuinely thankful they are for everything really warms my heart,” says Mary, who serves as student coordinator for the university’s Emmaus volunteers.

“The biggest moment that touched me was when a couple came after dinner was over and we were cleaning up. Sister Mary went over to talk to them because dinner was over and they would have to leave. But Sister Mary knows just about everyone who comes to Emmaus and had never seen this couple before,” she says. “After learning of their circumstances, instead of asking them to leave, Sister invited them in and filled up a box for them with hot food from dinner, cans of food and other things. They were so thankful. The amount of generosity shown by these nuns in truly inspiring.”

Students’ commitment to volunteer every month when school is in session impresses Greg. “It is stressed from Day One that service is part of our identity,” he says. “It’s been my experience that students who go to Emmaus want to go back,” Greg says.

And volunteering at the soup kitchen holds a special appeal for college students. “They feel like they’re serving a family meal, not (working in) an institution. They like being part of that,” he says.

Students often enlist friends to get involved. That’s how Mary, who is from Grove City, became a volunteer. When she was a freshman, her cross-country teammate, Amanda Marley, served as student coordinator for Emmaus. “She needed more volunteers, so she sent out a text in our team chat and asked if anyone was available. I told her I could go and ever since then, I have been trying to go every month,” she says.

“Everything about Emmaus keeps me coming back,” Mary says. “I love the people. I love talking to the people we serve. I love hearing about their days, listening to their stories and jokes and laughing with them … I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to know them.”

Serving at Emmaus is a “privilege,” says Greg. “There’s something quite holy and wholesome” about being in an atmosphere where each guest is treated with dignity. “That’s where Christ goes to have dinner in the city of Erie.”

Photo: Mary Jaskowak celebrates at a Mercyhurst University cross country meet with her little brother, Charlie. Mary serves as student coordinator at Emmaus Soup Kitchen for volunteers from her college.

LIZ ALLEN volunteered for the Marquette University Community Action Program, which provided recreation programs for inner-city kids in Milwaukee, when she was in college.