By Joseph Ryan, Assistant editor
WILMINGTON — It’s the 23rd of March, so Emmanuel Dining Room West is bracing for a big lunchtime crowd. That’s because every month on the 23rd the needy in the neighborhood know the Ministry of Caring’s dining room on Jackson Street will be serving fried chicken.
Half an hour into the day’s meal the dining room is full of diners seated so volunteers can serve them restaurant style. The diners don’t linger; there are people waiting outside to eat, so there’s a steady stream of customers leaving and others being ushered in while servers navigate their way to the tables amid the crowd.
The peaceful soul who is standing near the dining room’s door in his Capuchin robes and Lincolnesque gray beard is Brother Rudolph Pieretti, the director of three EDR sites. A Wilmington native, Brother Rudolph has been charged with seeing that things go smoothly at the dining rooms since November 2009. The logistics of each day’s servings unfold like a whirlwind, but the friar’s quiet management style, relying on God’s grace and the dedication of staff and volunteers, provides a calm center to the hustle and bustle.
Daily attendance at the Jackson Street dining room averages between 150 and 200 men, women and children, but since this is fried chicken day, Brother Rudolph has arranged for two floor managers, instead of the usual one, to supervise the seating and serving of the folks who line up before the doors open at 11:30. More than 230 would be fed that day.
Dewitt Smith and Tony Attaway, both Ministry of Caring employees, work the floor.
“Give me an eight,” says Smith, noting places available for seating, and Attaway lets in eight people from outside to fill the seats.
Brother Rudolph knows and greets most of the clients by their nicknames — Muscles, Jelly Bean, and Jimmy the Gentleman, who walks with a cane.
When Six Nine, a tall Emmanuel Dining Room regular, is served lunch, he pauses with eyes closed and lifts his hands in silent thanks. “It’s nice to see him pray,” says Brother Ru-dolph.
Rotating crews of volunteers
In the steamy EDR kitchen, Vicky Hackett is supervising volunteers from Mother UAME Church in Wilmington as they continuously serve up the chicken, green beans and rolls during the 90-minute seating. Hackett says she’s proud to have volunteered at Emmanuel Dining Room since it first opened in 1979 but she won’t take credit for the popularity of the chicken. “We all helped with the recipe.”
Mother UAME is one of about 100 churches — Catholic and Protestant — plus synagogues, businesses and civic groups that provide the meals, volunteers and donations for the three Ministry of Caring dining rooms, two in Wilmington and one in New Castle.
In addition to the rotating volunteer kitchen and serving crews each day, the dining rooms welcome individual volunteers such as Wayne Stanford, who was helping serve the tables.
EDR’s customers on the day we visited last month were mostly men with a few women and children. More children are present at the meals in the summer, Brother Rudolph said, and the clientele increases at the end of every month, when money gets thin.
Smith’s and Attaway’s supervision is subtle but effective, especially when the makings of a fight erupt in a brief shout. The dispute is settled by the floor managers’ quickintervention. That moment is unusual amid the jovial mood of the diners.
Before he was hired full time, Attaway volunteered at the dining room after a prison stint. “Now he’s one of our shining stars,” Brother Rudolph said.
“I thought it was a punishment at first,” Attaway said of his first days at EDR. But the practice of serving others changed his mind. “I found out I became healed in the process. God rescued me. He showed me he loves everyone on the planet, no matter who.”
When many of the clients finish eating, they thank Brother Rudolph on their way out. “God bless you, Brother.” “Thank you, Brother. Say a prayer for me.”
For 18 years, Africa was home
Brother Rudolf is the son of Joan and Rudolph Pieretti of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, and has a sister, Lisa, and three brothers — Steve, Gary and Christopher. He attended IHM grade school and is a 1976 graduate of Salesianum School. After working in construction after high school he joined the Capuchin Franciscans in 1978.
He became familiar with the order during high school when he helped the late Father Thomas Pietrantonio at the St. Francis Renewal Center in north Wilmington with carpentry, plumbing and other odd jobs.
“The life of manual work, prayer and contemplation, community in a friary was everything I love,” Brother Rudolph said. “This is my vocation.”
He attended St. Lawrence of Brindisi Friary in Beacon, N.Y., for his novitiate and took his vows there in 1980. He was assigned to the friary there for 11 years before he was sent to a Capuchin mission in Zambia in southern Africa.
He served for 18 years in the bush at Chinyingi Mission with four other Capuchins in a small village without electricity or phones. “You had to build a fire under a barrel for hot water,” he recalled.
The Capuchins did pastoral work — catechesis, sacraments, Masses — serving 26 churches in the mission’s territory. Some of the churches got just two visits from the friars a year because of distance and lack of access during the rainy season.
Having worked with the poor in remote Zambia and in the city of Wilmington, Brother Rudolph contrasted what being poor means in both places.
“Poverty here is complicated; there’s substance abuse, physical abuse and fragmentation of family. In Zambia the poverty is simple. The people have an inherent dignity and there’s stability in the family unit.”
The contrast between Zambia and the United States was never more vivid than when he returned after 18 years to Wilmington.
“In the beginning I had to get used to the pace. Everything here is chop-chop. The volume of American lifestyle — the big plates of food, the highways, the cities. It’s a different world.”
It was hectic for Brother Rudolph mere days after he returned from Africa in 2009. He got back on a Saturday and the following Monday morning started as program director of the Emmanuel Dining Rooms.
“It was overwhelming. I was caught between two worlds. I had to wait for my soul to catch up to my body.”
God filters through
In his 16 months running the dining rooms eight hours a day and living upstairs in St. Felix Friary with other Capuchin friars, Brother Rudolph never worries about his work supervising the Emmanuel Dining Rooms.
“It’s a well-oiled machine, thanks to Brother Ronald [Giannone, the founder and director of the Ministry of Caring’s social-service programs] and the people who put it in motion. It’s something greater than me. You sense the working of God in here. Grace filters through the cracks in society.”
Brother Rudolph sees that grace working in the lives of the dining rooms’ clients. “[They] come in here closed up under the weight of life. After a couple of weeks you see they gradually open up, like a tulip in the spring.”
His greatest delight is when the people enjoying their free meal come to a realization, Brother Rudolph said. “That someone does care, someone does love them and life is worth living. If that happens once in a thousand times, this is a success. It’s all worth it.”
If you go
The annual Emmanuel Dining Room Auction to benefit the Ministry of Caring’s dining rooms will take place Friday (April at 8 p.m. at Barclay’s Bank on the Wilmington riverfront. The event includes dinner, live and silent auctions, raffles and entertainment. Tickets are $100; call 428-3702 or go to ministryofcaring.org.