Hunger in Philly: ‘It’s a pain in my belly’

Sister Margaret McKenna’s brown crucifix dangles and dances from her neck as she tills the vegetable garden she’s carved out of the poorest neighborhood in the poorest big city in America.

As she works, fat bees float low over the fertile North Philadelphia dirt. Sister Margaret smiles.

“I’m so proud we have bumble bees,” says the 88-year-old nun who coaxes vegetables from the soil to supplement the community food cupboard that’s part of New Jerusalem Now, an addiction recovery center she founded in 1989 on West Norris Street. “Bees are a dying breed, and so necessary.”

She might as well be describing herself. Many of the roughly 900 food cupboards in the region that feed the hungry are run by religious women such as Sister Margaret, born before color television, with Jesus in their hearts and comfortable shoes on their feet. The Ph.D. in Christian origins from the University of Pennsylvania displays a photo of the pope on her refrigerator. She once worked as an archaeologist at an ancient temple site in Israel.

“I’ve come from the desert to the abandoned inner city,” Sister Margaret says. “The desert helped me understand what God wants me to do in the world: I realized I can’t enjoy eating if people don’t have food.”