Blessed are those who care
At the Mustard Seed, groups from different faith traditions work together to help the poor
By Susanne Janssen
Worcester, Massachusetts, is an honest, traditional blue-collar town with circa 184,000 inhabitants. The first European settlers arrived in 1674, and the city, with its many historical buildings and hallmark three-decker houses, became a center for manufacturing and machinery. However, after World War II many of the good-paying blue-collar jobs moved away and poverty’s many faces began to appear.
The New England-style houses in certain neighborhoods are run down, and Worcester retains a “down at the heels” reputation despite the fact that it is home to many vibrant colleges and industries. A New York Times reporter once described Worcester as “the utility closet of the Northeast.” Bruce Springsteen started his 1988 tour here, an act of solidarity with a town in transition.
Now medical school education and health services offer greater possibilities of work, and Worcester has become even more a college town and home to the world-renowned University of Massachusetts Medical School. Yet these jobs require a different kind of education and preparation that leaves out too many of its local residents.
You find the poor on the streets of the once pretty, now shabby neighborhood called Piedmont/Main South. On this Wednesday afternoon, they are waiting to get food for their pets, which for some is the only companion they are able to trust. At the same time, families stand in line for a box full of food to help them get through the week. Their haven is the Catholic Worker house there, named “The Mustard Seed,” where since 1972 people have dedicated their lives to live out these works of mercy.
Every weeknight, they feed between 100–180 people. At 5pm, diners start to pour into the small house. They help themselves to coffee and some donated pastries, and stay to chat. A church group has sewn sleeping bags out of old blankets, and soon the whole supply is gone. Since the weather is nice, some sit outside on the benches and enjoy the sun. The menu is written on a whiteboard on the wall: “Tonight pizza and salad.” A Catholic parish from a nearby town orders this all-time favorite once a month.
The early years
Michael Boover greets the guests and the helpers. He is one of those who heard Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day speaking at Worcester State College (now University) back in 1972. “Blessed are the poor” are words that burned in his heart.
Her thoughts found fertile ground: “I felt attracted right away,” says Boover. He, along with a friend and two students from Holy Cross College, wanted to put the radical message of the Gospel into practice, so they started a Catholic Worker house.
They first found a storefront location at 195 Pleasant Street, right in the inner city of Worcester. It became “a community living room,” says Boover. Soon they started to offer meals to feed the hungry, asking for donations and providing some coffee and soup.
“We later distributed food and clothing donations, and provided a roof over the head for those in need of shelter. But the house was also a place to pray and clarify thought,” he adds.
They plunged themselves into this adventure, and other people felt attracted to do the same. Soon, the storefront location was too small, and the owner asked them to leave. They purchased a house at 93 Piedmont Street, with more room to help the poor, pray together and provide shelter. “The first years were hard,” Boover admits. The young and enthusiastic group had to understand that they also needed time to recharge; life in community was not easy.
A lot of their guests suffered from addiction and mental illness; and while many stayed sober, not everyone was able to overcome their dependence. In 1984, a fire destroyed the Mustard Seed. “One person, ‘Old Joe,’ jumped from a third story window but made it out alive. All the others got out safely,” Boover says.
Reborn as a soup kitchen
Again, the Catholic Worker group had to face a failure. Should they give up? Eventually the suffering, accepted and embraced, brought about a new blessing. With the help of Worcester County, the house was rebuilt as a soup kitchen, more spacious and functional than before. It gained acceptance as an important tool to alleviate the city’s poverty. And while Boover no longer lived in the house after he got married and raised a family, the help for the poor at the Mustard Seed did not stop.
The Mustard Seed is newly governed by a board, and people of all walks of life work together. A calendar on the back door shows which group is taking care of the food. “It is amazing how many people offer to help,” says Boover.
In the beginning, food was provided or cooked by several parishes and churches, but now groups of different faith traditions and none are also involved: “Muslim and Jewish youth groups come regularly, and a Hindu group brings vegan food, Evangelical Christians and civic groups lend a hand. The Mustard Seed evolved from a Catholic initiative to one that brings together people of all backgrounds who care about those struggling to keep up with life.”
Financial support comes from groups like those in local colleges, who regularly hold benefit activities, but it also comes from unexpected places: “Some bank employees came for a service day and painted our picnic tables. Jokingly I told them if they ever have money left over, we could use it well… To my surprise, they procured us $10,000 — this helped us to pay the bills for a long time.”
Other institutions are also involved, like the Catholic parish of St. John’s, which welcomes 300–400 people for breakfast each day, and other places offer lunch on the weekend. The people who come to the Mustard Seed for help often stick around and help too. Some become peacemakers, some messengers, others run errands, but they first of all reveal themselves for what they really are: children of God, created with a dignity that the world might not see, but that flourishes when they feel accepted and loved.
No one discarded
These relationships endure, and they embed and help the lives of many: guests, volunteers, their families. DJ’s mother came as a guest then stayed to help, and her son who grew up in the Mustard Seed now helps as well. A pick-up soccer game on the lawn gives some of the younger homeless people a few minutes break from their problems, brings them back to what they’re supposed to be — simply young people who enjoy testing their abilities in a game.
Some people who come to help end up finding purpose for their lives. Koz, a hard worker and patient helper, is the guardian angel of the Mustard Seed. A man of few words, he shows his love by cleaning and taking in people in need of shelter. Geri DiNardo, another Catholic worker from the early times in Worcester, also offers a listening ear and warm welcome to those in need. Once she had a nice apartment and a well-paying job, but the call to serve the poor was stronger.
It isn’t easy though. It takes emotional strength to face the many struggles the guests are going through. Fights and drug-trafficking occur. “The opioid and drug crisis are the biggest problems,” says Boover.
People cannot get out of the circle of addiction and poverty easily. And while the Mustard Seed also offers a group that follows a 12-step program to overcome addiction, many don’t escape it. The radical hospitality that they find here though keeps them going, until, hopefully, they can. And it shows what society could be if no one is discarded but cared for.
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