OVERSIMPLIFIED NOTES: DAVID KIRKS JOURNEY TO TRUTH AND FOR JUSTICE
Church was an unknown experience, except when sitting on the steps of a little wooden black church in Mississippi, listening to the music.
Events opening up to human consciousness and justice:
- At 12, became friends with CLINT, who worked for my father, a black man later accused of murdering his disappeared wife. I knew for many reasons, he was not guilty. He hid in the woods, and I daily brought him food, until he was able to flee to Louisiana about 10 days later. Almost a decade later, I discovered William Faulkner had written a story akin to my experience, another link to Faulkner in my life.
- In the apartheid South, got amazing permission to go to the black high school for 1 month, as editor of my h.s. paper, pretending to write a report on “black education.” I came out of that school shocked and radicalized and ready for the next year.
- Supreme Court integrates the first in the South, the Univ. of Alabama, and I become a part of a small group protecting Arthurine Lucy. Faulkner became a mentor, and we were in touch with others doing small things, like the sit-ins for hamburgers in Raleigh.
Move to Christianity:
n those days, I noticed that everyone seemingly involved in this movement were Christians. At the University of Alabama during the crisis, I went to all churches for support; the only persons who spoke for the equality and unity of humanity was a Catholic priest. All ministers were racist openly. Found the RC church more mysterious than “mystery”; protestant churches all centered on one man, preaching long. Someone told me that there was another half of the Church – “the Eastern churches”. I did not know the difference at the time, but nearest was the Melkite Catholic Church in Birmingham, much farther away- was a Greek Orthodox Church. I hitchhiked to Birmingham and found Fr. Joseph Raya, a dynamic, open extraordinary priest.
Fr. Joseph taught me Orthodox Christianity and a whole new way of looking at God, humanity, church, etc. Different because of its stress, its emphasis, its traditional sources from which it draws food, image and likeness of God leading to the deification of the human person, the God of love unfolding himself into time, the really real, the ground of our being, living to our fullest potential (which is God), Christ and the New Humanity, the spirituality of the heart, the goodness of people. I can remember a hundred teachings because they shocked me, knowing what I had heard from “religion” in the deep South.
I set about after I realized I had found my home and was duly baptized and chrismated; it seemed like there was a chorus of hundred angels and spiritual beings in that lonely chapel that day.
I set about LIVING DAILY MY CHRISTIANITY. I had the Scriptures and a book of the Fathers from Fr. Joseph. I took each point and started practicing, as I grasped each point. Life simply suddenly presenting me with situations, to which I had to respond as a Christian.
- Suddenly, I got a letter from my draft board. I was a patriotic American and never thought about these issues. But somewhere I read: don’t kill, don’t even hold onto anger; if you live by the –gun, you perish by the gun. I presented myself to my draft board in a little town, Prichard, Alabama. They had never heard of an Eastern Church. In those days, no one got draft exemption except Quakers. I simply told them, “I am an Eastern Christian, an Eastern Catholic, a part of the great Church of Antioch; my faith does not allow me to kill nor to be a part of any organized effort to kill, dominate of oppress”. They gave me no hint; I left, knowing I would be arrested shortly. I’m told I was the first non-Quaker not to go to jail, usually 4-7 years.
- I found no organization doing the works of mercy I could join with, so I started doing small things, visiting nursing homes, fasting totally on Fridays and using that money to feed someone, etc. I had to figure things out. I foolishly gave away most of my clothes, but had to buy them back. Soon, I heard of a woman named Dorothy Day, who started to advise me.
- There was no way a black and white person could meet and discuss human issues. I had heard of a group in NYC for such a purpose called the CATHOLIC INTERRACIAL COUNCIL. I went to Archbishop Toolen in Mobile and asked permission to start such a meeting. He almost threw me out of his office, “We don’t need more nigger agitators here. Don’t come back here with such ideas!” In anguish and despair, I wrote Dorothy. She wrote back on a postcard words which have guided my life ever since, “YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO DO GOOD. THE GOSPEL GIVES YOU THAT FREEDOM.”
