ONE Magazine

The official publication of
Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Called to Do the Truth

Emmaus house in Harlem is Eastern Christianity at work in the West.

In the neighborhood around 124th Street and Lexington Avenue of New York City, buildings are in decay, drugs continue to lay waste to young lives, and unemployment paralyzes most of the adult population.

The ministry of an Eastern Catholic priest has been generating hope in this troubled place. Emmaus House is a 70-bed center in a whitewashed, five-story building. It used to be an abandoned hotel filled with prostitutes and drug addicts. Now, with the help of a rotating group of volunteers, it offers a fresh start for many of New York’s homeless. It provides food and clothing to up to 500 people each day.

But Emmaus House is not a shelter, says its founder and director, Father David Kirk. It is a community of homeless people who live and work together to help themselves and to help those still on the street. Those living in Emmaus House say it is a place of healing.

A Melkite priest might seem out of place in this predominantly black neighborhood in upper Manhattan. His work certainly seems a far cry from its Eastern Catholic origins in the Middle East. But Father Kirk knows what he is about. His work in Harlem, he wrote, “is the most Byzantine and Eastern Christian act I can do.”

Emmaus House was founded in 1966 as “a house of hospitality.” Hospitality, of course, has a long tradition which began in the East and was carried to the West by Christians. In the 20th century the Catholic Worker movement in the United States revived the custom of houses of hospitality. The Catholic origins of these houses can be found in the earliest days of the Church, and they were promoted vigorously by Saint John Chrysostom.

This 4th century Father of the Church held that every Christian home should have a Christ Room where hospitality could be given to anyone who is sick, homeless, or traveling. He also promoted the practice that every table should have a place for Christ available for someone who is hungry. This philosophy was later extended at the Council of Nicea, which called for every parish and congregation to have a house of hospitality for the poor and homeless in that parish.

“That’s our canon law,” Father Kirk says, adding that it is “something we should be thinking about, concerned about. It is up to us to serve suffering people where we find them, not just serve our own.”

Emmaus House in Harlem was conceived to offer service where hope was desperately needed. But before that was possible, Kirk had to find his home in Catholicism. “When I became a Catholic, I was 19 years old, and I came to Catholicism through the civil rights movement,” he recalled. “I had never read the Gospels before, I had never been to church before. It was all very fresh and revolutionary to me. So, when I read I was hungry and you fed me; I was homeless and you gave me shelter, I took it very seriously, and have since then. This is the vision of life given to Christians to do.”

Father Kirk was ordained in Jerusalem in 1964. At the ordination, Patriarch Maximos IV told him and other new priests that they were being ordained not just for the work of the parishes but for the work of the poor and the unity of Christians.

There has been little resistance to Father Kirk and the Eastern faith tradition he displays in the heart of Western culture. “We come here as brothers. I did not come here to dominate or lead but to support – and in that way I find I’m accepted,” he says. “We should be in every culture and with every people,” he adds.

In fact, he finds an affinity in this predominantly black community. “The Eastern Church has more kinship with the African people than does the Western Church. The Western mentality is very cerebral. In the Eastern Church, we pray with our bodies, our hearts, and our minds, which is the way the African people do it. Our prayers are not simply mental prayers, mental exercises. I’ve found a real relationship with the black experience and with the experience of a Church which is primarily in the Middle East, Eastern Africa, and Eastern Europe.”

Despite the acceptance and support of the surrounding community, the people of Emmaus House face intimidating, sometimes overwhelming conditions. Male unemployment in Harlem has soared to 70 percent. The nearby city shelter usually fills its 1,000 beds each night. 85 percent of the people in the streets around Emmaus House are crack users. It is an uncompromising challenge.

“It really is devastation,” remarks the priest from behind his thick, greying beard. Nevertheless, in the face of intense human suffering, his eyes remain clear, resolute. “I believe that if you pray to the Holy Spirit for those gifts – patience, steadfastness, perseverance – you will be given them. Of course, you can just sit by and accept these sorts of things. Or, you can cry out to try to bring about the changes that we need.”

The work of Emmaus House has received strong support from Father Kirk’s superiors. The eparch of the only Melkite diocese in the United States, Archbishop Joseph Tawil, echoes the words of the community’s director. “It goes back to the Gospel – I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was homeless and you gave me shelter. It is, very simply, the practice of the Gospel, nothing else,” the archbishop says. “He is one of our priests, and his work is completely blessed and encouraged by this diocese.”

In an article which appeared in the journal Diakonia, Father Kirk defined hospitality as the essence of the Eastern Christian lifestyle. His understanding of the practice has implications for all Catholics. “In Eastern Christianity, hospitality to the poor is an extension of the Liturgy,” he wrote. “The Gospel of Christ must be presented at least in a threefold way: it must be proclaimed (kerygma), communally manifested (koinonia), and spelled out in acts of humble service (diakonia).”

He also wrote, “Truth must not only be proclaimed and celebrated. We are called to the doing of the truth. United with Christ, we cannot refuse to lay down our life for our brother. We must now come to serve, not be served.

There are many kinds of service at Emmaus House, several ways in which residents become more responsible for themselves and others. Besides taking assignments in the community kitchen or business office, those living at the house are employed in Emmaus Works, a construction company that operates in partnership with professionals to rehabilitate abandoned buildings to create housing for the poor. Emmaus Works also has been involved in the renovation of co-ops in midtown Manhattan, as well as suburban homes in the metropolitan area. Many community members receive on-the-job training.

There also is the Emmaus Roadrunners, a moving service created following the donation of a van and a five-ton truck. Besides earning pay for Emmaus House as conventional movers, the Roadrunners use their resources to assist the poor by making pick-ups and deliveries for the House and other social organizations around the city.

Other community members are employed by Emmaus Community Crafts, which opened as a cabinet shop for in-house renovation projects. Now its skills are employed by outside businesses, including a major medical center in New York.

“Here at Emmaus House, we try to empower the poor, not just serve the poor;” says Father Kirk. “If you do this institutional kind of service, and remove yourself from the people, that’s degrading to them. The big thing is to get people to help themselves while they are helping others.”

For Father Kirk and the people of Emmaus House, charity means more than the giving of material goods. The Melkite priest explains: “The thing to get across is that people need more than food and shelter. They need a new life.”

The new life offered at Emmaus House is community, which affirms the dignity of each person by sharing hope, love, and faith. The hospitality of the community at the same time transforms its own members as it changes the world it serves.

What Emmaus House does is a basic expression of faith. In his article on the Eastern tradition of hospitality, Father Kirk wrote: “Hospitality becomes for the Christian community a way of being the sacrament of God’s love in the world and in human history. It is a way families and the whole Christian community can fulfill their common mission from Christ, through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, to love and serve humanity. For the Church’s life is healthiest when she is self-forgetful and turns outward to serve the needs of humankind.”

Thomas Riley is a freelance writer living in New York.

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