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Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Feeding Body and Soul in the South Bronx"

From The New York Times
By Mathew R. Warren
Photos by Christian Hansen

Hearing a knock at the door, Brother Nicholas White peeked through a small cross-shaped window and opened the door at St. Crispin’s Friary in the South Bronx. On the steps outside, a man stood and asked for a blessing. Without hesitating, Brother Nicholas put his hand on the man’s shoulder, closed his eyes and prayed with him.

The man, Wilbert Barber, who has been a frequent visitor, had been homeless until recently and was now in an apartment paid for with public assistance. “I needed prayer, I needed God’s protection,” said Mr. Barber, 48. “I can’t make it without God.”

Nourishment, spiritual and material, is something that the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal have been dispensing since 1987 when a group of friars started the religious community in the South Bronx to serve neighborhoods with a variety of problems.

The order has grown steadily, attracting men from across the country willing to give up material possessions and devote their lives to prayer and charity. The order now has 120 friars and 14 friaries worldwide.

Brother Nicholas, 32, is from Ohio, and has been in the South Bronx for more than a year. He has a close-cropped head and a red beard, and wears a gray robe with a hood, sandals and a wooden cross attached to rosary beads that hang from a rope tied around his waist.

The friars, who take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, spend four to five hours a day praying and most of the rest of their time trying to help the poor. They depend almost entirely on donations to support themselves and their charities, which include a homeless shelter, a youth center and food handouts.

Brother Nicholas was working as an audio engineer when he went through what he described as a religious conversion, a calling to a devout life. While doing research on the Internet he came across the Web site of the Friars of the Renewal.

“I saw a picture of a friar in a beard with his habit on and his hood up and bare feet, sitting on the floor praying the rosary, and I was like: you mean to tell me people are actually doing that?” Brother Nicholas said.

“I was floored,” he added. “I recognized an authenticity that here was a group of men that desired to live the Gospel and nothing more.”

Every brother at St. Crispin’s has his own small room, sparsely furnished with a chair and a desk and a thin mat on the floor on which they sleep. Some keep books or musical instruments, but they have no televisions, cellphones or computers.

“It’s funny that we have all this communication and media that are good and could be used for much good, but somehow there’s a lack of communication still,” said Brother Juanmaria Arroyo Acevedo, who at 24 is the youngest friar at St. Crispin’s.

For Brother Paolo Kim, 25, who arrived from California three years ago, becoming a friar gave him a different view of the city than most people his age ever have. (The friary is at 420 East 156th Street, between Melrose and Elton Avenues.)

“Being a friar allows us to experience what it’s like to live a life that is less distracted than the contemporary lifestyle that most young people, especially in New York City, would experience on a day-to-day basis,” Brother Paolo said.

The combination of living with the bare minimum and working with an impoverished community is what draws many of the friars to New York.

“I felt that this is what fulfills my life, this is what gives it meaning,” Brother Juanmaria said. “When I put whatever talents that I have in the service of other people, then I feel useful, that I have dignity.”

Every week the friars visit the homes of people who have asked for help with food. Beyond distributing the food, their purpose is to establish a relationship and to offer friendship and counsel.

Brother Juanmaria visited recently with Maria Quiñones, 82, who lives at the Jackson Houses, a project within walking distance of St. Crispin’s.

“When somebody visits you in your home, it makes you feel good,” Ms. Quiñones said, as she showed Brother Juanmaria photos of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren while her two parakeets, Nene and Chula, chirped away in their cage.

“The friars do a lot of good things for us,” said Ms. Quiñones, who has received food from the brothers for more than 10 years.

While their charity work has made them feel welcome in the neighborhood, many of the friars still have some difficulty adjusting to the area.

“I’m from the northeast coast of Puerto Rico, where you can see a beautiful beach in my backyard,” Brother Juanmaria said. “Coming up here, you’re stuck in between buildings and traffic.”

He joked that every winter he experiences a “vocational crisis.”

The oldest and longest-serving resident at St. Crispin’s, the Rev. Rich Roemer, 39, who grew up in Wisconsin, said he certainly felt out of place when he first arrived in 1990. He remembers a friar telling him people would assume that he was a cop because young white men were not common in the South Bronx.

“That sort of tipped me off that I wasn’t in the Midwest anymore,” said Father Rich, whose curly brown beard reaches below his collarbone. “I suppose I was a bit fearful in some ways, but it turned out to be really a great blessing.”

Father Rich took final vows and became a priest 13 years ago. Brothers and priests take the same vows though the brothers cannot perform sacraments because they are not ordained.

“Early on, definitely it was the decision to live a life of chastity, not to get married, is the big hurdle to making a decision to enter this life,” Father Rich said. “As time goes on there’s still a natural struggle that goes on with that, but also in some ways the vow of obedience becomes more difficult. You try to surrender your plans, your time, where you are going to live.”

“This is a radical investment in the afterlife,” he added.

Father Rich recalled that when he was 23, a reporter talked with him for an article about St. Crispin’s and its relationship with the tenants of a neighboring building.

“There’s a new door on it, but other than that I think it’s pretty much the same,” Father Rich said of the building, whose tenants still struggle with poverty. “Some families still get help from us with food.”

Brother Nicholas said he intended to take his final vows and stay on at St. Crispin’s. “Those are my plans,” he said, “to commit to this way of life for the rest of my life.”

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