- Graduating from college, there was pressure on me to live now a “normal” life. I got a job teaching but I was in trouble immediately by trying to open up the world for my students. I invited a series of speakers I thought they would never hear: a Rabbi, and a later a black minister, in a still segregated school. I found, as would later happen, a student would tape my talks (her father was head of the White Citizens Council, the new front for the KKK) which began telephone threats, frightening my mother. At the same time, I saw myself settling in “normal” life. I was about to buy a car and other things which would put me into debt and settled down for some years; I got engaged. It became clearer and clearer: this is not what I’m meant to do, this is not what I want, this is quicksand. I wrote Dorothy what was happening to me and asked to come to the Worker. She had a young worker write to me (as I would do later): COME, BUT BUY A ROUND TRIP TICKET.
In 3 days I cancelled the job, cancelled the car, cancelled the engagement, packed a small suitcase, and caught a train to NYC with $10 in my pocket and joy in my hear. I left the train station, saw St. Francis church and went there to pray. There Ammon Hennessy was selling the Catholic Worker paper. He took me home to Dorothy.
THE NEXT STATE IN THIS GREAT AND MIGHTY ADVENTURE WAS BEGINNING…
(EDUCATION) Coming from a poor family, I had to finance any education I got. I’ve worked since I was 14 after school, raised a bull to sell for clothing, etc. At the University of Alabama, I had scholarships but always had jobs: waiter in the college dining room; telephone answerer in the town whorehouse (actually it gave me a lot of time to study). Picking up garbage cans in the evening with a donkey and cart etc. While at the Catholic Worker for 2 years, I did my Masters at Columbia University; I found that if I had a small job on campus I got free tuition, so I worked a couple of hours daily in a peculiar little medical library section, where nobody seem to come and I could study. In Rome at the Pontifical Beda College, for what its worth, I did the equivalent of a theologicate. After Emmaus started, I taught classes at night to make income for Emmaus—St. Johns University, Fordham, Christian Brothers College, New Rochette-
Boyhood in the Deep South
When people ask me sometimes about my journey, expecting something awesome, often I will try to keep my feet on the ground by honestly saying that I was born in Louisville, Mississippi March 12, 1935, 65 miles from Tupelo, Mississippi, where Elvis Presley was born about 3 months later. I was born poor and into an apartheid south, my family moving about like working gypsies just staying alive.
But I never really knew I was poor. My mother took pieces of used clothing, patched and reworked them, starched them like a brick, and I went to school feeling like the best kept boy in town.(With my hair curled; the older girls loved to play with it!) Of course, our hosing always gave me away. When we lived on one side of the Mississippi River, in Mississippi, we lived in a little house my father built, which my fellow students saw as a “log cabin”. When we lived on the other side of the River in Arkansas with its history of floods, we lived in a flat house built on 20’ tall stilts, ready for floods, which shamed me. In school, once, we were told to draw our houses and I did so, cutting the stilts down to about 4’. There was always one nasty kid who would shout, “That’s not really his house, Teacher. He lives on Stilts”. Wherever, I was taught personal responsibility, taking care of myself materially at the age of 13, working after school and raising a bull annually to sell for clothes for myself and my sisters. This pattern continued as I continued my education—BA at the University of Alabama, where I had scholarships and held down two jobs, waiting on tables in a restaurant and answering the nighttime phone in the local whore house (plenty of time to study), while later at the Catholic Worker, doing my MA at Colombia University Exchanging some “work” hours in the library for free tuition, etc. etc.
The question often asked me is how did you move from living within a racist family context (my grandfather owned slaves, a pride to most) and Jim Crow South? You only think about this in hindsight. The fact that we were poor meant that the nearest white people we lived near might be 10 miles away; my playmates were almost always black, living in the shacks near us, sharecroppers. When I was told at 12 abruptly I could not play with my friends, I was crushed. This was a question no one would answer and I was determined to find the answer.
Seeking the Truth on the Banks of Mississippi
I was blessed with an older brother who was a dreamer like me who kept telling me again and again, read, read, read, and listen to others who can add to your knowledge, learn, and be open. I don’t know how it could happen, but in a little used bookstore in Elaine, Arkansas, I found 2 small books, one by then V.P. Henry Wallace on socialism and singer/actor Paul Robeson on racism and genocide. Obviously, nobody on the River was going to be buying these 2 books and I negotiated for the two at a dime each. The lady who sold them to me looked like she was glad to get rid of them, but she was nervous as if she was selling hardcore porn to a 12 year old.
