Breaking Bread at Emmaus House

emmaus 1Tuesday afternoon at 4:30 pm the front door bell rings at 160 West 120th Street. It’s the City Harvest delivery for Emmaus House. The back of the van is opened, revealing a mountain of fifty-pound plastic sacks of large, bright orange carrots. Eight sacks, 400 pounds in toto, are for Emmaus, plus two equally large bags of fresh green vegetables. I notice asparagus is included.

Luckily there are four of us plus the delivery man to unload the van. Bag by bag the produce is lined up on a long trestle table between the chapel and the kitchen on the ground floor of Emmaus House. The far end of the table already is loaded with at least a hundred loaves of recently delivered brown bread as well as about twenty cartons each packed with a dozen quart-sized containers of chicken broth. Between broth and vegetables space is reserved for packets of yoghurt that are presently being kept cool in a large refrigerator.emmaus 2

At five thirty the household gathers for Vespers in the chapel. In the center, over the altar, is an Emmaus icon — the two disciples at the moment of recognizing the stranger as the risen Christ as he breaks the bread.

Supper follows. By now ten or twelve people have arrived and more keep trickling in as guests have been invited for the evening to hear me read from my new book, Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment.

Shazia, a black Moslem women who had been one of the first to arrive takes, playful issue with the subtitle: “It’s not the hardest commandment — it’s the easiest — only people make it hard. Love is so much easier than hatred.”

I talk about the biblical meaning of the book’s keys words, love and enemy, and then read aloud a chapter entitled “The Gospel According to John Wayne.” Animated conversation follows. Before the evening is over a dozen copies of the book have been sold and signed. Conversation slides toward the history of Emmaus House and my memories of the founder, Fr David Kirk. It’s remarkable — perhaps a miracle — that David’s vision of an Eastern Christian house centered on the works of mercy has survived so many difficulties and occasional crises over the years. Yet here it is. The heartbeat is strong.

Wednesday morning begins with a cup of coffee followed by Matins in the chapel followed by last-minute preparations for food distribution. Several volunteers (Shazia, Tom, Veronica and myself) assist long-time volunteers Judith and Nora. The yoghurt is put on the table and a calculation made of how many packets can be given per person assuming about sixty people arrive: two packets of yoghurt per guest, it’s decided, plus two quarts of broth plus a loaf of bread plus as many carrots as they want plus green vegetables as long as they last.

emmaus 3At nine the first guests arrive and from then till nearly noon there’s a steady flow. Judith stands at the front door warmly greeting each person while Nora is sitting on a chair near the carrots noting each person’s name and getting their signature. What’s most striking about Nora is the fact not only that she knows so many names but the enthusiasm of her greetings. She has questions for many about this or that family member and how so-and-so is doing after a recent hospital stay, and whether this or that problem has been resolved. Much of Nora’s conversation with guests is in Spanish and the tone is quite merry. She asks one guest how to say “thank you” in Albanian. There is more than food being given away — there is a person-by-person reconnection. Meanwhile Veronica is bagging carrots and Tom handing out yoghurt, quarts of chicken broth and loaves of bread.

When the front door closes at noon, the trestle table is bare. All the food is gone except for a few fragments of carrot lying on the floor.

— Jim Forest
30 October 2014

a folder of Emmaus House-related photos:

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