Serving the Poor: Beyond Food, Clothing, and Shelter

by Julia Demaree

For where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there in their midst. 

–Jesus (Matt. 18:20)

Our mission statement is simple and challenging: “Emmaus House, an Orthodox Christian ministry, welcomes all to offer hospitality, healing, and hope in solidarity with the poor and the homeless. We are inspired by the Gospel: in breaking bread together, we recognize the presence of Christ.”

Emmaus House is in central Harlem, lodged in a run down but homey, four-storied brownstone in Mount Morris on a vastly gentrified street. Our building houses one live-in, non-salaried directress, one live-in volunteer, one board member who overnights weekly with her dog, two cats, and an unknown number of wild, outdoor cats. Volunteers offer food and clothing to those in need three days a week and provide referrals, especially for housing, and we take turns responding to the “stranger at the door.” A former resident does our office work and we hope to find a neighborhood handyman to help respond to the creaks and groans of our old house.

We are an old community sprouting new wings, ever mindful of the tremendous legacy of our deceased founder, Fr. David Kirk, while staying responsive to the gifts of the community’s new members and the problems endemic to serving the poor.

We are a Christ-Centered Ministry where we strive for the ideal of St. Maria of Paris: “There is not and there cannot be any following in the steps of Christ without taking upon ourselves a certain share, small as it may be, of participation in this sacrificial deed of love. Anyone who loves the world, anyone who lays down his soul for others, anyone who is ready, at the price of being separated from Christ, to gain salvation for his brothers is a disciple and follower of Christ.”

Passersby  often ask about the meaning of Emmaus. The word is printed on the bright red awning jutting over our first story windows. Most of them don’t crane their necks to look up to see the Orthodox cross nailed to the facade. If they approach the door, they’ll see a festal icon in a wooden box. If they come into the vestibule, they’ll be greeted by a large icon of “Christ made without Human Hands.” And then if they walk down the hallway and turn right, they’ll enter our Orthodox Chapel, “Christ of the Homeless.” The chapel’s freshly painted golden walls hold remnants of chant, sad stories of broken lives, shards of abated anger, and messy details of relationships gone amiss. While sitting on the wooden bench, names get added to our prayer list, the Mother of the Street icon becomes a parting gift-in-hand, and both parties feel the power of healing from time spent together in a sacred space.

We welcome all to taste and see the Orthodox world through these tangible gifts and grace-filled moments. We remain mindful of how Fr. David provided Muslim residents with prayer rugs and a private area for their prayer times during the day. Emmaus continues to carry on under this flag of openness to all as we labor under the Christian non-negotiable statute of unconditional love in service to all—Christ in every face.

In the Spirit of Community: When Father David Kirk passed in May 2007, a few board members wanted to turn his legacy into a foundation claiming they couldn’t imagine Emmaus House without him. Some of us fought to keep Emmaus going as a ministry, and the twelve residents that had cared for him during his six years of failing health attempted, with some supervision, to keep the community intact while they continued to serve the poor for two more years. In 2009, a lack of funds and escalating house tensions forced the doors of Emmaus House to close. It was shattering for the residents, who in spite of their many difficulties, had come to define themselves as family. They still stay in touch with each other and with Emmaus by phone and email.

Then came the long, lonely wait, that “dark night of the soul” that is wont to hit us when we are living with absolute uncertainty. It was a year spent purging the house of its years of collected debris and praying for some signs of new life. Jim Forest sent an encouraging email saying that while he was sorry about the closing, he knew that Emmaus would rise again like a phoenix out of the ashes as it had done many times in the past. We were also laboring under the immense shadow of Fr. David and the layered legacy that was associated with his Emmaus House. We focused on honoring his last two wishes: to carry on as a community serving the poor and to call on Orthodox people to engage in works of mercy.

Slowly, very slowly, signs of life began to reappear, like tiny green plants emerging in a Lenten Spring. Passersby asked if the house was going to reopen. Neighbors left bags of clothing at our doorstep. An African-American man asked why we had a white Christ posted out front, didn’t we know where we were? (Good point. We put up a better icon). City Harvest began delivering fresh, recycled food. Our summer intern visited a prisoner and a shut-in elder. An auntie happily told us about her readiness to resume baking the peach pies she used to bake for Fr. David. Our traveling kitchen crew delivered hot soup to the homeless on the street. Former residents dropped in to visit and help. New volunteers began to appear and make commitments. The neighborhood needy came for recycled food and clothing. Orthodox priests brought youth to Saturday workdays, blessed our house, and held prayer services in our chapel. Urban and suburban Orthodox laity brought large bags of clothing to give away. Two pilgrims drove six hours roundtrip from Pennsylvania to our doorstep with a truck full of clothes and canned goods.

