Through the red doors, past walls of peeling paint, up the stairs, I enter a vast room with a high, arched ceiling and light streaming through enormous, stained-glass windows. Birds fly through the archways and hop along the floor and under the rows of round tables with multicolored tablecloths and hand-painted chairs in bright colors and patterns. Let it be plays over the speakers.
This was my first impression of Broad Street Ministry, where I have been coming to volunteer several days a week for the last couple months.
“Broad Street Ministry is a social service organization that opens its doors six days a week to the vulnerable population of Philadelphia.” Julia, the volunteer coordinator, explains in her orientation speech. I’ve heard it so many times now I can practically recite it from memory. “By vulnerable, I’m talking about folks who are experiencing homelessness, housing insecurity, food scarcity, mental health issues, violence, domestic abuse. We open up our doors and invite those folks in to the dining room so that they can be in a safe space for a little while, so they can get a delicious, nutritious, sit-down, tableside served meal, and so they can build a community with other guests, with staff members, and with volunteers.”
In addition to the meals Broad Street Ministry also has a personal care pantry where guests can get things like soap, shampoo, socks, and underwear, a clothing closet where they can get items of donated clothing, a nurse, and a mail table. Currently Broad Street Ministry is the mailing address for over 3000 Philadelphians who don’t have a permanent mailing address elsewhere. And it’s very important that they have one so they can get things like social security benefits, IDs, birth certificates, as well as communicate with loved ones.
The staff are incredibly friendly, and their chef takes his job very seriously. The food we serve always looks delicious. I still think about the first meal I served there: kielbasa on a sourdough roll with sauerkraut and German potato salad. A couple weeks later I noticed we were serving still-warm focaccia instead of the usual dinner rolls. “They’re transitioning to entirely homemade bread,” Julia explained.
Julia encourages us to talk to the guests during the meals. Many of them don’t have anyone to talk to on a regular basis, and sadly, Broad Street Ministry may be one of the few places they are treated with respect and dignity.
After a few weeks, I know many of the regular guests’ names. Some of them know my name and recognize me in Rittenhouse Square or on Locust Street. There is the man with bright blue electric guitar who carries on a constant stream of conversation with unseen people about everything from airplane wheels to Elvis’ kneecaps, the man who always dances to the music they play over the speakers and once told me, “In all my visits to Broad Street Ministry, I’ve never once heard a bad song,” the homesick kid trying to get back to his family in Ohio, the children that sometimes do homework as they eat. On one of the first, miserably cold days of fall, a woman told me of how she was sleeping under an overpass in Fairmont Park, and a truck came by and put her blankets and everything she had in a dumpster and took it away. Working at the mail table, guests often tell me about the things they’re waiting to receive. “I’ve been waiting 11 years for housing,” one woman tells me. Another says, “I really hope my check comes in. I don’t want to have to panhandle again.” Working mail, it struck me for the first time how hard most of these folks are trying to get back to some level of normalcy.
Once, I noticed one man looking at guitars in a catalog as I was serving him dinner. I asked if he was a musician, and he said he was a bassist, trying to save up to buy one again. We talked about music, about Jaco Pastorius and Joni Mitchell; he said he was trying to get his housing situation together by January and start teaching bass lessons. He gave me his contact info in case I wanted to learn.
On Thursdays after lunch they have an afternoon tea and set up an art table with construction paper, pens, paints and other art supplies. One woman brings a printout of a corner of Van Gough’s Starry Night and paints her own version of it each week. Another guest I talk to frequently is a very talented artist who draws portraits everywhere he goes, on the bus, at coffee shops, in the park. Some straightforward and realistic, others magical and psychedelic. He told me he just started teaching a class at the Institute for Community Justice, in which his students are painting a mural on one of the walls there. He draws it on a normal sized sheet of paper and then projects it on to the wall so that his students can trace the projected lines. Many of the staff and volunteers at Broad Street Ministry know him and his art, and he sometimes draws a crowd of people all eager to see his newest work.
One of the best things about my service year is that it has opened my eyes to all the amazing projects serving our community in Philadelphia, the hope fellow citizens pay forward to others, and the hope these projects bring to our world. Before I only saw the despair. From the Mural Arts Project we learned about from Ben Volta during our very first day of Artist Year orientation, using the talents of his students from local schools and participants in the Restorative Justice Guild to create collage-like large-scale, unified murals, to the little oasis that is the Norris Square community garden I worked on for several weeks, growing fresh produce in an alleyway in the middle of a forgotten urban landscape and selling it all to neighborhood locals for a dollar, inspiring and impactful people and projects abound. From the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education where I spent mornings planting native trees, to the Friends of Morris Park, a 147 acre area of West Philly that most Philadelphians I know have never even heard of, where I spent a day helping with trail maintenance and erosion control. From the self-described environmentalist vigilante I met in the woods who spends her free time in the Wissahickon with her loppers and mini chain saw removing the invasive vines taking over the native forest, to Project HOME’s potlatch, where I watched their formerly homeless residents stand up and share their artistic talents—singing, reciting poetry they had written, and displaying visual art they had created, and so many more. The more I talk to people about ArtistYear, the more I hear about other exciting projects happening around the city and around the world. The power any of us has as individuals, to create hope and inspiration for those around us.