Christmas under the El: "This is where dreams come true"

Ryan Banks, left, who is the owner of Famjuice, hugs Margaux Murphy, founder of the group, Sunday Love project as they feed people outside the Last Stop Recovery House in Philadelphia on Christmas Day.

Like a fan in line for some coveted ticket, David Castleberry, 54, spent the night before Christmas camped out on the sidewalk on Kensington Avenue at Hagert Street.

Though he has a bed in a safe-haven shelter, he was out there, bundled in three layers of blankets, for a reason, he said: "This is where the blessings come at. This is where our dreams come true."

Christmas under the Market-Frankford El in impoverished and drug-infested Kensington is a study in desperation - but also, oddly, in abundance. It's a year's worth of generosity, all crammed into a single day.

"People bring us a lot of food on the holidays. They bring clothes. We have a person we call Michael Jackson who comes and brings people $20 bills. You have a coat drive, and the first 35 coats usually have a present," he said. Other men standing nearby agreed. "You'll see a lot, but you got to be here."

The day had started with promise, when a truck rolled up and volunteers began handing out platters of food for breakfast.

Then, at 11:30 a.m., while the men were still stuffed with pastries, lunch was served: roast beef and mashed potatoes at St. Francis Inn.

The soup kitchen serves hot meals 365 days a year. "We're open two days more than McDonald's," said Father Michael Duffy. "They close on Thanksgiving and Christmas."

The scene inside the 48-seat soup kitchen was festive, decked with holly-patterned tablecloths, a trimmed Christmas tree and live music. Guests were treated to table service by volunteer waiters, as they have been since the soup kitchen opened in 1979.

Back then, Duffy said, it was mostly alcoholics and street homeless.

"Now, it's also drug users, and people who are too poor to both pay rent and eat," he said. "We have a lot of senior citizens on fixed incomes, so as rent goes up, they get relatively poorer."

Dennis Flanagan, 64, a St. Francis regular, shares a room with four other people, sleeping on the floor. A retired roofer, he said he doesn't have much left after he pays his rent each month.

"I survive one day at a time," he said. "I've been through hard times. Why complain?" He still loves Christmas - even Christmas at the soup kitchen.

The kitchen runs on donations and volunteers. Many have seen hard times of their own. On Sunday, Julia Jarrett, 29, of Manayunk, and her mother, Ginger, of Wayne, were there in mashed-potato-spattered aprons. They work holidays in memory of Julia's sister, Adrienne, who loved serving the homeless and who died two years ago at age 25.

At 1 p.m., Duffy locked the doors of St. Francis Inn. A half-dozen men waited on the sidewalk to see what bounty might arrive next.

Jesse Lee Keel III, 50, wandered up, and learned he'd missed lunch. He'd had to walk there, from the shelter where he's staying. He had major surgery on his back and moves slowly, with a cane.

No matter: Castleberry handed him a Styrofoam container, an extra meal he'd set aside, just in case. He knew there'd be more to come.

Then, he pointed across the street and smiled. "The blessings are here," he said. "Now you're going to see."

About 20 volunteers from a group called the Sunday Love Project had begun unloading carloads of homemade meat loaf dinners, bottled water, bananas, new Coleman sleeping bags, and totes full of toiletries. One woman assumed the stance of a waiter at a cocktail party, holding out a tray of mini cheesecakes baked in paper cupcake wrappers.

Sunday Love founder Margaux Murphy, 40, of Port Richmond, started the initiative on Christmas two years ago. She bought a dozen Boston Market meals to distribute in her neighborhood and realized there were many more hungry people than meals.

So she began posting weekly menus online, inviting friends to sign up to contribute 10 or 20 servings. Together, they cook and deliver 150 to 200 meals each week.

Murphy was featured on The Rachael Ray Show this week. The coverage brought in a flood of donations and new volunteers.

"I had people from across the country email me, asking how they could start something like this in their own cities," she said.

Though Murphy started the work on Christmas, serving the homeless is not a religious act for her.

"Everyone asks us what ministry we're with, but if you put that label on it, you put some people off," she said. (Her own Christmas plans were secular: After giving out meals and sleeping bags, she planned to spend the afternoon with a homeless man who had become a friend. She'd take him to a movie, and for Chinese food.)

She often serves at LOVE Park, but most of her regulars there had other holiday plans. So she took her Christmas bounty to Kensington Avenue, in front of the Last Stop recovery house.

Many of the people in line there were addicts. Murphy accepts that.

"For us, the most important thing is not to judge," she said, "because everybody deserves food."

Castleberry said that addiction had been part of his story, as well, and that recovery is a lifelong project. He doesn't bother with the Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the Last Stop. "NA is in your heart," he said.

Instead, he went back across the street to the sidewalk in front of St. Francis Inn and settled in to wait for what other gifts Christmas might yet bring.

"This is only the beginning," he said. "You ain't seen nothing yet."

smelamed@phillynews.com

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