I stayed up all night reading them both. I was excited. I was so excited. It’s like I had been living in a world of darkness and suddenly I little light hit on me. I would find this experience would happen again and again in my life. A little more light cracking through the door, a little piece of truth. From now on, I knew I was to become a seeker of truth, even though I had yet to meet the Spirit of Truth. I found a field, oh, my, with pearls of great price and my task was to dig for the truth. But something told me: this is dangerous, you are alone, and this must be secret journey.
All through my boyhood, I must say I loved the South in certain ways: the easygoing life, my mother’s deep sense of hospitality to others which led to my own natural sense, the sounds of things– like a swinging screen door or rain on the tin roof of a small porch where I slept. The smells of collard greens or fresh butter freshly churned. The Huckleberry Finn moments on the River. All these years I was dreaming and it was always this: That one day I was going to leave these towns which were becoming painful to me, and I was going to travel to a great Golden City, where I could see everything and do everything. And in this Golden City I would find a heroic brother hood or community who would be risking their lives for humanity or truth.
My farm job was often as water boy. I was a water boy in the cotton fields, bucket half my size, dragging water from person to person. We normally had not had “running waste” or a bathroom (“an outhouse outside, saving excrement to fertilize vegetables; (we were organic without knowing it!) But I also brought buckets and buckets for house cooking and cleaning. Always dreaming of the heroic community up ahead, I would forget and leave my buckets at every fence, and have to repeat it all. But the spring of clear water seemed “in Technicolor” like a scene from “The Yearling”… When I got to the spring, I would lie on the grass and dig my toes and hands into the rich dark soil. Sometimes I actually got naked, and would look with wonder at the clouds and sky, and at the beauty around me. Sometimes I think this was a boy’s first experience with God, sensing the glory of God’s creation. How all this beauty happened, I wondered.
By 17, I had read myself into democratic socialism, the harmony and equality of peoples and sharing of resources. My brother saw me filling out an application to the SOCIALIST PARTY USA. He tore it up, shouting, “If you fill that out, you would never be able to get a job in America!” Of course, he was right; it was the middle of the McCarthy era, on which anyone who was even into human rights might be suspected, lose his job or even arrested. I simply got another application and became a member. My point was that while my brother was right, and I did not know then exactly where I was headed, I knew I was not headed Senator McCarthy’s way. I don’t know how it happened, but I must have been the first young applicant to the party. In any case, Norman Thomas that grand old man of American socialism, presidential candidate, and human rights defender of everyone, took an interest in me, my first mentor. He gave me a reading list, and would often send me books you couldn’t find in Southern Libraries. If I asked him questions about China, he would begin there and put me in touch with Pearl Buck, writer of great books about China at that time. She would type eight page letters to this boy! If I asked how corporations would be controlled over and against greed, he called Upton Sinclair and would call and send books, including his book on the meat packing industry. I was going to school outside of the established school with great teachers.
RACISM: WHITE BOYS CAN JUMP
Racism. As a sophomore in high school in Alabama, my girlfriend Gale and I were editors of the school paper. At the time, there was literally no way you could meet with black people and have a real conversation. I had to know, We went to the school superintendent and asked if we could do a report on black schools; we felt our chances were on the level of a snow ball in hell, but we could try. We were allowed for 2 weeks, extended to a month, to attend full time at a black school. The conditions were as bad as expected. More important: we found ourselves surrounded by young black students and teachers who, too, wanted to ask questions, like, “If I can cook your food why can’t I sit down and eat it with you?” (An English teacher).
I came out of that month radicalized and ready for my first year at the University of Alabama. Suddenly the Supreme Court announced the desegregation of education facilities, the first to be Ms. Arthurine Lucy at the University of Alabama that fall. A handful of us formed a protection group to surround her to classes. Mobs with broken down cars and shotguns sticking around. Students were acting like mobs. I went around to all the chaplains asking for help. Every Protestant chaplain said race separation was “God’s Will”, and only a Catholic priest affirmed us through this curiosity, I started looking at religion, wondering why the “catholic” side of Christianity better understood humanity. This began superficial search into churches; Friends took me to their Baptist or Methodist church services, but they were more centered on one man speaking. And the RC church seemed more “mysterious” than “mystery”. I stopped the search for a few months.
