Healing the Fifth Wound: Faithfulness to Everyday Needs so as to Walk in the Pageant of Faith

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Father Murphy and the staff of St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish know that a large number of people require basic physical needs such as clothing and a place of compassion as a first step to travel the road of life and participate in the pageant of faith as Catholics or any other religious tradition. Consequently, throughout the year several programs make people know that St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish has a friendly atmosphere for those in need.

One such program is the Thanksgiving Meal for St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish. The parishioners and the Mothers Club of Mount St. Joseph’s High School in Irvington on Frederick Ave sponsor this event. On Thanksgiving Day 2006 they served sit down meals to about 80 people. As they left, these people could take a bag lunch for the next day; a total of 96 bag lunches were given out. In addition to the on-site effort, 77 hot meals were sent out that day to people who were homebound. Parishioner Sharon Kerr and her family have been instrumental in bringing the parish together to serve those in need during this holiday time. She reflected that the purpose of the event is to provide a meal in the spirit of “love and compassion.” As a result, the first Thanksgiving Dinner in 2001 had made every effort to instill a family dinner atmosphere. This meant a decision was made not to give out tickets for the meal, even though many of the places around the city did that. Sharon Kerr wanted to have folks come in and be greeted and welcomed and then have someone show them to their seats and get a beverage for them while the same volunteer then went up to the food line and got their dinners. It was important. “I felt, and others agreed, that we serve them. We also had volunteers carrying trays of desserts and bring them to their table and letting them pick their desserts and more than one if they chose to. We have volunteers who mingle and sit with the guests and talk with them. The guests love this, they love getting their picture taken with the volunteers and each year the regulars are remembered by name which seems to especially thrill them.” And there was a TV/VCR for short Christmas movies. One year a couple of the men sat and watched football. During the commercials they went back later for seconds on dessert. In the end no one is rushed and everyone is welcome to stay as long as they like. We don’t often have a lot of children but if they do come there is a place where they might color or read books. One year a couple of teenagers seemed to really enjoy themselves. Another year there were a few moms with little babies. In that situation volunteers were available to help with the babies so that the moms could eat their meal undisturbed. In the end, a family atmosphere was the aim. This is possible because the volunteers themselves are following the example of Christ and treating the guests with the dignity and love that is God’s wish for every man woman and child. It is also an opportunity before hand to call our parishioners to evangelize by following Christ’s example. Most all of it is donated. The majority of the people who come to eat are African-American men. There are some African-American women. Hardly any children attend.

For the most part, the Thanksgiving meal has been promoted by word of mouth. Flyers are exceptionally valuable as is the Catonsville Times and the Baltimore Catholic Review. A number of years ago there were more volunteers than people. Now the meal on Thanksgiving is well known as a recognized outreach of St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish. People who come often eat and a tradition has developed where they wish to sing. It costs about $300 to underwrite the food costs. Any money left over is put towards the Christmas meal.

That Christmas meal is a second outreach program that has become successful. On Christmas Eve food is distributed family style as done on Thanksgiving. At the same time, a process has been added whereby the parish conducts a collection of coats, clothes, shoes, and gift items which are distributed without cost on Christmas Eve from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. This time was decided upon because those who come for assistance have to make their way to shelters or locations for the evening and volunteers want to get home as well.

The 2006 program saw 110 Christmas meals served in a face-to-face manner as described above. There were also 10 carry out meals. In addition, 100 bag lunches were given to those who left the evening meal. Adding to the joyful mood was the effort to give away 130 prepared Christmas stockings to those who attended.

Before the people left, the Christmas meal was different in that it was used as a chance to distribute the clothes. Organization dictated that this be done by way of a ticket system. Each person was given a number upon arrival. Once that number is called they proceed to get clothes that they might desire. Many parish volunteers have worked alongside the Kerr family. In 2006, Brian Fischer, the son of Gail Fischer, proved very helpful. The program has grown up over the last four years because of the combined success of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and summer programs. Many volunteers come from outside the parish or just call on the spur of the moment to donate their time, tangible food or goods, or financial support.

Gail Fischer also has determined that at least 60% of the people who volunteer are not from the parish and close to 100% of the people served are not parishioners. “Social outreach,” she says, “is a way that people inside and outside the parish socialize. So this is a definite social outreach and people are aware that it is from the church.”

The parish needs a strong financial endowment to sustain outreach. New and consistent volunteers are needed to take over responsibility of both planning and action. Any blueprint to increase ecumenical neighborhood awareness has to face the reality that some of the local Protestant church leaders are part-time ministers. Because they hold other jobs during the day, they are not usually available during the week to activate a plan. Not to be underestimated has been the long time dialogue between St. Joseph’s Monastery Parish and local Irvington social outreach organizations.