Kensington: A Unique Soup Kitchen]

St. Francis Inn is not a typical soup kitchen. Staff member Karen Pushaw says, “The inn is unique because its guests are not just homeless males.” The inn provides a multitude of services for local Kensington families and the elderly.

The Franciscan community established the inn in the late 1970s and have served a meal every day since then.  According to staff member Judy Stachecki, approximately 250 meals are served in the beginning of each month. By the end of the month, the inn is serving up to 345-400 meals a day.

Volunteers who have experience at other soup kitchens may notice the difference in service at the inn. Each meal is served restaurant-style. Guests do not wait in line for their food, and volunteers do not stand behind a counter. They serve meals and bus tables quickly as a steady stream of people walk through the door.

Another unique characteristic of the St. Francis Inn is how they refer to each of the staff members.

The Rev. Michael Duffy explains that the label “father” implies higher religious education. The St. Francis Inn does not want to put an emphasis on class system. The ordained, staff members and volunteers are all “brothers” and “sisters” at the inn. This thought extends to the customers, who are referred to as “guests.”

“The chapel is set up like a living room. The creation of this room was very exciting,” says Pushaw. Every detail is intentional, from the stained wood furniture to the Tau symbol outlined in the ceiling. The Tau is considered the symbol of the Franciscan order.

The chapel is decorated with pieces of art from staff members. A friend of the inn, Sister Helen David, painted the picture “New Jerusalem,” which hangs in one corner of the room. It is a composite of multi-racial faces with a motherly figure in the center foreground and the city of Jerusalem sitting on top of a hill in the background.

David was so moved by the number of kind and different faces she served while volunteering at the kitchen. She went home and began working on the painting shortly after her experience.

Other staff members have carved wood-workings and created canvas paintings. Pushaw says, “Art is an important means of expression.” The inn encourages residents to contribute to the chapel’s art collection with their own pieces.

The mural on the side of the building has an intriguing and timely message, according to Duffy. A young man was washing dishes one day when told Duffy that he would love to do a mural for free.

Duffy assured him that he always wanted a mural on the side of a building. They wanted to design it to fit the specific mission statement of the inn and the Franciscan order.

The mural is designed from an account in The Journey and The Dream, which is a collection of stories or legends from the life of St. Francis. This particular legend focused on a village that was being terrorized by a large, black wolf. St. Francis comes to the town to help control the problem.

He confronts the wolf and discovers that the wolf is only hungry. He does not want to hurt any villager. The wolf is then taken in by the villagers and considered a pet.

The mural depicts the wolf and St. Francis in opposite corners. Surrounding the wolf are various evils of society.  These evils include a beer can for alcoholism, a hypodermic needle for drug use, a wad of money for gambling and chalk for vandalism. Duffy says that “these are the evils in society…not the people.” The Franciscan order wanted to come into Kensington to alleviate these evils and promote nonviolence and peace.

“Some people never have a shot at the American Dream because of the situations they are born into or the things that happen to them in their life,” says Duffy.

He recalls a story of a Vietnam vet who now utilizes the inn’s services. “He was fine before he went to fight…but he stepped on a landmine…and now he is in line at our kitchen.This is someone who was drafted and fought for our country. I could have been drafted, I could have stepped on that landmine.” Duffy says it’s just one of the many stories of  the inn’s guests that stick with him.

The St. Francis Inn also has three other services, which are the Thea Bowman’s Women’s Center, St. Benedict’s Thrift Shop and the St. Francis Urban Center. For more information on how to get involved with the St. Francis Inn, please visit the Web site.

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