In the meantime, violence filled the campus. This was a month after the same students danced and applauded LOUIS ARMSTRONG’s concert (not caring that no hotel would let him and his band stay so we had to find places in black homes). On the last day, going with Arthurine to class, a violent shouting mob chased her, we rushed her into the nearby library, locked the doors, moved every student or worker out. We stayed there til 3am, then skipped her out to safety when everyone seemed to be gone, tucked her on the floor of the backseat, covered by a blanket. Arthurine was alive and back home. She was never allowed to return. Years later, under President Kennedy, two other black students entered and ended segregation there.
It was not pleasant for the few of us who defended her. Just not the usual Friendliness. Except I was picked up by a car of a few white racists, driven to a corn field, beat up, and left there. A farmer picked me up on a nearby road and took me to the university hospital. I was ready to go jump in clear water again. I was getting closer to finding that heroic community up ahead.
Before this Alabama crisis and during it, I felt I needed someone who was both southern and with integrity to help me figure out what to do. Ironically, I saw a film that summer; based on a book by William Faulkner, (the Nobel Prize winner) INDRUDER IN THE DUST, still lived in his life home in Oxford, Mississippi. I had read that he never answered letters, but this film made me think he understood my situation, and wrote to him for council. INTRUDER was about a southern white boy who unintentionally develops a relationship with a black man and helps the latter when he is accused of murder. When I was still a “RIVER RAT”, as we were called, in Arkansas, my father had a co worker, a black man named Clint and his wife. I had little to do with black adults, but Clint was different. He would teach me things about the river and the trees and things that grow in the earth and what you could eat if you ever got lost. We had a friendship. Suddenly, police were there when Clint’s wife disappeared and assumed murdered. I just knew that Clint did not do it. I saw how she Sarah was when Clint was doing work for my father in the town, he would be working in the cotton field, and as a water boy, I would see her and a handsome man slip off into the woods together, separately saying they were going to the bathroom. I followed them once or twice and they were “doing dirty things”. But I did not want to hurt Clint and did not tell anyone. She disappeared, others told about their fights and the police finally said, “Just another nigger killing a nigger”, I felt she ran of with that man, who never showed up again but nobody would even listen to a boy. I felt that Clint had gone into the woods, where he used to show me things: I found him there. Every night at 7:30, I brought food and blankets. “Sure as I know”, my suspicious mother would say, “There was enough chicken left from last night to eat tonight”. After awhile, I told him where Daddy had tools and there was one I never saw him use and he could take that and sell it to get to Louisiana”. He hugged me goodbye, calling me “Davy”, as he always did.
17, a Socialist; 18 an Eastern Christian; a boy and Mr. Faulkner
Anyway, I began correspondence with Faulkner every couple of days; things were happening fast. He had good advice on organizing, on inter-connecting (suggested, as I did, reaching the students who were sitting in at drugstores etc in North Carolina, South Carolina, planning the freedom rides etc- I realize I was a part of the pioneer network, pre-civil rights, before the larger Martin Luther King campaigns, to which I related after as well. But please understand: I was never a leader; I was a foot soldier, there to support which I thought was the white person’s role). Faulkner released one letter to me as his personal statement on civil rights, which was printed in every paper in the nation. Later, this event and correspondence showed up in a dozen biographies of Faulkner and recently in a book, LETTERS THAT SHAPED AMERICA, a set representing each decade of history: Jefferson and Lafayette for 1800’s for example; the 50’s Faulkner & Kirk. I had all that correspondence till the next year. A Faulkner professor told me at University of Alabama, “that it’s worth a fortune. If you ever sell it, I’ll pay what they are worth”. I was broke and hungry. Dr. O.B. Emerson. I sent them to Washington DC where he was for the summer, “I trust, as you say, you will pay me what they are worth”. He sent me a $10 check, and I was so angry and hungry. Hunger won. I cashed it and bought 15 hamburgers.
50 years later, a friend sees on the internet, the University of Alabama celebrates these days of Arthurine Lucy pride, and publishes a booklist, celebrating with letters of William Faulkner and David Kirk in a special anniversary banquet.( Back then I got no respect). I can still smell the corn field.
The Story of Emmaus
In 1966, Fr. David Kirk founded Emmaus in Harlem with the blessing of his Melkite bishop. Starting in an abandoned building, he determined not to have a blueprint but to wait for Harlem to tell him about its needs. Soon, a mother and a child in a cold winter were thrown out of their home. The same day, an old man who had no heat in his building moved into Emmaus rather than freeze. Emmaus had found its calling.
