Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"He was known to them in the breaking of the bread"

I was sad to read the New York Times obituary of Father David Kirk this past Monday. I didn't know Father Kirk very well, but I met him in the late 1960s when I was in my teens and worked for a time as a volunteer at Emmaus House, the ecumenical center for the homeless and disenfranchised that Father Kirk founded in East Harlem. I admired him very much.

(Emmaus House is, of course, named after this anecdote of the Risen Christ, which to my mind is the most beautiful story in the Bible. It's all about encountering God in the everyday, which of course was also the meaning of Emmaus House itself. The illustration above is by a contemporary Chinese artist, He Qi.)

Father Kirk represented a social movement few people today are probably aware of--left-wing Catholicism, with a strong emphasis on workers' rights, racial equality, caring for the poor, and peace advocacy. The founding figure of this movement in the US (and Father Kirk's personal mentor) was Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, and I was pleased to see that Father Kirk has been buried near Day at Resurrection Cemetery in Staten Island. My memories of Father Kirk are all bound up with what I know about Day and about other well-known left-wing Catholics of the 1960s and 70s, such as the clerical peace activists the Berrigan brothers and the pop artist Sister Corita.

Born in Mississippi in 1935, Father Kirk joined the civil rights movement, befriended Martin Luther King, Jr. (and went to prison with him), and worked with Dorothy Day on New York's Lower East Side. It was Day who urged him to launch his own mission house in Harlem where, she said, the city's needs were greatest.

Emmaus House passed through several incarnations, focusing, at different times, on support for civil rights, serving those trying to escape drug addiction, and the anti-Vietnam-war movement. During my time as a volunteer there, it served as a halfway house for newly-released prisoners, offering them help with drug or alcohol problems, job counseling, and advice on practical matters from finding an apartment to reconciling with a spouse of family. The staff even launched a couple of businesses to provide temporary employment for their clients, such as a moving company coyly dubbed Conex Movers (reverse the two syllables in the first word of the name to get the idea).

For me, however, my most vivid memories of Emmaus House are the Eucharist services led by Father Kirk or one of the other priests on staff. A group of us--mostly young people, of both sexes and of every racial, ethnic, and religious background--would gather on the sofas in the sunny high-ceilinged living room of the shabby old townhouse on East 116th Street and quietly bless, then share a bottle of cheap red wine and a crusty loaf of Italian bread from the corner bakery. I've since experienced hundreds of other Eucharists, almost all of them in settings that were far more overtly "devotional," but in very few have I been so aware of the hovering spirit of God. That spirit was present because of Father Kirk--may he rest in peace.

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