The following reflection was written by Fr. Fred Betti, SJ, Chaplain of The Response to Love Center and Associate Pastor of St. Michael’s Church in Buffalo, N.Y.
She is always third in the line-up of our daily guests. She always arrives prior to 9:00 AM so that when the doors open, she can quickly descend into our Dining Room. No matter the daily weather report, her petite frame is always clad in the same hoodie, windbreaker, tattered jeans and worn sneakers. Her head is protected by a faded baseball cap pulled low over her brow. The required mask covers most of her face so that only her wrinkled eyes connect her with our kitchen volunteers. The takeout boxes filled with her hot meal and other food are neatly packed into an old vinyl shopping bag with seams on the verge of bursting. With a whisper of gratitude, she heads outside to traverse Sycamore Street to return to the shelter of three rooms she calls home.
Lady #3 (with respect for her privacy) is one of the neighbors we serve at The Response to Love Center. The Felician Sisters, their dedicated staff and volunteers are well known in WNY for their ministry to the poor in this little corner of the East Side. Not even the pandemic stopped us from caring for our neighbors like Lady #3. We improvised with curbside meals, pantry outreach and remote learning programs. During the months of mandated shutdown our building received much-needed renovations thanks to generous donors to our Matthew 25 Project. We can now serve better the evolving needs of our neighborhood.
It was a joyful day this past July when we welcomed our neighbors back into our Dining Room. We are able to offer them a sense of dignity as they come to the steam table to choose their hot meals. Volunteers assist them in selecting fresh produce, paper products and other essentials so hard to purchase for those who struggle on fixed incomes or public assistance.
For Buffalo’s poor, like Lady #3, making simple choices that many of us take for granted just aren’t possible. You can’t choose to cook your own meals when the burners have been broken for a year and the landlord ignores your calls about the stove. You can’t choose to walk to the corner store for milk once the drug dealers wake up and take over the streets.
Sadly, even our best intentions to help needy neighbors keep their dignity can fall short. On a recent morning as I helped guests pick out their snacks and drinks, Lady #3 stepped up to the table with her battered bag. A fellow volunteer asked in a cheerful tone, “What would you like today? A Lorne Doone or a Little Debbie?” That’s what charity had provided for us to offer that day. You could get either a single pack of shortbread cookies or the two crème-filled chocolate rolls. I could see in the lady’s hungry eyes framed beneath her battered cap and mask the impulse to say, “I’d like both!” I could also see in her sad expression the pained resignation of a woman who had lived her life trapped in the unjust structures of poverty that denied her right to make choices. Unable to speak for a moment she tried to regain her dignity and simply pointed to her one dessert choice of the day.
As I put on my apron each morning after celebrating Mass with the Sisters to serve in our Dining Room I am challenged. As a native son I’m intensely proud of my fellow Western New Yorkers whose generosity to the underserved ranks among the highest in our nation. Yet, I wonder if there ever will be a One Buffalo where no one has to choose between Lorne Doone or Little Debbie.