Later, we discovered that many other Emmaus communities had developed around the world, without any connection. Except most of them were an off-shoot of Abbe Pierre’s Emmaus communities, which began in Paris in 1949.
Abbe Pierre was a well known member of the Resistance during World War II in a parish on the Swiss Border. If you were in trouble, if you were Jewish, Communist or an anti-facist, the code word was to see, “Abbe Pierre,” i.e. Fr. Henri de Groues who would take you over the mountains. “Abbe Pierre” became a hero in that war, mailing himself in a mailbag into Algeria to beg for arms for the Resistance, taking Charles DeGaulle’s brother on his shoulders over the mountains. After the war, he kept his code name, and the homeless of the war gathered around him. They build their own ramshackle housing, set up recycling stores to make income, and set up tents filled with homeless people surrounding Parliament until a bill for housing was voted in.
Fr. David came from a journey which involved two years working with Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Atlanta, and another two with Dorothy Day in the Bowery, eventually to be ordained a priest of the poor in Jerusalem and starting Emmaus.
Emmaus, thus remained a scattered movement of the Spirit. But in 1969, Abbe Pierre called for a meeting of communities to form an international organization. We ment in Lausanne, Switzerland, in the old League of Nations building. The newspapers called it the “Parliament of the Poor.” There we founded EMMAUS INTERNATIONAL, headquarters in Paris, to coordinate the movement. Thus, Emmaus/ Harlem was the first member of Emmaus International, and Fr. David to this day remains on its International Administrative Committee. He remains an “Elder” of the international organization, as well as the President of Emmaus Harlem (named by its Melkite Bishop).
Emmaus has not spread in the USA perhaps because Americans emphasize charity rather than justice and the work ethic. Emmaus/ Harlem has given birth to some six of the major social agencies of New York City and to other Emmaus Houses in Atlanta, Washington, San Francisco, Virginia, all of which became independent.
We are the sower of seeds.
The History of Emmaus as a Melkite Ministry
As a humanist and socialist, my conversion to Jesus Christ in the Church, 1953, came in the midst of violence and race riots at the University of Alabama, when the Supreme Court demanded that the first Black student, Arthurine Lucy, be admitted to a southern university. After my baptism and chrismation, I studied Scriptures with Fr. (later Archbishop) Joseph Raya and somehow Matthew 25 and Luke 4 struck me like lightning. The mission of Jesus, I knew, was my mission. However, in those days there were no lay organizations serving others. Somehow, I heard of Dorothy Day and wrote her, asking how I could fulfill this mission in such a situation.
“You can do these things personally, visit the sick in the hospitals, beg for groceries for a hungry family you may know, stand up with them when you see injustice,” she wrote back. There were no way blacks and whites could meet and discuss problems. Therefore, I went to the Roman Archbishop in Mobile and asked permission to start a Catholic Interracial Council with a then new and unknown minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., recently assigned to Montgomery. The Bishop refused and I anxiously wrote Dorothy. “You do not need permission to do good; the Gospel gives you that freedom,” she wrote back. Dorothy had clearly given me a direction for my life.
I was lonely in Mobile for brothers who shared the same radical vision of the Gospel. I was about to accept a teaching job, get married and buy a car. But the Gospel stuck like a grape in my throat. In one day I left my family, I left everything and caught the 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. There I served in the Bowery for 2 years while completing my MA in Social Thought at Columbia University.
In 1960 I left Dorothy and the Catholic Worker work for the poor to study for the priesthood in Rome, for the purpose of returning to work as a priest among the poor. The first Eastern Christian work among the poor in the history of North and South America.
1- Patriarch Maximos IV sponsored me for studies for the Patriarchal clergy for the United States of America with the condition that I work, not in a parish, but in a ministry for the poor. “You are studying and you are being ordained a priest for the poor,” not for parochial and parish duties, he stressed. (Ordination sermon and letter Reg. XV No 315).
Dorothy Day came to Rome and together we met the Patriarch and explained her work and the context of my future ministry; It was a wonderful meeting of minds and hearts. (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, 1972).
