In the fall of 1930, America was sinking deeper and deeper into the worst economic crisis in its history, the calamity that became known as the Great Depression. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers found themselves suddenly out of work – eventually one in six people in New York, some 300,000, would be on some kind of public relief.
Many sought help from churches. One of those churches was St. Francis of Assisi, on West 31st St. in Manhattan. Day after day, men and women, even children, would come to the rectory door asking the friars for anything they could spare.
On September the 26th, the church’s porter, Brother Gabriel Mohler, had an idea to help handle the demand. He started the practice of giving out alms only twice a day – usually a nickel or a dime, at 10 o’clock and at 3 o’clock. He was stunned at the response. The first morning, nearly 200 people showed up: men and women, young and old, some in rags, others wearing a clean suit and shined shoes. The need was enormous.
In a few days, Brother Gabriel added to his almsgiving sandwiches and coffee. And the line grew. Just two months later, the New York Catholic News reported that the number who had been served on one cold, rainy day was over 4,000.
“The rain was coming down in torrents and the men were wet to the skin,” the paper said. “But Brother Gabriel also stood in the rain until the last man on the line had received his dole.”
With that, a New York institution was born: the St. Francis Breadline.
In time, companies donated food and supplies. World War I veterans volunteered to help. A rolling canteen was built. A local Girl Scout troop donated its dues to buy loaves of bread. Strangers and benefactors – many not even Catholic – donated winter coats, food and money.
82 years later, it hasn’t stopped. Every morning, in every season, no matter what, they line up outside St. Francis. “We only have one rule,” the Franciscans say, “no questions asked. We take people as they are, our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
“Our brothers and sisters in Christ.” Brothers and sisters in search of comfort. In search of dignity.
And, yes: in search of bread.
For the last few weeks, we have heard a lot about bread. We have been hearing in the gospels what is sometimes called the “Bread of Life discourse,” St. John’s account of Jesus being the “bread of life.” Today, Christ’s words ring out:
“I am the living bread come down from heaven,” Jesus said. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Week after week, we come here, to this sacred space, to feed on that bread, the Eucharist, and to be nourished by God’s word. We crave the bread of life – the yeast of mercy, the flour of consolation, the harvested grain of God’s love. And our hungers are satisfied. “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The human heart that longs for God’s love is able, here, today, to be filled.
I’m not just talking about slipping a dollar into the poor box or a quarter into the palm of a homeless man crouching outside the subway station. Those needs and hungers are clear. But what about the ones that aren’t?
Hunger comes in many forms.
So many of us hunger for peace—and peace of mind.
There is the child who spends his days being bullied, and hungers for acceptance.
The wife, who hungers to hear her husband tell her, again, that he loves her.
There is the human hunger for friendship or companionship, for justice and mercy.
There are so many in the world who are starving in ways we can’t even fathom.
Many are famished because they don’t believe God loves them.
I mentioned companionship. The word “companionship” is rooted in two Latin words that mean “with bread.” Our companions are those with whom we share bread.
This morning, our companion is Christ. He shares his bread with us, shares his body and blood with us. He shares all that he is.
And he then charges us: make what I have shared with you matter.
The last words I often proclaim at Mass say it all: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord with your life.”
We are called to live lives that glorify the Lord.
Lives that point always to Him.
Lives that help to nourish those who hunger for bread, and for the bread of life, and for the simple crumbs of human dignity.
We are called to honor “the least of these” by seeing, in them, Christ.
In the early 1930s, a Jewish artist named Fritz Eichenberg fled with his family from Germany and settled in New York, where he worked as a graphic designer and teacher. He eventually became a Quaker, and got to know Dorothy Day. He created illustrations for her newspaper, the Catholic Worker. One of those illustrations, a wood cut, has become well known. It shows a breadline and, in the middle of it, standing among those waiting for bread, is Jesus.
Christ stands with all those who hunger— the poor, and the poor in spirit. We can never forget: we are called to stand with them as well.
I want to conclude with a prayer that so many of us know, a prayer before communion that we say during Benediction. As we prepare to receive the bread of life this Sunday, let this be our prayer:
Father in heaven, you have made us for yourself; our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Fulfill this longing through Jesus, the bread of life, so that we may witness to him who alone satisfies the hungers of the human family. By the power of your Spirit lead us to the heavenly table where we may feast on the vision of your glory forever and ever. Amen.
Illustration: “Christ of the Breadlines” by Fritz Eichenberg (1952)