Fr. David Kirk’s Legacy of Hope

by Julia Demaree and Albert Raboteau

Fr. David Kirk, founder of Emmaus House in New York City's Harlem, died last year on May 23 at the age of 72. His life was dedicated to service to the poor, to racial justice, and to the homeless. Toward the end of his life, after many years a Catholic priest of the eastern-rite Melkite rite, he was received as a priest by the Orthodox Church in America. He was also a member of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship.

We got to know Fr. David Kirk toward the end of his life, more than forty years after he founded Emmaus House, when his physical health was compromised by advanced kidney disease. Even then his spirit was still as strong as iron and as gentle as silk.

He was a large burly man whose speaking voice was surprisingly gentle but firm and tempered with a soft southern accent. His manner of speaking also revealed his southern roots. Contrary to our more northern linear style of speech, Fr. David spoke by circling around a topic as if we had all the time in the world. Sitting with him, though well aware of his debilitated state, we were amazed at the slow richness of his talk. With great expansiveness, he would delineate the actual event or person being discussed.

After his death, Emmaus House staff and friends shared many of their memories of Fr. David. We heard of his amazing ability to forgive, to forgive all and to forgive repeatedly even those who stole from him or betrayed him. He always forgave. He was always ready to open and reopen the door. Also, he had the ability to see the beauty and goodness in the down-and-out that they often could not see in themselves. It was recalled how Fr. David would often hang around the kitchen, always ready to offer some of his favorite southern recipes, and relishing Popeye's fried chicken (Cajun-style chicken fried in cayenne pepper batter) whenever he could get it.

Fr. David would often speak of what a big influence Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, had been on his life. It was she who had encouraged him to come to New York from Alabama and she who then encouraged him go to Harlem and start Emmaus House.

Fr. David recalled that, during his first days at the Catholic Worker, he simply followed her around, observing closely everything she did from peeling potatoes to welcoming guests. "I was determined," he told us, "to model myself after Dorothy." Finally someone observed, "Kirk, you don't do any work."

Fr. David frequently spoke and wrote about the need to recall the social justice tradition of Orthodoxy, a tradition that he observed in the Church Fathers' adamant response to the poor - such towering saints as Basil the Great, who founded not just a house of hospitality but a city of hospitality. He saw both in Dorothy Day and St. Maria Skobtsova of Paris as models of sanctity for the church today. In our talks during the last days of his life, he would return again and again to his hope that something similar to the Catholic Worker movement would take roots in the Orthodox Church, perhaps along the lines of Emmaus House.

As you enter Emmaus House, there is a beautiful Orthodox chapel dedicated to Christ of the Poor. Fr. David's large black cassock still hangs on a hook on the back of the door. Nowadays, another cassock hangs in that room, used by Fr. John Garvey when he comes on Thursdays to hold a Vespers service.

Although Emmaus House is still without a director, the community is carrying on. They continue to hold an early morning community meeting, do their daily chores, eat supper in common, attend evening education classes, and look for a "place of hope" on weekends. They operate a weekly food pantry for neighbors in need, provide a traveling kitchen to feed the homeless, and offer overnight hospitality or arrange referrals for those living on the streets.

For the time being, a kind of interim co-directorship has developed. The two of us work closely with three residents who have assumed various responsibilities for day-to-day management, community outreach and administrative business. They are a valiant trio!

Frequently we wish we could hang a sign from the clouds advertising for a full-time director! We pray daily for someone who is inspired by Fr. David's legacy, a person who feels called to bring his or her own gifts to this communal life and mission to the poor.

Late in his life, Fr. David bought a plot for himself near Dorothy Day's grave at Holy Resurrection Cemetery on Staten Island. It was fitting and touching that we were able to take one of the wreaths from his grave and place it on hers.

Julia Demaree and Albert Raboteau  are co-chairs of the Emmaus House board of directors. This is a shortened version of an article first published in Jacob's Well:

From the Pascha / Spring 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 49