Having been involved with CYO sports from childhood through young adulthood, Sister Caroline Tweedy, RSM, grew up thinking that “coaching” would be her dream job. Life didn’t exactly turn out that way for the Sister of Mercy who now serves as Executive Director of the St. John’s Bread and Life food pantry program in Brooklyn, New York. And yet, there are elements of coaching in the work she performs everyday: listening to guests, serving those in greatest need, guiding and encouraging them so they can bring out the best in themselves. Sister Caroline joined me recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to discuss her life, work, and faith.
When Sister Caroline was a child, she sometimes helped out in the restaurant and bakery that her grandmother owned. “At the end of the day, my grandmother would give whatever was left to whoever was there, whoever needed it,” she recalled. “She never turned anybody away.”
The Catholic faith that Sister Caroline saw modeled by her family also left a lasting impression. She noted, “We were always taught that God is very loving and compassionate, and God forgives, and that as a Christian, your mission in life is to do good. Whatever road that takes you down, everybody has something to offer. Everyone. That was the thing that stuck in my mind the most. You’re part of a group, but you’re also your own person and you have to give back.”
Sister Caroline went on to attend a Mercy High School, run by the Sisters of Mercy, who impressed her with the joy with which they served. But the thought of joining them herself was still far in the future. Instead, she excelled in athletics, which resulted in her getting college scholarship opportunities that allowed her to earn a degree in comparative literature in history.
After graduating, however, she was offered a job teaching physical education at her old high school. The work involved coaching, so Sister Caroline felt drawn to it: “I saw people who gave back and how happy they were and the fruits of that: to train the next generation to be good sports and to understand what their faith is and how to share their faith with one another. That was really important to me.”
When someone asked Tweedy if she ever considered joining the Sisters of Mercy, she replied, “Oh, no, I’ve got other fish to fry.” But eventually the idea became more appealing because of their mission, the work, and the idea of living in community.
After joining the order, Sister Caroline went on to hold various jobs at Mercy Home for Children, which cares for developmentally disabled children and adults, both in residential programs and in respite care programs. It was a life-changing experience that allowed her to see the world through God’s eyes. She said, “You see the face of God in those that are most fragile, those who don’t have a voice. You become their voice. You take a stand for them…There are people whose voices are not heard, people who are undercounted or undervalued, and that shouldn’t be. We’re all equal, and we all have something to contribute. Because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t do the job. It just might take them a little longer.”
That experience proved to be the perfect foundation for Sister Caroline’s current work at St. John’s Bread and Life. The program was founded in 1980 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, by the Daughters of Charity, Vincentian priests and brothers, and the St. John the Baptist parish community on the grounds of the original St. John’s University. Both the drug rate and unemployment rate were high in that neighborhood during the 1980s, so the program served as a soup kitchen to those who needed hot meals. About 15 years ago, St. John’s Bread and Life moved into its current facility and expanded its services.
“We provide four and a half million meals a year to folks in the community,” said Sister Caroline, “and we do that through our emergency food programs. It’s not just hot meals, but we have a state-of-the-art digital food pantry, which has been replicated by many other organizations. We started that way back in early 2000…It gave people a sense of being able to shop for what they wanted in the pantry…Now we have kiosks and an expansive inventory management program…We serve 25 communities in Brooklyn and Queens, plus what we do here in Bed-Stuy…In Brooklyn alone, the rate of people who are not able to meet rent and basic supplies is incredible. There’s more than a million people in New York that are food insecure…For us, we know that what we’re doing is providing nutritious hot meals for those that need it, and pantry supplies for people who can come and select what they need or want for their families.”
When we refer to “the poor” or “the homeless,” we can depersonalize these groups of people. But Sister Caroline and her team are meeting them face-to-face as children of God. She explained, “You are putting a face on someone who is in need of a service, who might be in crisis. And when you look at that person, you see the face of God. If you’re doing this work, that’s really what we’re doing. You can learn about…religious life and service in the Church by reading it or watching somebody else. But until you actually have that interaction with folks and you see progress, that’s when you’ve made a significant difference. For all of us, it’s very important to have that one-to-one relationship. We could walk through the neighborhood and everybody knows who you are.”
Out of St. John’s Bread and Life’s 35 staff members, 10 are former clients who were able to get back on their feet with the assistance of the program, which also includes counseling on government benefits that can help them through a hard time. And food for the soul is always available to the guests who come there through the compassionate interactions of the staff.
Sister Caroline explained, “For me personally, I think the greatest gift is to know that you’ve helped someone…That person may come one time or that person may come multiple times, and you see their success. You’ll get a letter from the city or the state or an agency that we’ve worked with that says, ‘So-and-so is now housed,’ or, ‘So-and-so no longer needs SNAP benefits. They have a job.’ Those are the things that are exciting for us. Sometimes we see the fruits of our labor, and sometimes we just have to hope for the best. You can get a little jaded sometimes, but certainly the joy outweighs the jadedness multiple times.”
(To listen to my full interview with Sister Caroline Tweedy, click on the podcast link):