old Harlem,At the same time we were encouraged by these developments and alarmed at how the exclusivity of the gentrification process was destroying the presence of community that had always defined Harlem. On our block, there was no longer any stoop-sitting, a gracious tradition from the south that allows for catching up with and watching out for one’s neighbors. Most of the community gardens had been reclaimed by the city under the ruse that they would be used for low income housing. Signifi-cantly, old timers noted that the new-comers wouldn’t even make eye contact with them when they passed by them on the street. Apartment dwellers and home-owners felt betrayed by their local politicians and were outraged that our local community board was no longer an open forum for all. It all came to a head when 125th street, the heart of the old Harlem, was rezoned for commercial purposes.

We started hearing more and more eviction stories, and of the scare tactics being used against people who had paid their rent faithfully for years. More and more long- time Harlem residents were becoming marginalized and, with rising rents, could barely make ends meet. Merely nodding off on a park bench could lead to an arrest or humiliating harassment. In the early stages of gentrification, Fr. David asked repeatedly whether Emmaus should relocate to where the poor really were, suggesting Camden. Today, we would answer him that there are plenty of disenfranchised people left to serve in Harlem, folks who are trapped in a city with fewer and fewer options and whose powerful leaders are doing all they can to turn the island into a “gated community” for the wealthy.

So, Fr. David, we are still in Harlem. Currently, we are a gaggle of prayerful individuals who are trying to address the vast inequalities of what Dorothy Day called “the dirty, rotten system.” We pray that we have the discipline to do the inner work to receive the “gift of community.” We realize that going to church on Sunday is not necessarily the same as being part of a daily community in which we give up a lot and take responsibility for things that we might not otherwise want to bother with. There, we have to make commitments to other human beings and no longer define ourselves as individuals, but as members of a body where all of the parts learn to fit together. As we progress, then, we are striving to be both a “community of resistance” to those who would like to see “undesirable” people just disappear as well as being a “community of hope” to these quietly desperate people.

Fr. David once wrote, “Jesus, the broken man, remains beside us on this road to Emmaus. Holding me in his hands, He gives thanks, and He broke me and gave me to my sisters and brothers, who in turn, sent me out to help feed the crowd.” By our name, Emmaus, we are mandated to “break bread” (Luke 24:13), and indeed we do, in small clusters of diverse people sitting around our old dining-room table under the gaze of the large icon of the Ugandan martyrs. We actually received a small grant to host “fellowship dinners” so that people from different backgrounds have an opportunity to experience their commonality. And we wait patiently to be able to receive the body and blood of Christ in our chapel, “Christ of the Homeless,” on some Sunday morning. For this, we pray.

Works of Mercy: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Luke 19:13). hen the choice of our white Christ was challenged by our nomadic friend, ben Israel, I replaced it the next day with a Coptic image of Christ with text that read: “We are our brother’s keeper.” Could it be that these two acts were “works of mercy”? He gave me the gift of “enlightenment” in a neighborhood that easily sees the white person as a “do-gooder,” while I gave him back the gift of “acknowledgement,” in appreciation of his sensitivity training.

For the most part, when we hear about performing a “work of mercy” we think of giving a needy person our extra jacket or a hot cup of soup and slice of bread, and if we’re courageous, we might even add in a mattress for the night. Materially speaking, the poor need the help of the rich who live with excess and secure rest night after night, having their physical needs met—indeed, often over-met. There can be no argument about what to do for the person who is cold and unprotected on the street on a wintry night. There can be no argument about providing the mother, trying to raise five children in the shelter system, with food and clothing. We must always be ready to provide on this material, survival level for those in need. For this, we need to be in a constant state of prayer, and to practice mindfulness.

At Emmaus, we try to use creativity and sensitivity when we address these most basic human needs. One hot day, two of our male volunteers began offering cold glasses of lemon water to the people waiting in line for their food bags, a simple act of hospitality that elicited many a thankful smile. Every two or three days, a former Emmaus resident, who is now homeless and on the street, comes to exchange his dirty clothes for a set of clean clothes we have washed for him. He is not ready to give up his addictive lifestyle but he wants to keep a connection with us, and with his memory of Father David. Even though our act is minimal, it is helping to build a relationship with him, giving us an opening to talk to him about making a change. On another day, a knock from a “stranger at the door” came from a woman looking for a change of clothing for a one-legged man who lives in his wheelchair on the street. When she returned, she picked up clothes for his girlfriend, work clothes for herself, and the container of clothes we had set aside after her first visit. In her, we have an example of the poor serving the poor.

