Fall Break: A New View of South Philly

Participants of the fall break service trip to the St. Francis Inn Soup Kitchen in Philadelphia. Photo Credit: Chuck Fisher.

By Chuck Fisher
Peace & Justice Editor

Well, I can’t say I enjoy Philly, nor can I really say I enjoy any big city. I don’t like the noise, the traffic, the congestion, just the general feel of big city life. Nonetheless, four Marywood students, two chaperones, and myself decided to give up our fall break to spend time with some of the people who really don’t enjoy big city life—the poor and underprivileged of South Philly. I’m going to take some time to try to recount my experience and try to share a bit of the indelible mark it left on me.

I’m a senior, about to graduate, and I only started getting active with Marywood’s service opportunities last March when I spent my Spring Break in Kentucky with nine others from Marywood. I had such an awesome experience traveling and working with people in another part of the country that when Amy Fotta in Campus Ministry asked if I’d like to help peer facilitate a service trip to the St. Francis Inn Soup Kitchen in Philadelphia over Fall Break, I jumped at the opportunity. I was paired with co-facilitator Jill Troiano and chaperoned by Jerry Hart and his wife Amanda. The total group contingent consisted of the four leaders and three participants: Faith Rivera, Zhiling Zhai, and Heather Romanow. None of us had ever been to South Philly before, but we’d all heard the stories of the gangs, the violence, and the drugs, but also of the extreme poverty and homelessness. We were all in for an experience, to say the least.

South Philadelphia sees more than its share of chronically homeless, poor, unemployed, underemployed, mentally ill, battered women, and others who don’t fit in any nice sunny picture of society. Serving these people is the St. Francis Inn, a soup kitchen run by an order of Franciscan Monks. Marywood has a close link with the kitchen and likes to send a group down at least once a year. St. Francis operates on a different model from other soups kitchens, rather than having people file past a counter and receive their food cafeteria style, the people (referred to by the Inn volunteers as “guests”) sit down at tables and are served by volunteers restaurant style. The Inn encourages this practice because it fosters a closer kinship with the guests, making them feel more welcomed and comfortable. Quoting one of the long term volunteers at the Inn, “The guests who come here each day are people who spend their days being kicked around by society, feeling worthless and less than human beings. We give them the chance, even if just for a short while, to actually feel special, like respected humans.” Since the purpose of St. Francis was to get people fed, this became our purpose.

Our service was spread out over two days, Monday and Tuesday, from morning through early evening. Mornings were spent preparing the evening meal. Some of us made sandwiches, others made soup, others went on runs with Inn volunteers to collect food from various donors throughout Philly. I personally gained a fondness and respect for working with large sharp knives as I spent a good chunk of one morning just cutting up meat for soup while trying to keep my fingers attached to my hand. We spent this time talking to the different volunteers who worked at the Inn. These included long term volunteers, recent college graduates, Franciscan Friars (who tried to recruit me (sorry, it just isn’t going to happen)), and even people whom the Inn has helped. Jerry, Zhiling, and I made sandwiches with a guy nicknamed “Tattoo Larry” (you can guess why) and he described how he wanted to reform his life by giving back to the place that helped him in his time of need.

The real essence of the experience was when the mealtime came on Monday and Tuesday nights. This was where we literally got to see the fruits of our labor, usually by serving fruit (or the rest of the food) to the Inn’s patrons. For two nights, I was made a waiter/server; I was assigned two tables and as people came in, I brought them food.

I had really never seen anything like this. All sorts of people walked through the door; old, young, women with children, Spanish speakers, some formerly middle class who the economy had been rough to, and multitudes more who can’t be described. They would sit down and gobble up what they were given. Some would stay and shoot the breeze with their friends, others would quietly eat and leave, some would just sit in silence and thoughtfully ponder. I ran around directing them to their tables, filling their water pitchers, and getting their food.

On the second night there, I met a man named David who had come to the Inn. David brought a Bible with him and was quietly praying to himself before ate. After he ate, I asked him about his Bible. He told me how great Jesus was and how thankful he was to get a good meal. I didn’t pry into his past but it seemed like the man, only in his twenties, had seen more in his life than I could imagine. I asked him, “Why don’t you consider helping out here? You know they’re always looking for more help and could certainly use you.” David thoughtfully nodded his head and I turned around to go fill another water pitcher. Although I couldn’t talk to him because I was busy, before he left, I saw David go up and talk to one of the volunteer supervisors with the conclusion of their discussion resulting in a handshake.

The seven of us worked closely together throughout the trip, exchanging stories and thoughts about what we’d seen and experienced. Capturing the whole essence of the trip would be close to impossible in the short space I’ve been allotted. Full pictures of the trip can be seen by visiting the Campus Ministry Facebook site. Although I may not like big cities, this trip has made me want to return again, so that I can to try to address the needs by those who want to be there even less than me.