We were clearly following the canons of the first Ecumenical Councils and the directives of the Fathers. The Patriarch arranged that I be exempted from the courses basically for the Latin rite at the Pontifical Beda College, supplemented by studies at the Russicum and Oriental Institute. I then was sent on a 9 months work/study trip to Eastern Christian ministries to the poor in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel-Palestine and Egypt.
2- On the Feast of Transfiguration 1964 (also Hiroshima Day) I was ordained a priest for the poor in Jerusalem at the Melkite Basilica of St. Ann, I chose this Feast because it stated how humanity could either be destroyed or transformed with energy. My first Liturgy was in the Chapel of Christ Weeping Over The City on the Mount of Olives and a proper place to begin a diakonia to the urban poor, weeping by Harlem the river. On my way to Jerusalem I stopped in Istanbul on my 4th visit to the Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople; He blessed me: “We should be co-sponsors of these works of mercy with Eastern Catholics; it would be the true way to unity.”(Byzantine Catholic World-8/64).
3- In 1964 I served my pastoral year in Birmingham, Alabama, with Fr. Raya’s encouragement, while working on Martin Luther King’s team (in Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, the major year of Civil Rights actions). When there was delay in setting up our diocese, the Roman Bishop of Miami offered me the Melkite Parish in Miami. But the Patriarch wrote me “DO NOT FORGET” you were ordained for the poor, not for parochial duties. Wait for the new Bishop and your mission can begin.”(Patriarchal Letters).
4- The Melkite Diocese was established; I met with the new Melkite Bishop Justin at St. Anne’s Church in New Jersey with Fr. Albert Gorayeb and Fr. Lyle Young, where we outlined and discussed our proposal. “This must be a part of the work of our church, diakonia,” the Bishop said joyfully and gave us his blessings to found the ministry of Emmaus and buy a house.
Alas, Cardinal Spellman disagreed. Immediately he called me in and told me. “work for the poor belongs to the Roman rite.” I respectfully disagreed, “this would be good news for Eastern Christians at the Last Judgement;” a public battle began; National progressive Catholic leaders led a large protest write-in and the Archdiocese backed away.
(“The Cardinal, Dorothy Day and David Kirk”, AMERICAN POPE, Biography of Cardinal Spellman;
“David and Goliath”, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE 1967).
5- The Emmaus ministry grew and became a pioneer in housing, grass roots organizing, AIDS care, legal justice for the poor, urban community, etc. Emmaus became the largest and most holistic Catholic ministry among the adult homeless in United States (a larger Covenant House served young people under 21). It is the only Catholic Center for the homeless, hungry and abandoned in Harlem with 2,000,000 people and it is MelkiteCatholic Center.
6-Emmaus has been strongly affirmed as a Melkite ministry by all Patriarchs and Bishops. What the Patriarchs and Bishops have confirmed, let no man put asunder. Some are working to destroy this work blessed by God and His Church, but in the end God and His call to house the homeless and feed the hungry will triumph over enemies. Not only our Bishops have refused continual attempts at takeover by the Archdiocese of New York (Canon Law says that a priest must be defended and supported by his Bishop) and the Patriarch Maximos has strongly supported us since our first day and his 1st day as Patriarch.
At a Christian-Jewish meeting, Cardinal Spellman asked Maximos IV, “What are you going to do about David Kirk?” The Patriarch responded: “That is our business”. The Patriarch affirmed strongly that Emmaus was a very special Melkite work for the poor. They also saw the importance of Emmaus in New York City: “It is good we Eastern Catholics have this mission to the poor in New York City, the roof/top of the world… a prophetic sign of our Melkite Church of the Future.”(Patriarchal letter October 23rd 1981).
AFFIRMATION OF EMMAUS AS A MELKITE MINISTRY BY ALL BISHOPS
1-My 2nd Bishop, Joseph Tawill, spoke clearly:
“Our Diocese strongly encourages and sponsors this wonderful work of Emmaus. I gave a talk before President Reagan and American Bishops on ‘the marvelous work and recent development of Emmaus House’. The work you do challenges our faith… Thank God we are represented as a diocese in this royal realm…in your work for the poor: It is the whole Melkite Church you are representing… This is your vocation: to work for the poor. You have become known here and around the world… Even at the Bishops’ meetings, the Bishops asked to know more about your personal journey”. (Letters 6/29/81—3/29/82—4/14/88)
2-Our 3rd Bishop, Ignatius Ghattas in his common letter which no one could fail to understand: “All priests and people… support Emmaus House, our Melkite ministry for the homeless and poor, fully sponsored by our Diocese. When Cardinal O’Connor visited Emmaus, he proclaimed: ‘Emmaus is the most important work of the Church in New York City’. When our holy Patriarch made his many visits to Emmaus, he kisses the floor as holy ground and tells the workers, the homeless, ‘that they will walk into the kingdom ahead of him’. It is amazing to see how much Emmaus has done with so little money. There is hope in Harlem because our Melkite Church is a tower of hope there among the poor. Become a partner with Emmaus and help our Church be a light to the churches of God and a hope to the poor”. (Bishop’s letter to all priests and people-5/3/91).
