I stand at the counter in the lobby of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas. I am the receptionist, gatekeeper, and facilitator in this ministry with refugees, immigrants, and people living in poverty.
Near a side wall there is a rack of shelves laden with bread — a lot of "drab slabs of carbs." Through the door comes a continuous stream of always needy, often anxious, sometimes loud, rowdy, smelly humanity.
On the desk in front of me is a vision statement that reminds me that all people who come in our open doors are met with help, hospitality and hope. Behind me on the wall is the quotation from Scripture, "I was hungry and you gave me food … ."
Here they are, a modern urban reality and a call to ministry as an Ursuline Sister in the middle of the United States. How can I bring the two together with a contemplative heart? It is a challenge to see beyond the things that happen, the things that make me weary, to an attitude called for in daily prayer and meditation.
Bread arrives by box truck, pickup, van or car. It is carried into the building by volunteers, men from the homeless shelter, immigrants waiting to see the lawyer, and refugees waiting for a ride. The day goes on with folks coming for English or citizenship classes. They leave with something extra, a loaf or two to stretch their budgets a little further. Some come for help with finding employment. Here they find something to eat for their lunch. Thus, the unsold bread from grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants becomes a modern multiplication of the loaves.
On a cold winter morning in the dim, dawn light I find a man standing on the porch. He has been on the streets all night. He is wet, weary and hungry. A loaf of bread he picks from our shelves is the bread of life and goes well with a cup of hot coffee.
Later a woman drives up in a van and picks up lots of bags full of a variety bagels and English muffins. Why is she taking so many? Will some of what she takes go to waste? Soon I learn that she will deliver these to her neighbors. It is manna in the desert, a food desert in the urban core. The walk to the grocery store may be blocks, or miles and there is no money for the bus — if one even runs nearby.
Six little Congolese boys come in with their parents and sit in the play area trying to be so good, but the parents wait more than an hour for someone to help them. The boys are about to burst with impatience and energy. The mother picks a package of rolls for them to share. I think of the hymn "In the Breaking of the Bread" and sweep up the crumbs.
Among the loaves are some lovely artisan breads, Kalamata olive, cranberry, raisin, walnut. A single elderly woman is on such a tight budget she could never afford such an extravagance, but here she can take a free tiny celebration of luxury. She savors one piece each day for a week. It may be like the best wine at a wedding feast.
I am blessed on the days when all of this is so clear to me. On days when too many things happen and I struggle to keep up, I am carried along by the good memories.
So, I stand at the counter and know that it is possible to bring together some stark realities and a Gospel mandate. God has greatly blessed me here in this place and time.
[Jane Falke is a member of the Ursuline Sisters of Mount Saint Joseph in Kentucky. She taught in grade and high schools for 24 years, served in leadership and as a parish business manager; since 2008, she has been at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, in the counseling, development and now refugee and legal services offices.]