St. Francis Inn’ Influence on DSW

(Pictured: This year's three year-long DSW volunteers: from left to right, Mike Morgan, Tim Gallagher, and Tom Briese).

(Pictured: This year’s three year-long DSW volunteers: from left to right, Mike Morgan, Tim Gallagher, and Tom Briese).

Editor’s Note: Today’s blog entry completes the reflections of Fr. Mike McCue, OSFS, director of DSW, on the influences on DSW. This week marks the begininng of the year-long volunteers’ ministry in Camden. For anyone interested in participating in a service retreat, alternative break or weekend, or a year of service, please visit
Give Me
So often interactions with the needy seem to be all about, “what are you going to do for me.” Can I have 50 cents? I need a sandwich; I’m starving. I just need to get to Deptford tonight; I don’t want to spend the night here. Do you have any bus passes? I need shoes, deodorant, soap, a pillow, a blanket, pants, socks, another sandwich for my child, wife, friend, or disabled neighbor. This is understandable because so many people here are at a spot where they are simply trying to keep their heads above water. Mental illness, poverty, and/or drug use leads them to extremes just trying to survive.
But it is so dysfunctional: adults acting like kids. The community of St. Francis Inn offers a model with this experience, how to accept the reality of desperate need and to try to move deeper.
St. Francis Inn
St. Francis Inn is a ministry of the Franciscans. The ministry centers around the daily meal at the soup kitchen located at the corner of Kensington Ave and Hagert Street, under the “El” in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. They also sponsor a women’s center, a thrift store, a food pantry, and a clinic. But most of all, the Inn is a community made up of Franciscan friars, sisters, year-long fresh college grad volunteers and years-long, in some cases, decades-long volunteers and then a whole network of supporters who have found a spiritual and service home there. Most importantly, the community includes the needy: “guests,” as they call everyone who comes for food, help, and company.
I first encountered this community in 1992 as campus minister at Bishop Ireton High School. For my next 8 years at Ireton, students and I would go regularly to Philadelphia to work and pray, to be a part of this amazing community, and to bring back insight and commitment to the poor to our own community. This blog entry shares three things we learned that help us now with DSW in Camden.
1. There For You
The experience of community at the Inn teaches the value of enduring, dependable presence. The needs guests have are real, but they do not usually have a quick solution that the person could walk away with. Most often the needs go beyond the emergency of the moment. We experience this very often in Camden: a couple times a week someone will come to the door toward the end of the work day expressing need to get out of the city before darkness falls. I want to ask each time what they did earlier in the day: what was their plan for return home earlier in the day? It can feel good to satisfy someone’s need, especially when it is framed as basically “saving their lives.” But most often, that just leaves more needs for the next day or the next crisis.
St. Francis is a community that is there for people, dependably, day after day, year after year. There is much banter and playing and conversation, all bonding things that move the focus out of the framework of getting things.
Saying “No”
Very often here in Camden, I can hear Fr. Michael Duffy, one of the friars on the leadership team, reflecting that he did not come to Kensington to say “no” to poor people. However, like all the community members, he learned that structure is important, and really necessary. Everyone needs to know what to expect. When Matt Hillyard and I first arrived here in Camden, we gave away food, clothing, and blankets anytime anyone came to the door to ask. It did not take long until that got out of control. We learned the need to set limits, to say “no” to poor people in order to focus on the individual, on deeper needs rather than on simply acting as an ATM or fast food drive-in window.

2. Peace of Christ
Another big thing St. Francis Inn gave us is the image of Jesus absorbing the negative, taking upon himself the weight of others’ sin. So many people we encounter here are nice, kind, grateful. But many are not; some can seem ungrateful or self-centered, can be manipulative, or appear antisocial. That can be upsetting for volunteers, and for us who are here all the time. We might offer peanut butter sandwiches to some people, and they say they want baloney and cheese. We offer baloney to someone who wants peanut butter and jelly. We get so much gratitude and positive feedback about our water, but there will be people who ask where the ice is, or who get upset if we run out of cups or if they find the tank low when they happen to arrive.
The Inn community, learning from the Poor Man of Assisi, takes the anger but does not give it back. They focus on understanding, aware that so many of the guests have no other place where they can ask for something and get it, have some kind of power, or get their own will, or even be angry or demanding. For many poor or homeless women and men, much of the day may be spent in situations where things are not under their control: waiting in line, being put off or avoided, or dealing with officious bureaucrats. So, the Inn community tries to be understanding, or to at least shape responses so that they are respectful.
The peacemaking you can observe at St. Francis Inn is not passive, however. An honesty and willingness to say “no” and to set limits keeps it from merely smoothing over conflict. The key effort is making the choice not to return anger with anger or power with power. Following Francis of Assisi, they commit to the power of Christ’s peace.
3. Mass
Each day The Inn strives to welcome and nourish the hungry. They deal with the disorder, the smells, and the privations of life in the inner city. They also enjoy people, the humor, stories, and the humanity. They endure the various letdowns and tragedies. All of this-especially the effort to understand and not to return anger for anger, violence with violence-gets support from the fact that no individual has to do it alone. St. Francis Inn is a community first and foremost. They work together. They also pray together. The community members describe themselves as a “Eucharistic community” because the sharing of communion in word and sacrament is very important for the group identity.
At Mass typically the priest preaches a homily, and then others are invited to offer reflection on the readings and experiences in the service. This practice seems to keep everyone connected to what is going on with everyone and the Lord. It also seems to connect the work and experiences of each day to values and goals everyone shares.
Welcoming Visiting Coworkers
The reason Bishop Ireton student groups were able to visit is because a good portion of the ministry of the Inn involves welcoming groups who come to share the life and work. This is exactly what we are doing with DSW. I hope we also teach respect and give the opportunity to encounter our wonderful and troubled needy neighbors. Inspired by our Francis-de Sales- we bring what we have to offer for the service of God.

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