Kirk Butler’s life has changed dramatically thanks to St. James’s Emmaus Ministry. He began living on the streets at nine years old, when his parents died. He spent 20 years in prison and was a drug addict for 50 years. Today, at 63, Butler is drug-free and has a place to call home.
“It’s been a long journey,” commented Butler. “I love where I am today.”
Butler is just one of the many people whose lives have been enhanced through the Emmaus Ministry, a movement to provide food, clothing and a human connection to the poor and disenfranchised.
Emmaus Ministry got its start in 2008 when Father John Manno, pastor at St. James, envisioned developing a presence on Syracuse’s South side.
Sheila Austin, director of St. James Emmaus Ministry, explained the impact the ministry has on those involved in it. “When we look outside of our cocoons and see other people in their lives and their struggles and bring the presence of Christ to them in a subtle way, it changes us,” she said. “We use food to have an encounter with them, to develop a relationship with these people to find out how we can help.”
At the very beginning of St. James’ outreach efforts, two St. James parishioners were preparing and sending out sandwiches for the men at the Oxford Street Inn, a Catholic Charities men’s shelter. One day, Father Manno, Austin, St. James parishioner Kathy Schwanke and four other women decided to visit the men at the shelter. “We were moved by their gratefulness, humility and the simpleness of their life,” remembered Austin. “We were received with joy and enthusiasm. One of the men asked me if we would be coming back to visit. They wanted to feel of value enough for us to come back. I said ‘yes.’ That’s when I understood that we needed to be committed. It was a profound experience for us.”
“It’s very powerful seeing their faces,” added Schwanke. The group decided that from then on, they would begin to prepare hot dinners for the men. Schwanke continues to do that today, along with 6 to 7 other women. They serve close to 150 men at the new Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter (which replaced “the Ox”) every other month from October to May. “They are very grateful,” said Schwanke. “The feeling I get from it is indescribable. I think feeding them is so powerful.”
Today, Emmaus Ministry is reaching out to many in the community. It provides foot care, haircuts, meals, holiday greeting card writing and holiday coffee and donuts for the men at the Catholic Charities Men’s Shelter, hot meals to Dorothy Day House, hot meals and other foods to the Bishop Foery Foundation, hot meals and baked goods to the Butternut Community Policing Center and 70 bags of groceries to Catholic Charities Expansion Housing residents and other hungry individuals throughout Syracuse through the Loaves and Fishes program. Through its “To the Streets Canteen,” hot food, clothing and personal care items are brought to the homeless twice a month and popsicles are distributed to the children and families of Syracuse’s South side during the summer. For the last two years the ministry has sponsored a Kick Off to Summer Cookout on the South side of Syracuse.
Two years ago, the ministry acquired the Hope Mobile, a van that transports volunteers and food and clothing to the homeless on the streets and at bridge encampments. Austin said she and Father Manno were distributing the supplies by car, but felt they needed something larger for the job.
The ministry has been well received by those in need. “It’s amazing,” said Austin. “Last Monday when we went out in the Hope Mobile, we ended up at the Rescue Mission. We gave them socks, gloves, hats and hot coffee. They lit up when we got there. We want to bring the presence of the Catholic Church to these people.”
Austin’s first visit to the Oxford Street Inn energized her so much that she decided to enlist the help of Holy Cross Parish in DeWitt and Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville to strengthen and expand the Emmaus Ministry. “They jumped at the chance to help out,” recalled Austin. Now, Emmaus Ministry is fortunate to have a good number of parishes, groups and individuals to work with St. James to accomplish their corporal works of mercy. They include Holy Cross Church and School in DeWitt, St. John the Evangelist in Camden, Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville, St. Lucy’s and Holy Family in Syracuse and St. Francis Xavier in Marcellus. In addition, Catholic Charities of Onondaga County, Onondaga Valley Presbyterian Church, Onondaga Community College, Le Moyne College, Jamesville DeWitt Middle School and Syracuse University are involved in the ministry.
St. James offers Confirmation classes the opportunity to come to the church for retreats and to complete service projects. On Jan. 17, Confirmation candidates from St. Francis Xavier in Marcellus and Our Lady of Lourdes and St. James of Syracuse gathered at the St. Marianne Cope Center for Outreach Room at St. James. They put together bags of necessities along with some socks and prepared a hot meal to serve to the men at the Catholic Charities shelter that evening.
“It completes a full circle,” said Austin. “They take things to the shelter and serve the men, put food into their hands — it’s a very powerful experience.”
When the confirmation students first arrive, Austin and Butler talk to them about the ministry.
Butler credits Austin for saving him from a life addicted to drugs. “It was through the grace of God that she [Austin] came down to the Ox one morning about seven years ago to get me to go to a drug program,” Butler explained. “I had two bags of heroin in my pocket, but I flushed them down the toilet. She grabbed my hand and took me to the doctor. She took an interest in me, a black man. I was surprised. God worked through Sheila and that is why I am where I am today. I thank Father Manno for the Emmaus Ministry and I look forward to talking to the kids about my journey.”
The students also attend Mass while there. “It’s at our Eucharist that we are fed and energized to go out and be disciples,” remarked Austin.
Austin said that her involvement in the Emmaus Ministry has been life changing. “It’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve done,” she said. “I loved nursing, but because of what the Holy Spirit has done, my faith is enhanced, full and joy-filled. It’s a joy to be able to share it with other people and to see how their faith is changed.”
The ministry is funded through individual donations. “It’s amazing the generosity that has been shown,” said Austin. “We’re always grateful for any donations. One hundred percent of the contributions go directly to our efforts to serve the poor.”
For more information about the Emmaus Ministry or to make a donation, call (315) 469-7789.