Sixty-three year old Glenn Murchison has been eating meals and using other services at Face to Face in Germantown for years. He’s not sure exactly how many.
For him it’s more than just a soup kitchen; it’s a place where he feels at home. Face to Face is an important social center for his life.
That’s why Saturday’s memorial service was so important to him and many others who came to the ornate sanctuary at St. Vincent de Paul Church on Price Street to share memories of loved ones who have passed away.
Murchison was reflective sitting in the pew before the ceremony began. He pointed to an altar in the front with a table for candles that was surrounded by artwork done by Face to Face visitors. Near the bottom of the display was a Xerox copy of an old photograph.
“The young man in the picture over there, his name is George Wilson and I’m gonna speak about knowing him,” said Murchison as he looked over his speech. “When I first seen him, I just felt he was meant for me… I didn’t know him on the streets or anything, I just knew him by coming here and every time we met here we were friends.”
It might have been five years since Wilson died, again Murchison doesn’t remember exactly. But he still thinks about his friend, who looks about 30 in the picture, and he still marvels at how, despite always being sick Wilson was never unkind. In fact, as Murchison put it, he “had the brightest smile you can imagine.”
Executive Director Mary Kay Meeks-Hank likes to say that Face to Face is a place where anyone, no matter if they are a diner or a volunteer, can go to experience hospitality. And at the rate of 600 meals every weekend since 1985, plus a drop-in legal assistance and health clinic, on site social workers, an arts and writing program, and summer and after-school programs for children, Face to Face serves up a lot of hospitality.
But for those who are homeless, don’t have stable housing or live on very low incomes, friendships like the one between Glenn Murchison and George Wilson can mean a lot, according to Meeks-Hank.
For Murchison, reaching out to Wilson was a deliberate process. “I started off slowly, by saying hello,” he recalled. And though the two men never established a relationship beyond Face to Face in the years of their friendship, Wilson’s presence in Murchison’s life had noticeable impacts.
For one, it helped keep him coming through the doors, and that meant access to good food and care.
But according to Meeks-Hank, with the community that Face to Face serves, when someone dies it’s easy for them to disappear from memory. For many, there is no one keeping track, there is no official announcement. People may only learn about the loss when they stop seeing their friend in the dining room.
Meeks-Hank wanted to do something to keep the memory of those who have gone from being lost.
That’s why she reached out to Wharton Business School to help her create the yearly memorial service designed to extend that famous Face to Face hospitality into the realm of bereavement.
Maybe it sounds risky inviting a group of mostly privileged college freshmen into a scene steeped so in poverty. But “Team Visio” (think: “The Apprentice;” Visio is the Latin for “vision” and sometimes “face”) has been just what the doctor ordered.
“What I wanted them to do was to create some kind of service to recognize those who are missing,” Meeks-Hank said. “What I really like about this group is they came and they really got it. They were here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and they really formed relationships.”
Relationships like the one between Wharton frosh Kelsey Taylor and long time Face to Face visitor Beverly Treadwell. Together the two remembered Alice Renzulli, who came to the program often for meals and writing classes.
“Alice was a caring, lovable and sharing person,” Treadwell read into a microphone from a type-written page during the ceremony. Taylor helped her with some of the words. “She used to give people pamphlets and she used to write people poetry and she reminded me of my mom because my mom was named Alice. I used to be close with my mom.”
Residents from nearby joined the ceremony, too, paying homage to children who died too early and other loved ones now gone.
Each person lit a candle and brought it forward until the altar was bathed in flickering light. After prayer and music, participants adjourned to the crowded dining area in the building next door for more hospitality, of the edible kind.
Meeks-Hank called the ceremony a great success. She saw it helping the hundred or so participants to feel less alone with their losses. She hoped that it eased the pain just a little.
For Murchison it seemed to. Talking about his friend made him reflect on his own parents and the influence they had on his life, and even his grandfather, a local photographer named Cubia D. Harris.
He marveled at all the people who passed before him. It came to him almost as a kind of evidence for how to treat the time he has left. The time now. As he said, “tomorrow is not promised.”
And it seemed to reassure him that, at least with Wilson, he was on the right track.
“While I’m siting there listening to all that,” Murchison said. “All the people that come and go, it makes you think. It really makes you want to share yourself even more.”
The 18th Annual Turkey Trot along the Wissahickon Creek will benefit Face to Face Nov. 25. Race registration begins at 7:30 a.m. at Northwestern and Germantown avenues. Start time is 9:00 a.m. for the five mile run along the creek in Chestnut Hill. Start time is 9:05 a.m. for the one mile walk. Call 215-849-0179 to register.