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A Day in the Life: The St. Francis Inn

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By Vickie Fernandez

The recession is over. At least that's what the media keeps saying. So why is it that on a rainy October morning, nearly two years after the Great Recession's end, there is a line of hungry people rounding the block at St. Francis Inn in Kensington waiting to be fed?

The scene at St. Francis is a more accurate barometer of the state of the post-recession city, where the economic pain continues. As I make my way up to the century-old building that was once a corner bar, I am struck by the mélange of faces that have coalesced to embody the face of poverty in Philadelphia.

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Sure, among the people waiting in line, there are homeless men and women in soiled clothes, some gaunt faces pocked from drug use, prostitutes and a fair share of sick down-and-out individuals. But there are also jowly, gray-haired seniors with Chicklet-size stained-denture smiles clutching canes while they stand and wait. Single mothers with made-up faces inch closer to the door with babies in strollers, toddlers clinging to their hips. Teens in Eagles' jerseys talk football while well-groomed and seemingly healthy middle-aged singles pull up their hoods as it starts to drizzle. 

Philadelphia is far from bouncing back from the devastating blow to its frail economic structure. Jobs were lost and never recovered; two-income households distilled to one paycheck; cuts to public assistance and social services have thrust individuals who once straddled the poverty line into the red zone. The latest numbers show that in a city of 1.5 million souls nearly 450,000 live in poverty.

Social Security checks are not enough to keep the fridge stocked for seniors, at least not for a whole month. Many of these folks must choose between rent and food. This unfathomable bartering system is the one thing they all have in common. So, they go to the St. Francis Inn, a beacon illuminating the grim landscape of a neighborhood ravaged by drugs, poverty and violence, because they serve free and healthy meals 365 days a year. I have come to find out just how St. Francis Inn manages to accomplish such a feat.

Instinct triggers me to cling tightly to my purse and quicken my pace to the back door of the Inn. I feel a wave of shame run through me; poverty in its essence makes me think of crime, and I'm afraid to be alone in this neighborhood. My hands shake as I ring the buzzer to the side door and I'm relieved when a petite woman with salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, opens the door. I ask for my contact, Sister Leslie.

"That's me," she says, with a smile, and shakes my hand.

I'm surprised.  I had expected a nun in a full habit, wearing a tunic and veil, just like the ones who disciplined me in high school.  Sister Leslie Birks is not one of those nuns.

What I see and feel once inside St. Francis Inn shatters my perception of the words "soup kitchen." The room is large and clean and the aroma emanating from the large kitchen that faces the dining area is nothing short of heavenly. The Inn is redolent with the scent of breakfast -- sausage, maple syrup and fresh-brewed coffee. My stomach rumbles and I think of just how comforting these smells must be to those who, unlike me, haven't eaten in days.  Rather than people standing in line having globs of food plopped on a plate, the hungry sit at

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 the eight or so large round tables set in an oblong room and are served restaurant style by staff and volunteers.

The Inn is run by the Franciscans, a Roman Catholic order, and its core team includes four monks, Sister Leslie and another nun, and two lay women. Coincidentally, today is October 4, feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the order. St. Francis is most famous for his relinquishing of material possessions and wealth to serve and live among the poor. The foundation of St. Francis Inn is predicated on his teachings. Within moments of chatting with the staff, it becomes clear that faith and dedication serve as the fulcrum on which this organization teeters.

"This is a special treat in honor of the feast day. You see that line out there?" Sister Leslie points to the crowd of folks gathered just outside the door. "Word must've got out about the French toast and sausage! We usually serve doughnuts, cereal and coffee for breakfast. But today is a special day."

The room hums with activity. It's 10:30 a.m., and St. Francis has just opened its doors. Staff members chat with guests and the sound of their laughter synchs up with the banging of dishes and scraping of chairs.  

A young man comes in and asks if he can use the telephone to call his parole officer. As I walk through the kitchen, a young woman asks sister Leslie if they have any diapers. Which they do, as well as formula. Guests are not there only to eat. They come to use the telephone, pick up their mail and sometimes shower as well as do laundry. These are just some of the other services St. Francis provides to the community.

