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Sheila Austin, 69

Executive director of Road to Emmaus Ministry of Syracuse talks about the organization’s mission to help others

By Mary Beth Roach

Sheila Austin if the executive director of Road to Emmaus Ministry of Syracuse, located on Syracuse southside at 127 E. Glen Ave., Syracuse. The organization provides food, medical and dental and other services to people.

Q: What is the biblical reference to Emmaus?

A: When Jesus rose from the dead, he walked along the road to the town of Emmaus and he encountered two of his disciples. They did not recognize Christ as they knew him before. He appeared differently as the resurrected Christ. They continued on this walk and ended up gathering together to have a meal and break bread. It was in that ceremonial of breaking that bread that they recognized that it was indeed Christ who they had known before.

How I relate that in this work we do here — we often don’t recognize Christ in each other. We can be engaged with our guests in this community, but unless we’re looking for Christ in each other, then we’re missing the boat. That’s basically why we are here. We use the corporal works of mercy and the spiritual works of mercy as our guidepost.

Q: How did you get involved?

A: This obviously was a plan that I feel God had for me. It was through my experience of going back to church after having been away for some 30 years and just trying to find out how you do that. I ended up at St. James. A new pastor had this vision of outreach. How do we bring the presence of Christ to people outside of our brick-and-mortar? I met with him, having finished the ministry directory for our parish. He said that ‘this is nice, but I don’t see anything that’s taking us outside the walls.’ And I pointed out this sandwich ministry and I thought that that was going to check the box. He said, ‘Tell me about the men who are eating the sandwiches that you made. You tell me you’re feeding the homeless. What are some of their names? Tell me some a little bit about these men that you’re feeding.’ We had never met them because the sandwiches were being picked up. I was embarrassed, but I knew at that moment I needed to be doing something different.  He challenged me to use that ministry as a stepping stone to finding a way to bring this parish community out into the community.

Q: How long has the Emmaus ministry been in effect?

A: That was back in 2009 and that was as part of the parish outreach ministry. We incorporated in 2016. As a result of the many things, we wanted to do more and provide a place of hospitality. The church was not going to be able to fund that for us, and so incorporation was a logical next step for us.

Q: Talk about the newest evolution of the program and your role in that.

A: As we were being able to take care of the food needs of our guests in the midst of COVID-19 — we’re now feeding tens of thousands of meals a year — I started to do an informal survey. I’m a nurse. I was asking them about their healthcare. ‘Do you have a doctor? Do you have insurance? Do you have access to that doctor? How do you get to your appointments?’ Questions about dental services. The dental piece was far less available to our guests. I thought maybe this is the next thing we need to start to address. I reached out to some dentists from Holy Cross [in Dewitt] because we have a significant relationship with Holy Cross. We met and I said ‘I know we have some free clinics closer to the city, but what would you think if we had one down here?’ I said ‘If we create the space, will you come and volunteer?’ ‘Absolutely.’ We officially opened in August of 2022. It’s going very well.

Q: How many hours do you volunteer here?

A: I’m here six days a week, from 6:30 a.m. until usually 4:30 or 5 p.m.