BY BROGAN SCOTCH
The breaking of bread in the Christian tradition has long represented fellowship, friendship and love shared among family and friends.
The Rev. Rebecca A. Barnes and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Scranton, are making that more than symbolic through a new program to help people in Lackawanna County facing an uphill journey.
When Barnes took over as priest-in-charge at St. Luke’s, 232 Wyoming Ave., on Thanksgiving 2015, it did not take her long to try to get involved with community outreach.
“When they were looking for a new priest, the parish was considering using unutilized space upstairs as a housing facility for women re-entering society from prison,” Barnes said. “We continued to hang on to that vision of establishing a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization through Cypress House at St. Luke’s.”
The organization’s name comes from the cypress tree, which, according to Barnes, has long stood as a symbol of death, rebirth and transformation into strength. Thriving in hot, dry climates, cypress trees provide shade and relief for those in distress. Barnes wants her church to do the same for Scranton, providing compassion and relief to those suffering within the community.
“We liked the idea of rebirth, new chances and fresh starts,” she said.
This lead Barnes — Cypress House’s president and CEO — and the vestry at St. Luke’s to focus their outreach on men and women in Northeast Pennsylvania re-entering society from prison. With Lackawanna County having one of the highest incarceration rates in the state, Barnes knew the need was great and that the first challenge a person re-entering society faces is finding employment.
Dr. Helen Wolf, director of campus ministries at University of Scranton and a Cypress House board member, wants the program to provide hope.
“When talking about helping those formerly incarcerated, conversations often focus on the crimes that were committed,” she said. “Not discussed as often is how to assist those wanting to turn their lives around and become contributing members of the community.”
Once someone repays his or her debt to society, Barnes said they deserve a second chance, and “we want to be a channel for that.”
“We have so many folks (in our community) who are or have been incarcerated, who just have fallen on hard times in some way,” she said. “Circumstances of life cause people to get involved in things they might otherwise have not done.”
Since the kitchen at St. Luke’s has professional bread ovens, Cypress House’s first outreach program will be a bakery. The nonprofit hopes to take on five apprentice bakers with only one job prerequisite — they must have a criminal record.
Barnes is modeling Cypress House Bakery after the Bakery at HomeBoy Industries in Los Angeles, founded and directed by Gregory Boyle, S.J. He opened a bakery in a gang-ridden neighborhood and provided employment to rival gang members. Now, HomeBoy Industries is the largest gang-intervention program in the world.
Barnes and Wolf recently spent two days in Los Angeles, where they met Boyle and learned all they could from him. Barnes called it an extraordinary experience to listen to him and take it all in. Boyle’s mission with HomeBoy Industries has inspired them to create a comprehensive program through Cypress House at St. Luke’s that will be dedicated to the same loving and spiritual sentiments while being collaborative in the community, providing vocational training and offering educational opportunities.
Cypress House Bakery will launch as a sandwich delivery program. Employees will create sandwiches using their own freshly baked bread and top-shelf ingredients. Then, customers can order sandwiches online and have them delivered right to their door, a perfect opportunity for downtown businesses looking for a fresh lunch.
The location will be convenient for the employees’ personal lives too, Barnes said. Ex-inmates might need to check in with their parole officers or report to court, and working in downtown Scranton makes getting to those appointments during the work day convenient and accessible, especially if they rely on public transportation to get to work.
“Even waking up and showing up for work will be an amazing achievement,” Barnes said of the employees. “You have to take baby steps before you can take big ones.”
While this particular outreach through St. Luke’s is new, it continues the church’s rich history of social services. When the building was erected in 1871, Civil War physician Dr. Benjamin Throop ran a free dispensary and infirmary out of the old parsonage. In the 1890s, St. Luke’s provided free kindergarten and started a boys’ club called the Boys’ Industrial Association. This taught important life skills such as cobbling, carpentry and mechanical drawing to boys of all nationalities.
The spirit behind those services lives on in Cypress House and its namesake bakery. Barnes wants her church to be what its historic motto states: “In the heart of things.”
“It’s about kinship,” she said. “Breaking down those barriers of ‘other,’ or ‘those people.’ It’s about building relationships with people in the community.”
Barnes already has received three letters from people interested in becoming apprentice bakers.
“(The bakery) is an encouragement for them,” she said. “It warms my heart,” she said.
Wolf described the program as “bringing hope and support to those who are seeking a way to support themselves and their families.”
“If we can get past the fear and the stereotypes, Cypress House can offer that hope,” she said.
Barnes has big dreams for the future of Cypress House Bakery, hoping to transform unused church space to include a new industrial kitchen and cafe. Donations, grants and private foundations will fund these aspirations as well as startup costs for the current outreach. Barnes hopes to raise $300,000 to carry out this goal and took in several thousands for it through a Facebook fundraiser she started for her birthday. She said any amount anyone can give can be sent to Cypress House at St. Luke’s and will be humbly accepted and graciously received.
“It’s not just a donation,” Barnes said. “It is an investment in our community.”
Contact the writer: email@example.com; 570-348-9127
How to help
Donations can be sent to Cypress House at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 232 Wyoming Ave., Scranton. For more information, call the church at 570-342-7654.