As the volunteers serve breakfast, the evening crew preps for dinner, which will be served at 6 p.m. A hearty stew simmers in a giant cauldron in the spotless kitchen while volunteers and 

staff simultaneously chop vegetables, set up trays and scrub dishes. The mood is blithe and

 sunny despite the rain outside, and for a moment it feels more like a bustling eatery rather than a place for the poor.

Sister Leslie Birks taught grade school and high school for 12 years where she realized that she wanted to work full time serving the poor. Her calling carried her to start ministering at St. Francis House in Boston, where she worked for five years. She then came here to St. Francis Inn, where she felt she was most needed, and has been a fixture at the Inn for 22 years.

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St. Francis Inn is no ordinary soup kitchen in the sense that it does not serve meals exclusively to the homeless. It is open to anyone who shows up, no questions asked.

Sister Leslie says that it is a misconception that the poor and homeless are just drug addicts or mentally ill. A good portion of the Inn's guests are seniors, families with small children and people who just can't make it through the month on what they receive from the government.

The volume at the Inn increases exponentially toward the middle and the end of the month, says Sister Leslie. The reason? Food Stamp cards are depleted and Social Security checks cashed and spent as the month goes on.

St. Francis is located just a few blocks from the York-Dauphin Station stop on the El, which makes it convenient for guests, especially senior citizens, who ride for free, to get to and from the Inn. The Inn serves breakfast three days a week and dinner every night from 4:30 to 6pm.

"The gate closes at 6 p.m. but if you're in line, we still serve you after the gate is shut," Sister Leslie says, as she points to the courtyard where the line of people waiting to be fed has yet to let up. "After that, we distribute what's left over to the people who didn't make it in time. That is if there's anything left over."

St. Francis Inn serves upwards of 350 meals per day, 365 days a year.

"We're one up on McDonald's," Sister Leslie boasts, "because unlike them we're open on Christmas."

That's 127,750 meals per year. This number seems so daunting that I can't help but wonder: How do they do it?

 

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They do it with people like Karen Pushaw, one of the coordinators at St. Francis Inn, who has taken on a life of service. She is one reason the Inn is capable of pulling this off.

Karen stands at 5'2" with short sandy hair and a no-nonsense demeanor. She's a Philadelphia native with a firm handshake and kind eyes, who holds a degree in law. Karen came to the Inn during a one-year sabbatical from her law firm to work in a faith-based community. She never left. She has been a member of the St. Francis Inn staff for going on 22 years.

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According to Karen, the living arrangements go by subcommunity; nuns, friars and laypeople such as Karen live in a series of row houses on Haggart Street, a few steps away from the Inn.

St. Francis Inn also welcomes students and volunteers from out of state, many of whom come to St. Francis to fulfill required hours of service. Interestingly, many of St. Francis's regular volunteers were once students who were so moved by the work being done at the Inn that they returned after finishing up their studies.

With an ever-growing number of staff and volunteers, I wonder how St. Francis Inn manages to delegate tasks.

Karen leads me to a cork board on a wall adjacent to the kitchen and walks me through the monthly schedule.

"Most people ask, well how do you know what you're going to do on any given day? Once a month we make up a schedule. That way everyone knows where they're supposed to be."

There is no paid staff at St. Francis Inn. These folks begin work at dawn, and their day does not end once the gates close at 6 p.m. There are letters from prisoners to answer, dishes to wash, floors to mop and donations to sort. The staff at St. Francis works nearly 15 hours a day.

Some members rise as early as 5 a.m. to pick up baked goods, bread and other donations from bakeries and grocery stores around town. Other staff members deliver meal packets to homebound seniors and disabled individuals. Everyone cooks on staff and each member has his or her turn at the kitchen. Another important task is figuring out what to make for dinner. The staff at St. Francis strives to serve a well-balanced meal every day based on whatever supplies are on hand.

From set up to break down each team member has to pull his or her own weight.

"That's the whole embodiment of the community concept. Everybody's doing what he or she is assigned to do because the next day someone will be counting on that. We try to go by that old family adage of not putting a jug of milk back in the fridge with just a drop left in it. Despite the chaos," Karen says, stacking trays and directing volunteers, "there's a method to the madness." 

It's a Sunday afternoon, and the Inn is way more crowded than it was earlier in the week. Karen

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 explains that another reason for the boom in guests is because St. Francis is one of the only soup kitchens in the city open on Sundays.

