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Franciscan Influences: Developing Relationships through Shared Meals

Author Jeff Sved, right, has served with the Franciscans at several sites in the Western Hemisphere, including Franciscan Mission Service’s location in Cochabamba, Bolivia, where he worked with Ignatius Harding.

This essay is part of a series about aspects of the Franciscan message that partners-in-ministry appreciate. The previous was written by a friend of the late Mychal Judge, OFM. Below a former Franciscan Volunteer Minister who spent four years in South America with the Franciscan Mission Service describes what he has learned about life especially about the importance of shared meals and of appreciating the perspective of the marginalized.

“El come en la carcel!” He eats in the prison. This was the beautifully simple understanding that a young friend had of my ministry in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I was serving with Franciscan Mission Service, and toward the end of my four years involved mainly with prison ministry, I was playing with this friend and her cousin, who asked what this gringo (me) was doing in Bolivia. I’ll never forget the smile on my young friend’s face as she shared that all I was doing in Bolivia was eating in prison.

If I’ve learned anything from the Franciscans in my life, it is how to eat.

Nourishment from Relationships
While I was a college student in Philadelphia, I visited St. Francis Inn on a weekly basis. It was there that I first encountered the Franciscan charism. The Inn’s community was my introduction to the Franciscan family, and from the friars, sisters, lay Franciscans, and volunteers there I came to understand how important relationships were to ministry. Yes, St. Francis Inn is a soup kitchen, but the ministry goes beyond physical nourishment. At the Inn, I was invited into a holistic approach to nourishment that redefined my view of service. My favorite days were spent in the bread yard, recognizing our shared humanity through smiles, arguments over Philly sports, laughter, and coffee. Eating became about the nourishment that comes with time together as well as the physical sustenance.

Encounters at the Inn led me to discern a year of “Love… lived in service” with Holy Name Province’s Franciscan Volunteer Ministry. During that year, I was able to share meals in many unexpected places and enter into ministries in ways I could not have imagined. Where and with whom you eat were the next lessons from the Franciscan family. With FVM came my first experiences with criminal justice and incarceration as well as migrant ministries. Br. Chris Posch, OFM, always made sure that Masses with migrant workers at the horse park included a treat, extending time together beyond la misa with watermelon or cookies.

Through FVM, I spent most of my time in Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in New Castle, Del., working with the high school education program. Since many of my students were also studying in the culinary arts program, my classes were regularly interrupted with excited invitations to come share the latest delicious meal in the kitchen. Many lessons were learned and shared during my time at BWCI with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, and the best ones came gathered around the kitchen counter with the math and chemistry text books left behind in the other classroom.

Seeing Life From the Margins
When I arrived in Cochabamba, as a lay missioner with Franciscan Mission Service, Br. Ignatius Harding, OFM, greeted us at the airport with a clear message of advice and guidance. Our most important mission was to learn to see life from the perspective of the poor and marginalized. With FMS, I quickly learned to embrace food as a central part of that mission. Whether a shared refresco, piece of fruit, or a long list of favorite foods, my life in Cochabamba was full of eating with others and learning from others – most often in prison.

One of my favorite meals was during the weeklong Christmas expo and fair, when I was gathered with other vendors from the six Cochabamba prisons selling a variety of products made in the prisons. (To learn more about these sales events, check out this blog from Expo Reincorpora). After the week of selling together – and many joint lunch and dinner breaks – the 20 of us, mainly inmates and the guards responsible for them during the week, gathered together for a Christmas Eve feast. La Noche Buena is traditionally celebrated with a large meal gathered together with family. On this night, separated from family and friends, this group of inmates, guards, and a random gringo were family joined in laughter, love and delicious food.

Experiencing Franciscan Charism
Sharing a meal is a beautiful way of embracing our shared humanity, and I’m grateful for the Franciscans in my life who have modeled this as an approach to ministry. The Franciscan charism has to be experienced, much like a delicious meal must be tasted to be enjoyed.

Upon returning from Bolivia, I moved to Olean, N.Y., to accompany college students get a taste of the Franciscan charism at St. Bonaventure University. While serving as the director for the Franciscan Center for Social Concern, I had the opportunity to invite students into a Franciscan approach to a ministry of presence through shared meals. Especially at SBU’s student-run soup kitchen, the Warming House, students have embraced sitting around the table together as part of the holistic approach to nourishment, the ministry I first witnessed at St. Francis Inn.

Thank you to the many friars (especially in Holy Name Province) who have taught me how to eat and where to eat.

— Jeff Sved is a returned lay missioner with Franciscan Mission Service, who served in Cochabamba, Bolivia for four years. He spent most of his time in Bolivia in the Cochabamba prisons, working alongside incarcerated carpenters, leather-workers, and artisans. Favorite memories from Cochabamba include good food with good people, sharing stories, and the pilgrimages during celebrations. Most recently, he served at St. Bonaventure University as the director of the Franciscan Center for Social Concern. Previously, Jeff served with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry in Wilmington, Del., after graduating from Villanova University with a degree in chemical engineering. 

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