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Rev. Kirk, A Leader of Aid for the Poor


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

For 40 years, Emmaus House in Harlem has served the poor - offering food, shelter and, most importantly, spiritual comfort. It's a community where the poor serve the poor. Recently, the dozen or so residents buried their spiritual leader, the Reverend David Kirk. Father David died at the age of 72 last month.

NPR producer Kate Davidson visited the residence of the Emmaus House this week in Harlem, as she sought to learn more about Father David, a priest who emulated what he believed to be the social radicalism of Jesus.

KATE DAVIDSON: Daryl Wood(ph) met Father David over 20 years ago when he first came to Emmaus from the streets. It's been a rough road since then. But even now, he says he can still hear Father David's counsel.

Mr. DARYL WOOD (Resident, Emmaus House): Listen, just listen, show love - the most important thing with him was to show love, to see Christ in a stranger. And sometimes with the type of people we get at the door, it can be a little difficult to see, but that's - whenever the doorbell rings, I try to prepare myself to see Christ in a stranger.

DAVIDSON: He says that's because he too once knocked at that door.

Mr. WOOD: I lived out in the streets for about 11 years - sleeping under a bridge, in a tunnel with rats and garbage and stuff, standing on a corner of 50th and Seventh every night with a cup in my hand - begging for nickels, dimes and pennies.

Mr. WINIFRED DANIELS(ph) (Resident, Emmaus House): My name is Winifred Daniels. I used to smoke crack and I used to drink. Father David used to call it, the community of wounded. We all are wounded in one way or another and we're here to help one another.

DAVIDSON: Long-term residents Luis Santano(ph), Winifred Daniels and Daryl Wood, each remember meeting Father David for the first time.

Mr. LUIS SANTANO (Resident, Emmaus House): I came upstairs, I saw a man with a beard, T-shirt, food stains on the T-shirt...

Mr. DANIELS: And I kept looking at him and he says: What? I said you just don't remind me of a priest. He says but I'm not your traditional priest.

Mr. WOOD: Father David looked like a lumberjack. I could imagine him with an axe over his shoulder - someone who regularly trying to chop down a tree. But there was a heavenly glow about him.

Mr. SANTANO: Then he leaned back, took off his slippers and put his feet on the coffee table and I noticed that there was holes in his socks, and I said to myself, I'm home.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) All the way from Harlem.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine. All over Harlem, I'm going to let it shine. All over Harlem, I'm going to let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.

DAVIDSON: Father David's journey to Harlem began in America's segregated South in the 1930s. He was born into a poor family in Mississippi, where his father was what he called a dirt farmer. They later traveled through to the South in search of work. David Kirk grew up Baptist, though not especially religious. According to his nephew, Kirk Burrell(ph), David Kirk was aware of social injustice from an early age. Speaking from Texas, he recalled his uncle's story of being eight or nine years old.

Mr. KIRK BURRELL (Resident, Texas; Nephew of Father David Kirk) And he was sitting at the table in his house and there was a black woman that worked for the family, and she always sat at a different table. And he asked his mother, why does she not get to sit at the same table as they did; and she replied, well, that's just how it is. And he always said as a young boy, he felt that there was something not right about that.

DAVIDSON: In 1956, at the University of Alabama, he was part of a group who protected Autherine Lucy, the first black student to try to integrate the school. And he was deeply influenced by a Catholic chaplain on campus, who opposed segregation. But when David Kirk converted, it was to the Melkite rite, which he viewed as less reactionary than the Roman Catholic Church. He was eventually ordained a priest and returned to Alabama in the mid-60s to continue his civil rights work. But there was a problem.

Mr. BURRELL: He says, I was lonely in Mobile for brothers who shared the same radical vision of the Gospel.

DAVIDSON: That's nephew Kirk Burrell reading from an unpublished manuscript of his uncle's life. In it David Kirk described thinking about settling down, leading a normal life.