We are fortunately free to choose and define the way we serve, so we are not beholden to governmental time constraints nor eaten alive by bureaucratic accountability. We bow to no agendas of discrimination. The burden, then, falls on us to monitor our behavior, question our motives, catch our shortcomings, talk through our differences. Our style is to take our time with people, keep the encounter fresh with caring and possibility, and to reach out to all in some small way, especially to the most needy.

Often just having someone listen with respect is taken as a generous gift. “For the Christian there is no stranger,” wrote St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, born Edith Stein. “Whoever is near us and needing us must be ‘our neighbor’; it does not matter whether he is related to us or not, whether we like him or not, whether he is morally worthy of our help or not. The love of Christ knows no limits. It never ends; it does not shrink from ugliness and filth. He came for sinners, not for the just. And if the love of Christ is in us, we shall do as He did and seek the lost sheep.”

Sometimes we are the lost sheep, the supposed caregivers, the ones who want to “serve the poor.” One can feel a sense of power and safety from the caregiver’s seat, the vulnerable seat being reserved for the receiver. Often we shy away from the receiving position because it is easier for us to serve if we slip into the “us and them” paradigm. It’s a place to avoid looking at our own “poorness,” shortcomings, and fears. We have much to be taught by the poor. They are often the humble ones, stripped down and kept marginalized by our greedy culture. We try to create occasions to talk with them about their lives, to glean their wisdom, and affirm their sanctity.

Transforming Ourselves: “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” (Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being). God would have us make changes in ourselves. He gives us the gift of pain so that we will accept our shortcomings, thereby acknowledging our need for Him through others, and in doing so, He brings us closer to Him. The overall curve of our life journey should be to turn away from darkness, where we dwell in pain and isolation from others and from Him, and to move towards the light, which brings peace because in the light we are naked again, wearing our birth clothes and approaching a state of innocence. Then we are graced with a homecoming.

Chapel of Christ, the homelessThe unresolved pains of our childhood, those hidden dark places, easily get triggered in a community setting. We often “act out” from the unresolved wounds of our younger self. My Chinese teacher once told us that “if someone’s behavior bothers you, then it is your problem.” Surely not, I thought, in some cases it is so clearly the fault of the other person. Blaming and judging others is a hedge for us to hide behind, a way to avoid taking full responsibility for our own behavior. He was telling us to take that pivotal moment of discomfort as a challenge to grow. Working through painful moments of conflict with each other is the true challenge of the work of Emmaus House. We are all broken in some way and we need the palpability of a community setting to be forced to engage in this process. Personal growth rarely happens in a vacuum. We must strive to serve others from the place of being a whole, healed human person.

When we hide or turn away from our pain, it can be from shame or in fear that others will see our unworthiness. The truth is that we are all unworthy, and it might just be the eyes and ears of the other that might provide the insight or support that moves us along toward wholeness. It might be that the touch of their hands provides us with the moral support to pull us out of our doldrums. Christ told us that it was the work of our hands that would help finish the work that He began. Let us fight to keep engaged and open to the fruits of this work. For this work, we have to be brave hearts and fearless warriors. To work with the poor, we have to be willing to value pain, to claim it as an asset, and to experience it as Christ-centered and God-given. Through the gate of pain we can enter into the deep waters of experience with others and reach for the shore of love.

My heart always skips a beat when I engage with folks on the street whose marginal lives are so exposed and whose lives are held by such fragile threads. They do not have the luxury or the wherewithal to hide or to camouflage their poverty, their disappointments, and their desperation. Life is proclaimed on their faces, in their body smell, in their empty pockets, and in their outstretched hands. I tend to move closer to them so that some of their vulnerability will rub off on me, inform my life of the need for humility, and the need to beg for love. The essential, unadorned accoutrements of life are spread out on the sidewalk between us and I am awed by these encounters every time. I confess, that as a former street artist, I am often drawn to the individuality and the resourcefulness of their physical presentation. Often I can sense a lost talent that got derailed by the relentless demands of a cruel world, some bad luck, or perhaps an inability to focus from early in life. Yet strands of creativity break through in their dress and the way that they approach. Let not our over-sanitized condition impede us from the feast of seeing and loving Christ in every face.

