A member of the team at the soup kitchen established by Holy Name Province friars in 1979 — a 50-something woman who spent 10 years at a Philadelphia law firm — describes the Franciscan values that drew her to the poor Kensington neighborhood nearly 20 years ago. Her life of prayer and community service has provided fulfillment far beyond what she imagined when she signed up as a Franciscan Volunteer Minister in 1991.
This is the first in a series of essays by lay men and women who want to share their strong respect for the Franciscan friars and for the teachings of St. Francis.
“Have you ever considered volunteering for a week? a month? or longer? Do you feel God may be calling you to a fuller experience of life?” An item in a church bulletin containing words to that effect 20 years ago surfaced a subconscious restlessness of spirit in me, spurring me to investigate the world of faith-based service. It was not a question of dissatisfaction with my very full life: I was 10 years into a career with a major Philadelphia law firm, actively involved on the board of my condominium association, and already engaged in CCD instruction for special children. It was, rather, a need that I felt to do “something more.”
After months of researching and reflecting upon various faith-based volunteer opportunities, I realized that what I was drawn to was direct service to the poor in a community that afforded a regular prayer life — a lifestyle, not a job. These criteria coincided with the Franciscan charism (among others). Francis began his movement as a lay person, and Franciscan spirituality truly resonates with lay people, who are attracted to the Franciscan values of simplicity, humility and Gospel-based service to the poor.
Soon I found myself visiting St. Francis Inn in the Kensington section of Philadelphia, 25 miles but a world away from my Main Line condo. Six months later I moved into a cramped three-bedroom row house with four complete strangers, ready to begin a year in the HNP-sponsored Franciscan Volunteer Ministry program at its site in Philadelphia.
Fulfillment at St. Francis Inn
Nothing could have prepared me for a world of grinding poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, children left to fend for themselves, mentally ill people wandering the streets, violence and degradation. Nevertheless, within a month, I knew I would be there longer, and by the time my stint with the FVM program ended I joined the team of St. Francis Inn for an adventure that is still as compelling and fulfilling as that steamy August day in 1991 when I arrived at the Inn.
Thanks to friars who value the collaboration of lay people in furthering the ministries of the Province, I have had the opportunity to work with a team of friars, religious sisters and lay people who operate the Inn, which comprises a soup kitchen, a thrift store, a women’s day center and an urban outreach center. The team is truly a team There is no one person “in charge;” rather we rotate that responsibility daily .A virtual army of volunteers and benefactors enables the tiny team to maintain an ambitious effort reaching hundreds of people a day every day of the year. The challenges and the needs are tremendous; the ministry is demanding physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. Because the Inn is a neighborhood mainstay, we who live and work here develop extensive relationships with our guests—our name for those we serve— that span decades. Their trials and triumphs affect us directly and powerfully as we try to treat each individual in as personal a way as is possible. Poverty wears many faces: material, to be sure, but there is also poverty of love, of connection, of spirit, of purpose. Francis had a special love for the poor and that quintessentially Franciscan value is the hallmark of the Inn.
Though there is no typical day in Kensington, I can offer an example of a recent and very full day. A few weeks ago, my assigned responsibility for the day was to cook the main meal but, in the course of that day, I also made funeral arrangements for a deceased guest, brought a stray cat to an animal shelter, advised a guest on a protection order, met with a contractor to evaluate repair work in one of the houses operated by the Inn, called for an emergency medical vehicle to transport a guest who was having a seizure on the sidewalk, and broke up a fight on our doorstep. Somehow there was time to prepare the meal, too: sausage and mashed potatoes and fresh green beans for 357 people. As soon as the meal ended, I attended a community briefing on a major warehouse fire a block away, which had happened the week before. Where else can you have such a variety of experiences in ten hours?
In the years since I ventured on the path of downward mobility to live in one of the poorest, most blighted neighborhoods in Philadelphia, I have formed strong bonds with some of our regular volunteers and benefactors, wonderful people who shower us with time, talent and treasure. These good people open their hearts and homes to us.
The connections to Franciscans who delight in sharing their lives and to lay people imbued with the Franciscan spirit have enabled me to earn a master’s degree in theology, to take a sabbatical in Assisi and, yes, to use my legal training for the benefit of the Inn, the team, the guests and the FVM program.
Privilege in Service
Moving well beyond my early legal practice, I have learned about the law of nonprofit organizations, Philadelphia real estate and zoning law, criminal law, custody issues, landlord-tenant law, welfare issues, insurance law, social security and more. I have had the privilege to help bring to completion a major addition to the Inn and to acquire properties to help us better fulfill our mission, especially by enabling individuals and groups to come and experience “love lived in service” at the Inn. Over the years, visiting volunteers have gone on to start their own soup kitchens, work in campus ministry, engage in overseas mission work and even enter religious life. How gratifying to know that the Spirit is alive in this seemingly most bereft of environments!
Francis’ words “I have done what is mine to do, may Christ show you what is yours” gives me the incentive to continue to discern the many needs of the guests and the extended community to discover what my role can and should be as circumstances change. Our Guideline No. 1 — ”We consider our lives lived in the spirit of St. Francis to be our basic ministry, and so we do not wish to serve the poor, but to be poor and serve our brothers and sisters” — provides the touchstone of my ongoing discernment.”
Prayer, reflection and a willingness to embrace the unknown through service in the Franciscan tradition have brought me to a to a richness of life that I could not have imagined 20 years ago, when I tried to imagine what a one-week stint volunteering would be like. This is the beauty and joy of being a part of St. Francis Inn: living, praying and ministering in this unique Eucharistic community in a spirit of collaboration rather than competition, where each person’s particular gifts are valued and each person is afforded the space to grow and to be who they are called to be. What more can anyone ask for?
— Karen Pushaw, a native of suburban Philadelphia, and a graduate of LaSalle University and University of Pennsylvania, is one of three lay women who, together with four friars, two Franciscan sisters, and Franciscan Volunteers, run the soup kitchen. Her housemates are Barbara Salapek and Judy Stachecki.
Editor’s note: Readers who would like to contribute an essay about what draws them to Franciscan values and/or to Holy Name Province ministries are welcomed to contact the HNP Communications Office at 646-473-0265 ext. 321.