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Where Charity & Love Prevail

Christmas Day in Wilmington, Delaware. The Emmanuel Dining Rooms (where the signs say Everyone welcomed. No questions asked.) are scheduled to serve a hefty portion of their annual tally of 200,000 free meals for the poor. The dining rooms are run by the Ministry of Caring, a charity group founded by a Franciscan priest. But it’s Christmas, and for the dining room’s Christian volunteers it is a holy day and a holiday, a day for church and family. Is there a conflict of obligations? No problem: On hand to cook and serve the Christmas meals are volunteers from a local synagogue.

This vignette, says an NOR subscriber who is one of the Ministry’s Catholic volunteers, captures one of the remarkable aspects of the Ministry of Caring, which in its 22 years in inner-city Wilmington has pulled into service literally thousands of volunteers and donors — of all faiths, all ages, all incomes — pulled them in as if by magnetic attraction. The Ministry’s three dining rooms (and its homeless shelters, health services, job-training programs, and special housing services) draw support from more than 90 local churches and synagogues. The magnet at the center of all this activity is the evidently irresistible goodness of the founder of the Ministry, a Capuchin Franciscan priest named Ronald Giannone. Brother Ronald, as he is known to all, acknowledges this new sense of community but gives no credit to himself. He gives it rather to the poor. It is, he explains, but one of the rewards of what he calls the “privilege” of serving the poor. “The poor have brought the community together; they’ve united everyone to serve and care. For the volunteers, it’s been a conversion experience. A metanoia. A change of heart.”

Brother Ronald has had the double satisfaction of seeing volunteers who keep coming back for years — and clients who do not. “A lot of the people who have stood on our bread lines back in the early 80s are now employees. Others have been benefactors. These are people who were able to lift themselves out of poverty and make a little money. Some have left us money in their wills. Some continue to help others.” The Ministry of Caring continues to expand its services, for the needs of the poor remain acute. Brother Ronald is the founder, but he is clear about Who is in charge (“Christ is the Doer and he [Brother Ronald] is the instrument” says an associate). Brother Ronald is modest but he is far from shy: For instance, his exegesis of the well-known verse Mark 14:7 (“The poor shall always be among you”) is little short of ferocious. He says: “Some people use that to justify poverty and to show their indifference to the poor. To me, that’s an abomination. The fact is that we should never cease to be scandalized, as Christ would be if He came down here to the United States, the land of plenty, to see so many people homeless and hungry. It’s terrible. Christ said that the poor will always be among us. But that doesn’t mean that they should be hungry or homeless. It’s a challenge for us every day to address the poor. Jesus chose to identify with the poor, so He will always be among us. He will always be among us, and so we need to address Christ in His need.”

How does the Ministry of Caring do so much? There is, in fact, a secret ingredient, a mysterious power on which this vast enterprise draws every day. The hidden dynamo at the heart of the Ministry is contemplative prayer. The Ministry in the mid-1980s built a cloister in a renovated building in the middle of the rundown inner city for a convent of Capuchin Poor Clares. The nuns, now 14 in number, cook some of the charity meals and do other tasks, but their main job, their vocation and their ministry, is to pray. A local writer who visited them reports: “When you hear their singing reverberate off the high ceiling and shiny wooden floor of their chapel, when you listen to the swishing of their long brown habits, when you see the joy and love in their faces, the power of that ministry is inescapable.”

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