Saint Francis in Over-the-Rhine

Posted by Christopher Heffron on 9/15/17 7:00 AM

Findlay Market, Over-the-Rhine | Image: Wikimedia Commons

In 2009’s Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges won a well-deserved Oscar for playing Bad Blake, an aging country singer, failed father, drunk, and warrior poet. The film’s theme song, “The Weary Kind,” is playing in my office as I write this. Piercing the gravel-laden and unforgettable delivery of Ryan Bingham’s voice are the sounds of the neighborhood in which I work: police sirens, pedestrians, and blaring car horns fill the air. The chorus of the song reflects the journey of the film’s protagonist, but it’s just as true of the neighborhood I’m in: “This ain’t no place for the weary kind.”

The offices of Franciscan Media are in a Cincinnati district called Over-the-Rhine (OTR), a neighborhood both historically rich and socio-economically challenged. This area of town, once the home of 19th-century German refugees who reaped the benefits of a booming economy, endured financial decline throughout the 20th century. The Cincinnati race riots of 2001 sullied its reputation even more.

Over-the-Rhine has a bruised but beating heart.

The doorstep of St. Francis Seraph Church is often the nightly bed of the city’s poorest. The Freestore Foodbank nourishes the hungry, many of whom are children with long faces and empty bellies. Drugs, gun violence, prostitution, and indifference are never far. A few weeks ago, a pedestrian was stabbed and killed. Days later, a woman was shot a block from where we work. It isn’t always easy working here, but it’s an honor. 

I love OTR. Born and raised in an achingly dull neighborhood, I started coming here at 18 out of suburban rebellion. I spent long hours at Kaldi’s Coffee House, though I hate coffee. I frequented a club called the Warehouse on Race Street, though I have no love for dancing. And I’ve had many an imported draft beer in the bars along Main and Vine Streets.

When I started working at Franciscan Media in 2001, however, my investment in OTR took a deeper turn. In the spirit of Saint Francis, the employees of this company do more than just work among the poor. We bear witness to their struggle. By being here, we heighten the dignity of poverty. Likewise, our own dignity is lifted. It is a partnership that has galvanized my otherwise safe, suburban life. It's what Pope Francis did before the demands of his papacy made visiting his beloved slums in Buenos Aires impossible.

Though many streets in OTR are still dangerous, the neighborhood has made a remarkable turnaround. Bars, restaurants, and shops are filling the neighborhood—as have the trendy patrons who frequent them. Countless buildings are being revitalized, restored, renewed. A streetcar carries hundreds of locals, eager hipsters, and curious college students by the dozen every day. Over-the-Rhine | Image by Sean M. Foster

I’m proud to be, in a very small way, a thread in the fabric of this neighborhood. I’m privileged to be here, but it can still be a challenge.

As I look out the window just now, four squad cars surround an SUV pulled over in front of our building. Police inch closer to the vehicle with guns drawn. My eyes are glued to the event outside. Slowly, two passengers exit the vehicle as police handcuff and place them in custody. Fear grips the passengers’ faces. Onlookers are frozen. The adrenalin of the police officers can be felt from my second-floor office. I can barely move.

It’s never dull in Over-the-Rhine. And it’s no place for the weary kind.


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Categories: Pope Francis, poverty, saint francis, Over-the-Rhine