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Called to Do the Truth

The new life offered at Emmaus House is community, which affirms the dignity of each person by sharing hope, love and faith.

by Thomas Riley
photos by Joan Tedeschi


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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.

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Tags: Poor/Poverty Eastern Churches Priests Homes/housing Employment