Mary T. O’Connor

Mary T. O’Connor is the Architect of the renovation of the Front Porch Café.  Previously she was the principal of a New York City based practice specializing in the non-profit arts community.  After taking a two year break to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, she wanted to extend the experience of working with underserved populations in the United States.  While seeking an opportunity for community based, socially conscious design practice, she was introduced to South Street Ministries.   On strength of their faith and works, she moved to Akron. This blog is a part of the 20/20 Come and See series. 

The keys and the building at 798 Grant Street had been handed to Duane Crabbs at no cost in 2011.  The donation gave the ministry the potential for creating an operating home for enlarging South Street’s mission: “Unlikely partners taking shared risks to renew our community for Christ’s sake”.    A new roof and the first version of the café were fully operational when I first encountered South Street Ministries.   My entrance in this story happened during this outdoor kitchen phase of the café, where we parked in the lot and were greeted by Freddie, the grill side breakfast cook.

On the day before my dear friend Anne Schillig’s wedding day, my sister, girlfriend and I drove to Akron from Cleveland to meet with her fiancé Eric Harmon.  From the start, Akron seized my attention.   On the way, I noticed a gentleness about the topography. There was a feeling of enclosure within an elevated place, an embrace.  It was a geography similar to Pittsburgh or Rome to me, but more intimate.

Though he must have had many bridegroom-related tasks to complete, Eric somehow managed to find time for us on his last day as a bachelor.  He had supervised the installation of the new roof and the first version of the Front Porch Café, despite having no experience in the building trades.    It was a fantastic first impression through the windshield of the rental car.   Eric stood talking to an enthusiastic, spatula-waving man behind the outdoor grille.

I could not wait to get out of the car, reassuring my less enthusiastic companions that everything was going to be great.   They did not see what I already started to feel – there was a hum, a vibrancy, a destiny in this place, to be launched by an experience in alternate dining.

Anne, the bride-to-be, and I met as Peace Corps volunteers serving in the Republic of Macedonia from 2006-2008.   She was one of the youngest in our group, and I was one of the oldest.   Over the two years, we had developed an unlikely but deep respect and love for each other.   We never questioned what simply grew through mutual recognition and respect in unusual surroundings.  Improvisation and imagination are survival skills in the Peace Corps, and we worked and played together to support initiatives in community building.

As we approached Freddie’s grill station that day in July 2011,  I carried wonderful associations of Akron from a radiant childhood experience at Camp Christopher in Bath, Ohio.  That experience was my first awareness of a power far greater than myself, of a universal transformative spirit that rose from the love and binding power of our voices in the green hills of the Cuyahoga Valley.

Eric ushered us into the building, showing off the renovated space.  A special table had been set for our breakfast.  He introduced us to Tom Fuller, our guide for the morning, so Eric could engage in his necessary bridegroom-esque rituals.  Each plate from Freddie’s grille was beautifully prepared in a steady, slow beat – plate by plate.  It would be part of a rhythm that day, hearing already the steady soundscape of Akron – a familiar, rumbling frequency I recognized somewhere in the fluency of my language of space.  The divining rod of my own body indicated treasure in this soil in Akron.  I paid attention.

At one point on that hot morning, we drove up a long, tree-shaded driveway. We were told it was Duane and Lisa Crabbs’ house.  Tom said they had moved to the neighborhood of Summit Lake based on a calling to serve the inner city, and for the fifteen years since starting South Street Ministries, had raised their children and the organization from the house.  The home itself was impressive, a solid foursquare farmhouse.   We only stood in the driveway that day.

Aside from that initial unease when one first encounters what seems like a ‘bad area’, I was aware of a hum of energy coming through my feet.    The house was no different than the houses around it, aside from the truncated  basketball court immediately to the front of the house and the prominence atop a hill,  the highest point in the area.  There was the steady hum of the nearby freeway, the one that sliced through Akron, dividing it north south.   As I stood in that driveway, looking at that house, the voices of our group blurred and faded for a moment.  Something took hold of my soles, connecting me to the ground, as though my feet sprouted roots.

Where the veil between the known and unknown is lifted for a moment, we can get a brief look at the other side.  While we think of such places as somewhere in the wilderness – the desert, the woods – they can happen anywhere, these ‘thin places’.  They happen on boiling days in July, standing in a driveway of an old foursquare farmhouse on a hill on a mysterious morning of elliptical sightseeing in Akron.

This spiritual bookmark came in what was the middle of my otherwise engaged life in New York.  The voices of my companions came back into comprehension.  No one else in the group seemed affected.  So I just stayed quiet and got back in the car, reasonably assured that I was outwardly the same to everyone.

In less than nine months, I would return to Akron for the 15th anniversary celebration of South Street.  At the end of that second exposure to the ministry, meeting Duane and Lisa, I knew.   They had a building, I was an architect.  I knew.  I decided to move to Akron.  Together, we could bring that building, The Front Porch, to all it could be in the spirit of the mission of South Street.  I knew.

To become an unlikely partner in the work of South Street Ministries, click here. 

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