3-My 4th Bishop, John Elya, at first showed enthusiasm and concern for Emmaus:
“I know the heavy cross you carry…and the Gospel vision that few understand and even fewer actually live. Yours is a lonely vocation, brother; the Lord had to go it alone, rebuked, abused, kicked around, like people sentenced to death. Don’t expect less, David. You and Abbe Pierre have in God put something together for the poor that is EXTRAORDINARY”.
In the Bishop’s Homily at his Installation he said:
“I am too please to welcome a delegation from Emmaus, our Melkite center for the homeless in Harlem, New York. Their presence illustrates the fact that our Melkite Church in universal, that it is truly catholic and goes beyond ethnic bounds. Welcome! Jonathan, Charles, Luis, and of course, Fr. David. God bless you”. (Sophia Magazine).
Notes on a Journey on a Road to Emmaus
I do not know that I ever thought about God, or if God was, in my boyhood. My boyhood passed like a swallows flight, living on both sides of the Mississippi River. We were poor, but I never really new it. Once we lived in a house on stilts twice a man’s height, ready for floods, with an outhouse, lamp light, no running water. I was waterboy among sweating field workers in cotton fields and waterboy, bringing numerous daily buckets of water from a spring, for washing clothes, house cleaning, baths. I would often lay in the grass by this stream, sometimes naked, dig my toes in the grassy earth, look up at a blue sky and trees waving with the wind and seeing a kind of geography of the universe. I would lay on the grass dream about a golden city up ahead and a heroic brotherhood there, battling for justice. Listening to the thrilling whistling of the Southern Railroad, rushing into the future.
Sometimes I think this boyhood scene was the groundwork for a peep into the universe of the kingdom up ahead that is God, and the dreams and visions I could hold to my heart. Two visions have overwhelmed my life, socialism and Christianity. Even as a little boy I had eyes that could see and I saw deeply: racism, sharecropping, nigger shacks, lynching before the courthouse square, hound dogs, white citizens council. Since the nearest white boy was 10 miles away, my playmates were black kids, sharecroppers, until I was 13. After then, there was no place, no space where you could simply speak with a black person. Filling this gap, I read and read and read; even as a waterboy in the cotton fields, I would break for lunch to time with a 30 minute radio show for blacks and there I soaked myself in Robert, Bessie Smith, Mahlia Jackson and even beloved Paul Robeson. I saw more and more clearly how injustice and poverty ravaged the land and how socialism was a vision of democratic sharing of all resources and all human possibilities. This was during the heavy McCarthy years. My father discovering my application to the democratic Socialist Party, tore it up, “If you had signed this, you would never get a job in America.” I quietly got another application and at 17, I was a proud card-carrying Socialist.
Probably the only one in Alabama at the time! I see no other reason Norman Thomas, that grand socialist humanitarian, took a personal interest in me, send books recommending reading and we went back and forth writing about ideas. Eventually, when I eventually caught the train rushing to New York City, we became friends and in the end he showed me how to live when you are sick and old, give a letter to the NY TIMES about some urgent issues from his nursing home bed(?).
My last year of high school – my family were gypsies and I had a different school every second year it seems—I decided I had to confront the cruel issue of racism, try to stand in another persons shoes, so to speak. Editor of the high school paper, in the days before any desegregation, two of us asked the Super of Education to let us enroll in a black high school for 1-2 months and do a paper on black education; amazingly, he approved. Those 40 days had me seemingly representing the whole white race, as teachers and students bombard me with question I could not answer. I left that school radicalized and ready for action.
Don’t look back, wisdom tells us, and yet I do look back while I do look forward to Eden up ahead.