Mr. BURRELL: (Reading) But the gospel stuck like a grape in my throat. And one day, I left my family; I left everything; and caught a train to New York. I got off the train with $10 in my pocket and there happened to be a Catholic worker selling papers at the station. He took me home to Dorothy.

DAVIDSON: Dorothy was Dorothy Day. One of the founders of the Catholic worker movement, which espoused a radical vision of Christianity with an emphasis on social justice and experiencing the plight of the poor.

Mr. BURRELL: You know, I think he was moved with her whole concept of the house of hospitality. So she opened her door and anyone who needed a place to sleep, they came and they were instant family. And his idea was not sending money. He was very adamant about shelters - that shelters weren't the answer. His motto was a house for hospitality - to build a community.

DAVIDSON: Day persuaded him to open his community in Harlem. It and similar communities worldwide drew their names from a biblical story of two travelers on the road to Emmaus. They recognize Jesus only when they break bread with him.

By living with and forging a community of the poor, Father David tried to live the gospel. In the early years of Emmaus House, he lent his voice to the anti-Vietnam protests. He befriended Father Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and famous anti-war activist.

At the heart of their friendship, Father Berrigan says was a shared belief that modern war was in direct violation of the non-violence of Christ.

Father DANIEL BERRIGAN (Jesuit priest; Anti-war activist): David and even some of his residents who I think in the beginning felt particularly vulnerable before the law because they were technically homeless and were not white. They resolved, nonetheless, because they trusted us that they would take part in our sit-insand be arrested along with us, so that was marvelous. It increased the scope of the protest, because people who were denied housing and food and a proper place in the city were saying no to the war as well.

DAVIDSON: Over the next 40 years, Emmaus refined its vision and expanded its scope. At its height, the Emmaus House operated out of the five-story building that housed dozens of long term residents and served thousands of meals a month to the poor.

At various times, Emmaus created an in-house school, an emergency shelter, a food pantry and housing for people with AIDS. And it was primarily run by the formerly homeless people who gravitated to Father David's vision.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I got to cry sometime, I got to cry sometime. There's a trouble in my way, a trouble in my ways. I got to cry sometime, I got to cry sometime. I couldn't sleep last night, I couldn't sleep last night...

DAVIDSON: As Father David's health began to fail in recent years, Emmaus moved into a smaller building and scaled back some of its operations. But residents still put in six hours of work a day, the weekly food pantry and soup runs continued. And Father David continued his own spiritual journey - joining the Eastern Orthodox Church in 2004.

Daryl Woods says the day before Father David died, the priest criticized him for being irresponsible and not showing up at the house on time. Afterwards though, he says they talked and talked about God, about being a Christian, about how to find God in others.

Mr. WOOD: Eventually he got tired. And the last thing Father David said to me was Daryl, you know I see greatness in you. But you only try to do enough to get bye. He said, you need to try to work on achieving that greatness.

DAVIDSON: Luis Centeno manages Emmaus House. For the last three years he says he was the last person to talk with Father David at night and the first person to see him in the morning.

Usually, when he left Father David, the priest would ask him to lock the door.

Mr. LUIS CENTENO (Emmaus House): He just wanted peace and quiet because everyday here is, you know, it's very stressful. You're handling so many people, so many different issues coming at you. But that Tuesday night, he said, Luis, don't lock the door. Leave the door open.

DAVIDSON: On Wednesday, Emmaus House will open its doors to the destitute of Harlem for the weekly food pantry, the first they've been able to hold since Father David died.

The board of directors will also meet this week to discuss the future of Emmaus House. Beneath their resolve to carry on Father David's work, residents recognize that the future of their community is uncertain but of the many emotions coursing through the house this week, grief, celebration and determination, determination seems the strongest.

Kate Davidson NPR News.

Mr. WOOD: Once again, I'm Daryl Wood. And we're going to sing Father David's favorite song, the one we sang at his wake, "Soon and Very Soon."

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We're going to see the King. There'll be no more crying there, we are going to see the King... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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