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Rev. David Kirk Dies, Crusader for New York City's Disenfranchised

Rev. David Kirk, 72, Crusader for New York City's Disenfranchised, Dies

Margalit Fox, New York Times

The Rev. David Kirk, an Eastern Orthodox priest who spent most of his adult life working with New York City's disenfranchised, died on May 23 at Emmaus House, the communal residence for the homeless that he founded in Harlem more than 40 years ago. He was 72.

Father Kirk, who had been in declining health with kidney trouble and other ailments, died in his sleep, said his nephew Kirk Barrell. At Father Kirk's request, he was buried near his longtime mentor, the Roman Catholic social reformer Dorothy Day, at Resurrection Cemetery in Staten Island.

Father Kirk, for decades a presence in the civil rights and antiwar movements, established Emmaus House in the mid-1960s on East 116th Street. It was conceived not as a shelter but as a community for the city's homeless men and women and was modeled on the Emmaus movement, begun in France after World War II to aid the poor.
The Emmaus (pronounced ee-MAY-us) movement takes its name from the story in the book of Luke in which the resurrected Jesus appeared to two disciples on the road from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus.

Not long after it began, Emmaus House moved to 160 West 120th Street. In the mid-1980s, it moved again, into the former Charles Hotel on Lexington Avenue at 124th Street. The building had long been known as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes. As Emmaus House, it provided long-term housing to more than 70 people, and its community kitchen served 500 lunches a day.

It also offered a variety of programs, from teaching job skills like woodworking to providing social services for drug addicts and people with AIDS. Each resident was paid the same weekly stipend as Father Kirk: $25.

Since 2001, Emmaus House has been back at its former location on West 120th Street, which can house up to 15 people. With Father Kirk's death, the fate of the house is uncertain, said Albert J. Raboteau, a member of its board.

A Mississippian by birth, a Baptist by upbringing and, by most accounts, a contrarian by temperament, Father Kirk was a Melkite Catholic for most of his life. Melkite Catholics practice the Eastern Rite but, because they recognize the Pope, are considered part of the Roman Catholic Church . In 2004, Father Kirk joined the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Father Kirk was born on March 12, 1935, in Louisville, Miss., about 120 miles northeast of Jackson. His father, Leo, worked a variety of trades — farmer, shipbuilder, machinist — and the family moved wherever his jobs took him, through Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri and Alabama.

At age 12 and living in Mississippi, David (his given name was Davey, which he despised) befriended a black man named Clint who worked for his father, family members said. After Clint was accused of murdering his wife, David, believing in his friend's innocence, brought food every day to the woods where Clint was hiding. Clint eventually escaped over the state line to Louisiana.

Later, as the editor of his high school paper in Mobile, Ala., David won permission to attend a local black high school for a month. He told the authorities he was researching an article about the education of black youth. What he really wanted to do, his family said, was to try to experience how the other half lived in the Jim Crow South. (He had asked to transfer to the school full-time, coming up with the cover story only after his request was denied.)

"I came out of that school shocked and radicalized," Father Kirk said in an unpublished narrative of his life.

Entering the University of Alabama in 1953, Mr. Kirk was drawn to the work of a Roman Catholic campus chaplain who opposed segregation. That year, Mr. Kirk converted to Melkite Catholicism. In 1956, he was part of a group of students who helped protect Autherine Lucy, the first black student to attempt to enroll at Alabama. (She was suspended after three days because white mobs threatened violence, and she was expelled when the N.A.A.C.P. filed suit to have her reinstated.)

Mr. Kirk earned a bachelor's degree in social science from the university in 1957 and a few years later moved to New York to work with Ms. Day at the Catholic Worker House on the Bowery. He earned a master's degree in social thought from Columbia University in 1964 and was ordained as a Melkite priest that year.

After ordination, Father Kirk went back to Alabama and the civil rights movement. (He was jailed with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on at least one occasion.) Returning to New York, he planned to start a communal house for the homeless on the Lower East Side. Ms. Day, who died in 1980, told him to go instead to Harlem, where the need was greater, and Emmaus House was born.

Over the years, Emmaus House's other work has included a traveling kitchen; Emmaus Inns, a collection of 60 apartments across the city; and a program to rescue women from crack houses.

Besides his nephew, Mr. Barrell, of The Woodlands, Tex.; Father Kirk is survived by two sisters, Mary Barrell of Metairie, La., and Barbara Pace of Bessemer, Ala.; and 13 other nieces and nephews.

In recent years, as Father Kirk's kidneys began to fail, several homeless people volunteered to donate one of their own to him.

"I was honored, but I had to say no," Father Kirk told The Daily News in 2002. "I just couldn't take something they need so much."