In Your Midst
An Afternoon at the FAMILY KITCHEN
July 2004

On a warm summer night at the Family Kitchen, there’s a flurry of activity surrounding Matt Zemek who’s working the door. The Family Kitchen serves meals five nights a week for women, children, families, and single men over 55.

One element of Matt’s job is to screen guests. “We ask single men if they’re under 55, but we don’t ask for ID or papers. We respect their dignity,” he explains.

The Family Kitchen is part of the Catholic Worker Movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, and grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person. Today over 185 Catholic Worker communities remain committed to non-violence, voluntary poverty, prayer, and hospitality for the homeless, exiled, hungry, and forsaken.

The Family Kitchen at St. James has been operating since 1975; Kathleen O’Hanlon has been the director since 1987. She oversees recruitment of volunteers, supervises preparation of meals, communicates with the head cooks, maintains and extends the relationships with the area markets and food banks. Matt assists her in those tasks, in addition to doing laundry, making coffee, moving and clearing the food boxes and crates. “I try to keep the trains running on time,” he explains.

Volunteers at the Family Kitchen are from all ages and all walks of life.  Some help out once, some once a week for twenty-five years!  All are welcome.  To volunteer, call 206-322-2447.

As the meal winds to a close, people are leaving, carrying sacks and plastic bags, filled with leftovers or with fresh fruit. And almost without exception, they’re smiling.

“Thanks for joining us today,” Matt calls out to an older man. He answers him with a tremendous grin.

A trio of volunteers—Bette Mandich, her best friend Nell DelCiello, and her cousin Rosemary Young—are just about to take off in their minivan parked outside. They began helping out at the kitchen in January 2004.

“We do fruit and desserts. We take our fruit salad very seriously,” Bette said, smiling.

Bette’s background is as a sales rep for a Fortune 100 company. Other than some tutoring this is her first real volunteer gig. “More than anything, it’s given me a sense of humility. To see Christ in every person in there.

“It’s the volunteers that inspire me,” Bette continues. “These people we’ve met who work so hard... they’re quietly extraordinary. If I talk about them too much I’ll start crying.” Too late; no sooner were the words spoken than tears were gliding down her cheeks.

The Family Kitchen is their version of ‘girls’ night out.’ “It’s our Monday night thing,” said Nell. “Instead of playing cards, bridge or something, we come to Family Kitchen. Then we go out for coffee or something afterward.”

Bette’s cousin, Rosemary Young, a parishioner from St. Mary Magdalene in Everett, said, “We travel 45 minutes to an hour to be here. But we’re getting a lot more out of it then we give.”

Nell explains: “We love these people. And we try to treat them with dignity. We take great care of the food, both in our preparation, and presentation. You should see some of the meals served, they can be so beautiful and artistic looking.

“The guests thank us, but we thank them. We say ‘Thank you. God bless you.’ Just like it says in the oculus, ‘I’m in your midst as one who serves.’ To serve someone else, that’s what God wants us to do. And we’re so thankful to have the opportunity. I wouldn’t miss it.”

Rosemary interrupted: “Nell had a ruptured retina a few weeks ago and she still came!”

Nell explained her inspiration: the Family Kitchen helps her to live what we celebrate at Mass; she tries to pass this grace along to the guests each Monday night.

“We’re so lucky to have Father Ryan as our shepherd. You see Christ in him. He knows us and calls us by name. He’s so non-judgmental, he’s the one that sets the example.”

All three agree: Monday is now their favorite night of the week. “You think you’re doing a service, that this is you giving,” explained Nell. “But it’s not. It fills you up.”

And that’s the way it is at the Family Kitchen, a chain of humble, dedicated service. Everyone seems to point to someone else’s contribution. And our friends, the guests, are truly the heart of everything that’s happening.

Matt says the fuel for The Family Kitchen is Dorothy Day’s mission. “When she said she believed in the dignity of a person, she embraced that in a two-fisted way. Hers was an authenticity and tenacity in loving the down-and-out that is almost unmatched. We cannot do our work without that dignity. That continues today. It is foremost in our hearts and in our purpose.

“We might offer more vegetables than some places, and maybe our meals are more nutritious,” Matt said. “But the real difference is we make everything with love. We serve everything with love. And that makes everything taste better.”

Scout Colmant is a freelance writer and a member of the St. James Young Adults Committee.

Link to other articles in the July 2004 issue

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