By Connie Berry
The living room of the little house next to the Franciscan friary on North Salina Street in Syracuse fills with the sounds of conversation, laughter and coffee brewing every Tuesday morning. That’s when the Franciscan sisters welcome people from the neighborhood for some community-building and delicious donated pastries from Biscotti’s right across the street. On a recent Tuesday morning Sister Dolly Bush, OSF, and Sister JP Ridgeo, OSF, were there to welcome everyone. Their friend, Sister Maureen Marion was visiting from Scranton, Pa. and she was there to mingle with the guests as well.
The Tuesday morning get-together is one of the first offerings the Franciscan Northside Ministries brought to the Syracuse neighborhood. The ministries now include a health clinic and other outreach opportunities. It is the one-on-one Gospel experience and Franciscan example that shines during coffee and donuts. The snack might be the only thing some of the visitors eat that day.
“The sisters are real welcoming,” Mike Morgan said. “They’re real Christian. It’s like a family reunion every week. Everybody gets along with everybody else.”
Morgan used to live in the neighborhood and said every time he comes for coffee and donuts he runs into someone he used to know. He said the sisters offer a “Catholic Church environment without the hard sell.”
Cliff is currently homeless and spends most Tuesdays enjoying the coffee and pastries. He called the weekly event a “sanctuary.” Cliff’s mother used to go to Assumption School. “She used to make me go to church,” he said. Cliff is currently getting by on his disability benefit payments, which doesn’t leave much room for rent on a decent apartment. “I’m not chronically homeless,” Cliff explained. “I have a low, fixed income. It’s just that you get really crummy landlords when you can’t pay rent on a good property.”
Cliff said he was 38 years old the first time he found himself homeless, and he’s 50 now. Cliff said he’s grown to “accept that fact.” He figures he’s got a few more weeks of good weather before being homeless gets uncomfortable.
“This is an awesome place,” Cliff said. “Sister Dolly and all the people are very nice here. A lot of people would be hungry if it wasn’t for them.”
Beut Koug visits on Tuesday mornings. He’s from Sudan and is deaf. Serendipitously, just a couple of weeks before he began visiting for coffee, someone happened to drop off a computer program that helps those who are deaf communicate more effectively. Sister Dolly said,
“We knew right away who could use it.”
The space is inviting, with sofas, comfy chairs and plenty of room for sitting outside if weather permits. The coffee is always brewing and conversation about politics, children and other everyday topics is always animated. The sisters join right in and ask about family members and friends.
John is another homeless man who visits every week. He said he’s been homeless since he ran away at eight years old. Even if he had a bed to go home to at night, he’d rather sleep outside on the grass, he said.
He got his hand stuck in a shredder when he was working at a landfill facility at age 15. He just started getting disability benefits recently. John called himself an “entrepreneur” who can always come up with a way of making a few bucks every day, just enough to get by. He stores his clothes and belongings at various abandoned buildings and sometimes visits friends who let him sleep in their yard. John said he’s been picked up by the police a few times for a few different reasons.
“If I had an apartment it would be a waste of time and money,” John said. “I love being outside. It’s a freedom I feel.”
The people who come to the Tuesday morning hospitality find they will not be judged, and they will be welcomed. They are often hungry and the sisters feed them, with pastries and with the kind of mercy found in Franciscan spirituality.