As the Year of Mercy continues, the Response to Love Center on Buffalo's East Side is continuing its commitment to serve the poor and help those in need in the example of Jesus Christ. The non-profit organization, located in the former St. Adalbert Parish school building, began in 1985 and has continued its mission of helping economically disadvantaged people with food, clothing, a sense of community and spiritual assistance, with the help of a dedicated group of volunteers.
Sister Johnice Rzadkiewicz, CSSF, director of the Response to Love Center, believes the Year of Mercy, which began last Dec. 8 and continues until Nov. 20, 2016, is significant to the mission and purpose of the Response to Love Center. The organization is located in an area of the city of Buffalo where poverty is common and the Felician sisters and volunteers at the center meet a great need.
"I think that the Year of Mercy is a time of awareness of who we are, and what our response is to the invitation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and to live His example," Sister Johnice said. "I was thinking about the Door of Mercy that was blessed and opened by Bishop Richard J. Malone. Cathedrals, basilicas and churches were designated with the Door of Mercy, and this is an invitation for all of us to respond with love, kindness, healing and forgiveness. When I think of our mission and ministry at the Response to Love Center, it is more than just remembering from our childhood days the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. I feel that it's a sacred time for us to respond to the people who come to us."
Services the Response to Love Center offers include a food pantry, thrift store, infant care ministry and career counseling and training, as well as a small kitchen and dining room area specifically designed to encourage a sense of community and allow those who have come to the center to tell their stories. It also offers English as a Second Language courses and medical care, including HIV testing, and collects school supplies for children whose families would not otherwise be able to afford what they need. The center serves a variety of people from nine different countries with different languages, cultures and religions.
At Response to Love, the sisters and volunteers hope to open the door of mercy and embrace people and families who come seeking their help. In the process, those who interact with people learn their names and individual stories. Sister Johnice said oftentimes, those who serve at the center will respond to people's unspoken need in a dignified and personalized manner.
"Here at Response to Love, we don't look at numbers, although there are reports and statistics that have to be given," she said. "We don't serve with a herd mentality. We don't want to just fill rooms, or have people standing in long lines. We want to know their story, and through the years, 31 years of being at Response to Love Center, I think I learned that anybody can set up a food pantry, a dining room, a thrift shop, but it takes special people to respond to those who come our way with a heart of compassion and sensitivity. That's why it takes almost 25 volunteers a day to work at the center to serve others."
This, Sister Johnice said, is how Jesus responded. In the center's food pantry, a wide variety of canned and boxed dry goods, eggs and even frozen meats are parceled out to individuals and families based on their needs and requests.
Anyone who goes to the food pantry meets with a server. They are asked what kind of food they want and make choices, ultimately leaving with a customized bag according to their family size and individual need.
The thrift shop provides affordable, gently used clothing with a sense of dignity. The fact that people can purchase clothing with small amounts of money gives them a sense of pride knowing that they purchased something with their own money. The store includes clothing for men, women and children, with volunteers who help people find their size. Thursdays are voucher days where people can come to the center to receive clothing at no cost.
According to Sister Johnice, the Response to Love Center serves as a home to everyone, with the Door of Mercy opening to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
At times, the task at hand may seem difficult, but after she stops to think about it, Sister Johnice sees every new challenge as an opportunity God has given her to serve.
Sister Johnice recalled how the center was having a shortage of turkeys as Thanksgiving was approaching one year. If there is a need, Sister Johnice prays for an answer.
"Somebody up there was not working on the computer correctly. Instead of pressing the 't' for turkeys, they pressed 'd,' which brought diapers," she said.
As she was wondering what was going on there was a response to moms in the building who were in need of diapers.
"We began a baby ministry that I never thought would take off in the building," Sister Johnice said. "We served moms with diapers. It was like God was saying to do more for moms and babies."
In response, people began bringing boxes of items for newborns such as diapers, baby food, cotton swabs and baby wipes, and the baby ministry grew.
Sister Johnice said the Year of Mercy is a time for people to take a few moments to reflect.
"Are you willing to go through that door and be open to what lies ahead?" Sister Johnice asked. "God's inviting us now at this sacred time to respond and to follow the example of Jesus, and have compassion and mercy to all those we will meet. You never know who they're going to be, and we don't know their story. That's how we respond."