The “Souls in Motion” Model for Hospitality: There is no greater act of hospitality than Mary’s reception of the living Christ into her womb. Before I started working in Harlem, I had read Susan Sheehan’s fascinating 17-year history of a mental patient, with the pseudonym of Sylvia Frumpkin, that appeared as a four part series in The New Yorker, called Is There No Place on Earth for Me? I was struck by how this title is resonant with Christ’s brief stay on earth as he went from town to town, with no place to lay his head, often encountering heavy resistance to his words and very presence. I was undone by the chaos and the untouchable aspect of Sylvia’s plight and her mother’s inability to secure sustainable help for her daughter. This study primed me for the next chapter of my life.

In 1987, my friend Louise Rosenberg and I assembled a creative studio, which we called “Souls in Motion,” for the adult psychiatric clients attending a day Rehabili-tation Program in Harlem called CSS (Community Support System), just seven blocks north of Emmaus House. Louise and I, with the help of others, tried to respond to the Sylvia Frumpkin dilemma by providing a safe haven that offered folks an opportunity to get back in touch with the creativity that lay buried under childhood traumas that often led them to an adult life of addictions and mental illness. We invented a magical room that was a fulcrum of hospitality for the creative spirit: for painting, gardening, sewing, writing, relationships, acting, meditating, philosophiz-ing, listening, animal caretaking, and any other modality a person could dream up. We were focused on reawakening the creative energy that had lain dormant for years, potential that was just waiting for a wave of fresh air and an open door with permission to go through it.

The umbrella for our studio was CSS, a program that was exemplary of the outpatient facilities set up when patients were being released from mental institutions in the late 70’s. From the beginning, CSS was known for being a program with “soul” and offered a high quality of life to people who usually had to settle on third best, if they even managed to get past their invisible status. CSS was well known in the world of mental health as a family-oriented program. When patients broke the rules, they would be asked to leave, but they were always invited back for a second and third chance. This was the same philosophy of repentance and forgiveness that Fr. David followed at Emmaus House.

Hospitality became a way of life at Souls in Motion, and more and more the studio took on the character of a community, with people expressing their gratitude in a myriad of ways: hugs bookmarked all personal encounters, clients scheduled hospital visits to hospitalized clients, talking out differences often took place in front of the icons in the altar closet, custom drawings were made as gifts for other clients or staff members, epitaphs were written eulogizing the brief lives of our studio animals, client advocates accompanied less articulate clients to their appointments (Fr. David’s “the poor taking care of the poor”), homemade pies were baked and brought in for birthday celebrations, memorial services were held for those who had passed, and gospel singing filled the room during after-hours and for special occasions. When official guests toured our studio without response to it, we suspected they couldn’t be in touch with their own creativity: The space was infectious with spirit!

After twenty-four years, Souls in Motion closed its door last November. We continue to talk of trying to turn it into an independent, non-profit organization. In the meantime, Emmaus House has inherited some of its physical artifacts and is looking at ways each day to embody its spirit, as quality of life for the less fortunate has become such a precarious commodity in these times. Indeed, it is questionable if most people even know what “quality of life” or “sacredness of life” mean in our desensitized war and consumer driven country.

The philosophy driving Souls in Motion runs parallel to how the person is viewed in Orthodoxy. As children of God, we are asked to develop and share our gifts and to learn to love and respect self and neighbor on our road to our Maker. Serving is the work of a lifetime and our teachings come from the actual people and situations that God puts in our path. We articulate our philosophy with the following modest list of priorities as we continue to develop our ministry of service:

To define ourselves as members of community

To break bread together

To work in solidarity with the disenfranchised

To share our wealth with the needy and serve the poor generously

To exchange our life stories

To tolerate and appreciate our differences

To commit to healing our childhood wounds

To resist hoarding things, space, time, or people

To use our gifts freely and creatively

To answer the knock of the stranger at the door

To pray for peace in ourselves, in others and in the world

To create a community center for the poor

May we all be blessed in our efforts to serve unceasingly.  IC

Julia DemareeJulia Demaree is the director of Emmaus House. The “ragpicking” philosophy of Abbe Pierre and Fr. David Kirk still define Emmaus today and has helped shape Julia’s longtime fascination with the things that, by societal standards, fall into the “discarded” category as gold nuggets to be transformed into beauty and meaningfulness. If you wish to contact Julia or to make a donation in support of Emmaus house, write her at: [email protected]

The drawing of Emmaus house facing the opening page of the article was done by Julia’s son, Julius Wood Norman.

After Fr. David Kirk’s passing in 2007, when the future of Emmaus House was much less certain, In Communion carried two articles about his life and ministry at Emmaus House, one in Summer of ‘07 and one in Spring of ‘08 (issues 46 and 49).

 

❖ IN COMMUNION / issue 64 / Spring 2012

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