Caritas Village is a gathering place in the heart of Binghampton that serves up food to the city in its restaurant, while providing a home for many organizations and people in need of a place to gather in community.
When Lou Sanders walks in the doors at Caritas Village, in some ways he’s like every other person who finds their way here in that he comes with his own unique story. But once he enters, he immediately becomes part of a larger community that is Caritas Village.
Sanders walks with a slight hitch in his step, thanks to a prosthetic leg he’s had for a little more than a year. He walks straight to the back of the large room, where Onie Johns and a friendly conversation awaits.
Johns is founder and director of Caritas Village. She’s lived in Binghampton since 2000 when she came to the neighborhood to live intentionally with others in the community.
Sanders has lived in the neighborhood much longer, for nearly 40 years. They knew each other before, but weren’t the close friends they’ve become lately.
Sanders is an artist and former art teacher. He retired in 2001 after a 30-year career in Memphis City Schools.
He said people call him a social hermit. He smiles at that. He once was, simply, a hermit. But Johns helped him get out of his shell.
It all started when a small scratch became infected. And what Sanders calls an irrational fear of doctors let that scratch and infection get away from him. There was no treatment except amputation.
He could’ve curled back into his shell, even tighter than before. Depression could’ve set in.
“It’s strange how bad luck can bring you good fortune,” Sanders said while sitting in a booth at Caritas Village. “When I was in rehab I couldn’t go back to the house. It was small and crowded. I had to use a wheelchair and then a walker. (Johns) found me an apartment in the neighborhood nearby to rent. She had food delivered to me from here. It’s brought me out of my shell a lot. She lives a block away. We weren’t nearly as good of friends as we are now.”
Today, Sanders makes his way to Caritas Village about once a week to visit Johns. The main room of Caritas Village is filled with tables, booths, couches and chairs, all places where people of the neighborhood can enjoy a meal and conversation.
Johns’ professional background is in medicine, first in nursing and later in medical management. She lived a comfortable life in Germantown. It was during a 10-month spiritual formation group that she began to have a hard time reconciling where she lived. It was the first time, she said, that she really looked at power and privilege.
So in 2000 she formed Caritas Village and moved to Binghampton to engage in what she calls a ministry of presence.
In those early days the work centered on community meals throughout the week, Bible studies, concerts on the lawn and anything else to gather a crowd and build relationships.
The work eventually outgrew her house. Johns sought a place where the community could come on a daily basis. A Masonic building at 2509 Harvard Ave. hit the market in 2004. Caritas eventually took it over, opening in December 2006 as a community center, coffee shop and cultural center.
Johns’ son in law moved his catering business in, running it out of Caritas’ kitchen and volunteering his time there for the first few years.
“It was a win-win for both of us,” Johns said. “We had the advantage of a well-trained chef volunteering with us. At first that’s all we did was the food and build relationships. I think that’s how it happens.”
Things took off from the beginning. Caritas secured the certificate of occupancy on Dec. 6 and there were 29 parties scheduled before Christmas. It usually takes a while to build trust, but Johns said because she had been a resident of the neighborhood she already had earned it.
“It’s grown organically,” she said. “Now people come in and like what they see and they want to get involved and start something.”
And programming has been added over time. There is an after-school program that first was run by a couple of local arts organizations. Now, the Rhodes College theater program runs it.
A reading group started last year for local children.
Caritas is a venue for Centro Cultural Latino, which does visual arts, theater, dance and writing workshops there. Caritas also partners with the organization to put on the Centro Cultural Tamale Fest every September.
And on the second and fourth Tuesday, doctors and nurses see patients to treat things such as cold and flu and help manage chronic issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
An art gallery has rotating exhibits monthly. Earlier this year, some of Sanders’ work was on exhibit.
Speaking of art, Caritas has an artist in residence program that is run out of the house across the street from the main building. Currently, the artist in residence is a culinary artist.
Caritas is intentional about the neighborhood. It only employs neighborhood residents, for example. That sometimes means hiring someone who then receives training to ultimately move on to something else, which part of the mission is to prepare people to get better jobs, Johns said.
Speaking of the kitchen, Binghampton as a neighborhood is home to people from many different countries and cultures. And sometimes it’s on display at Caritas.
“There was one point in the kitchen we had a lady from Sudan, two guys from Nepal, a lady from Mexico and an African-American,” Johns said. “The languages, well, it was interesting in the kitchen.”
Johns said it’s not always easy to explain what Caritas is. It’s better just to experience it. But her experience will be different when the calendar rolls to 2017. Johns is retiring at the end of the year.
She’ll still live in the neighborhood and continue working in a supportive role. But back issues make it harder to continue volunteering 80 to 90 hours a week.
And because she’s never taken a salary, Caritas is in the middle of a capital campaign that will pay a new director as well as renovate the building and start an endowment. The future of Caritas Village depends on the campaign, which is targeting $1 million by the end of the year.
Beyond donations to help Caritas Village continue, diners have opportunities to help provide meals. People from all over the city dine at Caritas Village daily, whether they have money to pay or not. Johns said they probably provide about 20 free meals a day.
Diners now can participate in a pay it forward opportunity to buy a meal for someone else.
“Often there are people in suit and ties, neighborhood folks and homeless folks all eating in there together,” Johns said. “That’s the beauty of it. We have several people who hang out here all day long because they don’t have anywhere to go. … It’s far exceeded what I thought it could be. That’s what happens when you let God take over.”