ROCHESTER — It’s Saturday morning at the House of Mercy — which means Bea Leonard is cooking up about 150 plates worth of scrambled eggs, toast and grits for the outreach center’s guests.
“I just love people, all kinds,” said Leonard, known as Miss Bea to the guests. “I get along with all of them. All of them love me.”
At one time Leonard said she didn’t feel this way. In 1993, when she first came to the House of Mercy seeking help obtaining Social Security benefits, she was nervous about meeting Sister of Mercy Grace Miller, the house’s director.
“During that time, I was, like, afraid of white people,” Leonard said, adding that she had grown up in Georgia and was sometimes mistreated by white people because she is black. However, her experience of Sister Miller — who is white — changed her mind, she said.
“She started helping me, and I started feeling that there was nice people, too,” Leonard said.
She added that she started volunteering at the house, answering phones, distributing clothes and eventually making breakfast for guests each Saturday.
With the help of a handful of staff members and 30 volunteers, Sister Milller has welcomed thousands of guests over the last 20 years at the House of Mercy, which marked its anniversary Oct. 1 with an afternoon Mass and celebration. She noted that one thought has guided her through the years: “There has to be a place open 24 hours a day that would always let people in.”
The anniversary was also highlighted this year by the publication of A Place of Mercy: Finding God on the Street by Dr. Thomas O’Brien, assistant professor of Catholic social thought at DePaul University. The book — available at www.faithAlivebooks.com — chronicle’s O’Brien’s experiences volunteering at the house and its effect on his faith, and how he believes the house should concentrate on affirming the equality and dignity of the poor.
“The House of Mercy gives God reason to dance, because in their little corner of this enormous world, God is allowed to be God,” O’Brien wrote, adding: “And here, in the funkiest of place, to the sounds of the funkiest music, God continues to dance victoriously.”
Opened in 1985 on Central Park as a ministry of the Sisters of Mercy, the House of Mercy is now independently incorporated and is located on Hudson Avenue. The house serves 4,000 people a month providing food, shelter and clothing as well as advocacy in the social-service system; tutoring in math and reading; and budgeting and planning assistance for utilities and rent.
Additionally, the House of Mercy operates a summer youth camp, which features two daily meals for children as well as field trips and other activities. The House of Mercy also operates Farbridge House, a relapse prevention residence and support group for persons in recovery.
Prince “Sleepy” Nesbitt first sought help at the House of Mercy in 1987.
“I was lost and had no direction,” Nesbitt said.
He credited his experience at the house for altering his once “miserable” experience of life.
“Things can change,” he said. “I have a better outlook on life.”
Like Leonard, Nesbitt has gone from being the helped to being the helper. He watches overnight guests, distributes food, cleans the house and does other tasks. He added that he thinks the House of Mercy is liked by about 85 percent of its neighbors and is respected for its work.
“The House of Mercy stands for protection of people who have nowhere else to go,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by Charles W. Earlsey, Sister Miller’s former assistant at the House of Mercy. Better known as C.W. to guests of the house, Earlsey said the house “takes care of the people society has long thrown away.”
Earlsey almost saw his own life thrown away New Year’s Eve 2003 when someone came into Sister Miller’s office while he was doing payroll. The last thing he recalled the intruder saying to him was “Give me your money.” C.W. answered “What money?” and was shot through the neck. His condition was “touch and go” for several days, he said, but today he can walk with the aid of a walker and has recovered 70 percent of his body’s sensation.
Now living on workman’s compensation, he added that he believes he has grown spiritually through his association with the house.
“I’ve actually forgiven whoever shot me, even though I didn’t know who it is,” Earlsey said.
Sister Miller noted that the bullet hole in her window frame is still there.
Stopping other bullets from flying, particularly those fired by the U.S. military, has occupied the staff’s time. Staff and volunteers have repeatedly made headlines for their frequent public demonstrations over issues of war and poverty, and Sister Miller and other staff members have been arrested for practicing civil disobedience from time to time.
Most recently, Sister Miller was one of two Catholic anti-war activists to appear in Greece Town Court on charges related to their civil disobedience during President George W. Bush’s May 24 visit to Greece Athena High School. She’s slated to be tried Feb. 6 on one charge of obstructing governmental administration. Police detained Sister Miller and another protester May 24 after the pair left and were ordered to return to an area designated for demonstrators.
Yet, when it’s not making headlines, the house is quietly changing lives. Just ask Yvonne Youmas, who sings in the house’s gospel choir and is a volunteer with the meal program. She noted that has been coming to the House of Mercy for 10 years and began helping out after the house aided her with finding a home. She said she’s always available to lend a hand at the house.
“If I have time to do it, I’ll just do it,” Youmas said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To learn more about the House of Mercy, visit http://houseofmercyrochester.org.