Saturday was the Winter Solstice & I was fortunate to spend it at a Capuchin Prayer & Service Advent Retreat.  The Capuchin Prayer & Service Days were started in NYC after Hurricane Sandy, when many members of Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries (CYFM) in Garrison, NY wanted to come down to NYC to help out with relief efforts in the Rockaways. The Prayer & Service Days and Weekend Retreats have continued ever since. It’s great to see this ministry of service continue in the true tradition of CYFM which provides many opportunities for youth and families to build and nurture relationships, grow spiritually, and to share in the vision of St. Francis who followed the call from God to “repair my house.”  My cousin Colleen came this weekend too which was great to get more family involvement in a ministry that was designed for youth and families as a whole.  Dennis McCormack was also there with two of his children, Heather and Kyle.  A former Cap Corps from CYFM, Mike, was there too. Together we helped (almost) put the finishing touches on the new kitchen for the St. Francis Table ministry of St. Matthias Church in Ridgewood, Queens. 

The St. Francis Table is a feeding ministry of St. Matthias Church that feeds hot meals to food pantry members on Saturdays, in addition to the meals fed for the homeless & hungry during the week.  For a long time they’ve operated out of a smaller, outdated kitchen space around the corner from the church, but within the past year Br. Michael and others have decided to renovate a former office space which didn’t get much use anymore, into a brand new, larger kitchen to serve the growing need and population in the area.  Recently there have been a lot of Coptic Christians from Egypt immigrating to the US and landing in Ridgewood, as they are seeking asylum from persecution of Christians.  Br. Michael and St. Matthias Church have been welcoming them with open arms, making sure they have food to feed their families and also making sure the family members have opportunities to be involved in the initiatives meant to help them, so they can grow their skill sets and maintain a level of dignity that goes a step further than basic charity might allow.  

On Saturday, we finished cleaning the kitchen just in time for the cooks (some of the very Egyptians who would be benefiting from the St. Francis Table) to come in and prepare what was the first hot meal served in the new kitchen!   It is a tradition for Coptic Christians to fast from meat during Advent, so there were two different dishes prepared for the meal:  fish (tilapia) with a fresh vegetable salad with special marinade and rice, or chicken with rice and salad. 

While the meals were served in Styrofoam take-out containers, Br. Michael tried to encourage the Egyptians (via one of the cooks who acted as the translator) to bring in their own Tupperware in the future so they wouldn’t have to use the disposable containers.  I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to do a screening of a film about the environmental impacts of waste from disposable containers, and have the film subtitles in all languages spoken at the church, to appeal to the multicultural and international culture of the church. I also spoke with Angelique, the daughter of Norma (very active parishioner) about the Franciscan Earth Corps and she had some ideas, such as perhaps the teachers in the St. Matthias School could incorporate environmental education into the curriculum.  Maybe they could also add vegetables to their flower garden too, we concluded. 

In addition to addressing the immediate needs of hunger, Br. Michael is also interested in seeing how we can help get the families get the skills they need to make a life for themselves in New York City.  Many of the new immigrants are living in “railroad” apartments in Queens, fitting a whole family in a small, narrow apartment where there isn’t space for much of anything. They have expressed to Br. Michael a need for beds for their families, and it occurred to him that with such small amounts of space they could really use some bunk beds.  So some CYFM volunteers such as Dennis McCormack have offered to help build bunk beds for the families.  Everyone has agreed that it would be best if the family members could participate in helping to put the beds together, to help the family members gain skills they might be able to put to use in a future job here in NYC.  Br. Michael and Kyle helped put together one of these beds with a family today (thanks to Dennis who donated the materials & started putting some of it together), but there are still more beds that need to be made & the materials paid for.

I also had some interesting conversations back at the St. Michael Friary in Brooklyn, the host for the Capuchin Prayer & Service Days.  Paul, a postulant at the friary, spent a number of years living at the Catholic Worker in Manhattan, and has some familiarity with Peter Maurin Farm in Marlboro, NY which is exciting because I think it would be great to organize trips up to the farm with groups from NYC and CYFM, where we could incorporate in a Franciscan spirituality component and talk about the importance of growing food and connecting to the land both as a spiritual discipline and also to help serve the practical needs of people who need to eat fresh food for health.  Paul also organizes members of a soup kitchen he works with to go up and speak to state legislators in Albany about their experiences with hunger. I was very excited to hear about this because I have envisioned seeing something like this organized ever since seeing “A Place at the Table.” 

I was also encouraged to hear that there has been some movement on Br. Michael’s idea for a “St. Francis Farm” in East New York, Brooklyn. He’s had his eye on a plot of land which is owned by a different Catholic Church near the friary, which right now is a big plot of grass not being used for anything.  We are envisioning this as a farm where fresh food can be grown to supplement the food given out through the St. Francis Table food pantry program; there could also be community garden plots as well.  This would be differentiated from many other community gardens in the area because it would be distinctly Catholic, and coming from a Franciscan desire to care for the poor and hungry while also caring for the land. 

(Plot of land for future St. Francis Farm!) 

CYFM has been known by many of its participants, including me, as “a little slice of heaven.”  I look forward to seeing what we can do to expand this “slice of heaven” within NYC so that it becomes not just a slice, but a larger piece of the pie of the whole of God’s kingdom here on earth.