"The ones that are open require people to attend Mass before they'll serve them, and they only serve the homeless. We serve pretty much anyone who shows up."

As I eye up the mouth-watering trays of hotdogs, coleslaw, peaches and baked ziti being served, I think about the mounting need, the fact that they make it a point to serve creative, hearty meals to 350 to 400 people a day and I have to wonder: Where does all the food come from?

According to Karen Pushaw, St. Francis Inn is privately run. It receives no funding from the state or the archdiocese. It is able to stay afloat through parish food drives, donations from local retailers and private donations from benefactors.

"Things have changed. We never really needed such a large amount of food, but in the past couple of years, we need more donations than ever. Mostly we get a little bit from everywhere and when you put it all together, it works. The funny thing is that the very people who were once steady donors are now coming to us for help."

Karen adds that anything they don't get from donations the staff purchases out of pocket.

"Normally we don't get things like butter. So, you need butter to make a meal? Someone goes out to get some butter. We don't often get milk, but we like to have it here to give to the kids so one of us goes out and gets milk. It's that simple."

I wonder what would happen if they came up short, if the donations just stopped coming and the Inn was faced with a situation where there were no available resources to feed the many who cross its doors.

"The idea is that if God wants the place to operate, he will provide what needs to be provided. If it doesn't come together we need to reevaluate whether the need is there," Karen explains. 

Karen smiles at the look of confusion on my face.

"It's not as reckless as it sounds. I mean we try to go forth with the utmost level of prudence and well, a whole lot of faith," she says.

Whether it is, in fact, God's will or prudence, St. Francis Inn has been in the business of feeding the hungry since 1979, and they have never missed a single meal.

 

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I step outside and sit in the courtyard ensconced in well-groomed trees and beds of flowers. A man sits across from me gnawing on a cheese stick and humming a sweet song. Directly in front of me is an enormous mural. It depicts a modern take of the story of St. Francis taming the wolf of Gubbio. Beer bottles, hypodermic needles and other drug paraphernalia lay at the wolf's feet. These are the evils of society, and the wolf, the embodiment of the rabid face of poverty and its ceaseless cycle. I read the quote at the bottom of the mural as two little boys play tag while their mother stands in line.

It reads: "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace..."

I think about the state of this city, not to mention the state of our nation, and I wonder are these people really making a difference? More importantly, what is it that drives them to sacrifice so much of themselves to serve their community.

Talking to various members of the staff, who refer to each other not as co-workers but as brothers and sisters, it becomes apparent that the Inn draws staff from all spectrums, all places and for the hours they are there all of this talent and selflessness goes into action and somehow it all works. Something one of the friars mentioned as he divvied up baggies of cookies to hand out to guests, was that he and his team members believe it's grace and God's action in the world that keeps it all going.

I recall a saying by St. Francis: "Keep trying to do what is necessary, then what's possible and suddenly you're doing the impossible."

Where is God, I wonder, for those who can't be reached in other cities and other neighborhoods when a child goes hungry, when a man buckles under the strain of poverty and turns to a bottle or a needle, when a woman is forced to sell her body to feed her kids? When an elderly woman who worked hard all of her life goes to bed hungry because her monthly check has run out?

I reflect on all those times I was taught about faith during my years of Catholic schooling. The nuns and priest drilled the idea of fealty into our malleable minds, and I always fell short when trying to grasp a belief in something I could not see, touch or feel.

When you think about it, faith is a vague word and an even vaguer concept on which to base a plan of attack against poverty and hunger. Crazy as it seems, faith and good, honest work are the fuel St. Francis Inn is running on.

When I first arrived at the Inn, the cynic in me kept waiting for a slip, a garish moment of cold hard truth to strike me and give me a nexus of tension to carry my story. But instead, I was struck by something I didn't expect. Hope. A hope so strong I felt as if I might start to cry.

The good people at St Francis Inn are not saints; they are ordinary people, whose joy and motivation come from serving, empowering and treating the people they serve with dignity and respect. They, like St. Francis, have given up their worldly comforts and have chosen to live simply and communally.

In the world we live in, you may wonder whether Sister Leslie, Karen Pushaw and the rest of the crew at St. Francis Inn are making any sort of an impact. The truth is, to the 350 or so people they care for 15-plus hours a day, 365 days a year, they make all the difference in the world. 


Photos by Peter Tobia

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