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Faces of Friendship

Karen Kelly KieferKaren Kelly Kiefer

Co-Founder, Spread the Bread

The flour was everywhere, except for in the bowl. Their little hands and big spirits were busy drawing small hearts into pure white powder on the kitchen counter, while the bread waited to be made. That memory calls out to me, now, years later, realizing that image in the flour was a sign, our first spiritual marker on a bread journey led by the glory of God.

Let me begin by saying, I had never been great in the kitchen, let alone an avid “bread baker.” Sure, I could whip up a marginal meatloaf or a tray of Betty Crocker brownies, but nothing memorable and certainly nothing that Martha Stewart might deem “magazine worthy.” So when fate met happenstance and this then new mother met the profoundness of gratitude, no one was more shocked than me that the result of this life intersection would be a kitchen makeover, Jesuit style, and that our family kitchen would become a bread kitchen for others.

It was the late 1990s and we had three of our four daughters in our earthly company. One question consumed my hectic days: How can I begin to thank Him for His gifts?
That question led me back home, to my childhood, to my blessed mother and her Irish bread.

My mother grew up in Dorchester, just outside Boston. Born into large Irish Catholic family, they didn’t have much but they had everything: God, bread and each other. My mother met my Cambridge born father on a sawdust dance floor and they became partners for life. Quietly, they celebrated their 5 children, God and life. What my mother didn’t know it at the time was that her daily blessing of love and bread sustained me. Like a baked prayer, her Irish bread spoke to me, telling me I was home, I was safe, cared for, loved. So, daily, I devoured it with butter and her grace.

It would be this bread, her bread, that would answer my repeated motherly ask: How can I begin to thank Him for His gifts? The answer; we would become the messengers, the bakers of her bread so the bread could speak to others and be spread for others to offer: hope, inspiration and gratitude.

So when the girls were big enough to sit on a stool and stir batter, together, we began making my mother’s Irish Bread. We would bake dozens and dozens of loaves and then dress the bread with artwork and notes of “happy good wishes.” Loading up our trusty wheelbarrow, turned makeshift “breadmobile,” we would travel around the neighborhood, leaving the bread gifts on doorsteps.

We thought that hearing gratitude in voices of neighbors was the reason we continued on with our bread journey. However, what we didn’t realize was that it was the faint whispers of St. Ignatius, leading us, telling us to “Go forth and set the world afire.” Called by His grace, we did just that. We abandoned our list-filled afternoons and began baking more and more, visiting local nursing homes and shelters and spreading more bread. Bread became our thing: our hobby, our expression, our gift, our mission, our ministry.

A few years passed and then September 11th gripped our country, our world and our hearts. It was then that the bread called us back into the kitchen and our Wayland, Massachusetts community followed. The bread whispers traveled quickly. The message was clear; gather your family, young ones and friends and get back into the warmth of your kitchens. Find a favorite bread recipe and make that bread. While the bread is baking, take time to have an important and empowering conversation about our world. Define heroes and talk about the needs in the community, because this conversation will lead everyone to their bread beneficiaries.

What happened next was nothing short of spectacular. Breads were baked, wrapped like gifts of adornment and then collected. They arrived in all different shapes, sizes and flavors and shared stories from many cultures and traditions. The breads were then spread back into the community to our heroes: police, firefighters, postal workers during the anthrax scare, and veterans. They were also spread to local food pantries, senior centers, nursing homes and shelters. Spread the Bread was officially born.

The concept was as powerful and as pliable as the dough and ready to be shared with the world, carrying forth His Divine plan for others. Now, years later, Spread the Bread is now an international grassroots organization, using the gifting of bread to unite communities, teach community philanthropy, empower our youth, thank heroes, help the needy while defining tradition and culture. One bread spread has become millions of breads spread by others, for others.

Flour is still everywhere in our kitchen, but we see clearly His signature in the white powder. Yes, we have been touched by the hands of God through this bread ministry and how fitting, knowing that bread is the universal symbol of peace and fellowship and the body of Christ. As this bread journey continues, we don’t know where He will take us next, but we find great comfort and strength in knowing that we are being led.

Karen Kelly Kiefer is a Boston College alumna who later returned to the university to work under the leadership of Fr. J. Donald Monan, SJ, for almost a decade. Kiefer credits many of the Boston College Jesuits for their profound inspiration and influence towards the formation of her lay bread vocation, Spread the Bread.

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