One Ohio Mall Store Offers Nothing For Sale, Just Faith And Cheer

fromWNKU

Christmas is less than a week away and shoppers continue their quest for the perfect gift at the perfect price. But at one shop in a southwest Ohio mall, Roman Catholic friars are offering their presence for free.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

With Christmas less than a week away, people are flocking to malls to buy last-minute presents. In the Cincinnati area, shoppers are finding something else besides gifts, Franciscan friars to offer a haven from the holiday hubbub, and also a bit of spiritual counseling.

Cheri Lawson of member station WNKU reports.

CHERI LAWSON, BYLINE: At Northgate Mall in the Cincinnati suburb of Colerain, four-year-old twins Christian and Zachariah Norton pay a visit to Santa.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Tell Santa what you want for Christmas.

LAWSON: Whether it's talking to St. Nick or the familiar clang of the holiday train, there's no doubt it's Christmastime. Shoppers trail in and out of anchor stores like Macy's and Sears. Radio Shack is full of customers. But one shop in the mall isn't selling anything.

REVEREND JEFF SCHEELER: Hi there. Welcome. I'm Father Jeff.

LAWSON: Men in long brown robes welcome weary shoppers and invite them to sit and have coffee or cocoa, maybe a cookie. Father Jeffrey Scheeler heads the Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist. He says taking over a former shoe store is one way for the Roman Catholic friars to reach out to people.

SCHEELER: We just wanted to be where the people are gathering. We wanted to be present in the marketplace, you know, not so much having them come to the church and come to us. Let's go to them.

LAWSON: The friars say this mall ministry is in line with the example set by Pope Francis, who chose the name of their patron saint.

SCHEELER: Surprising people all the time. It's like all the things he's doing, just kind of this new style. And so we thought, how can we do that?

LAWSON: The friar's shop is just across from Macy's and next to a portrait studio. A nativity scene sits in the center window. There's an Advent wreath and a statue of St. Francis. Tables and chairs provide a welcoming atmosphere and so do the refreshments on the former checkout counter.

SCHEELER: Would you guys like some hot chocolate or cookies?

LAWSON: The idea of setting up in a storefront came to Father Jeff last fall when he noticed the number of empty mall spaces. Although it's rent-free, they've cleaned, decorated and even put in new light bulbs. The friars opened for business the day after Thanksgiving, on Black Friday, renaming it Brown Friday because of their robes. Since then, about 30 friars have volunteered to staff the shop, at least two at a time. The priest says, since then, scores of Catholics and non-Catholics alike have stopped by.

SCHEELER: The very first day, a woman came in and she told me that she has been kind of out of the church life for 45 years. But she's been intrigued by Pope Francis and she said, what do I do to just start over? So we just sat down and we kind of brainstormed about how she might begin to restart her faith and life in the church.

LAWSON: The friars have nothing to sell, and while they're not holding religious services, they will pray with visitors. They've even heard a few confessions and broken into song.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Go tell it on the mountain over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain.

LAWSON: For 41-year-old physician Jason Mattingly, finding the friars in the midst of the hustle and bustle at the mall was a welcome addition to the holiday season.

JASON MATTINGLY: I was very pleased that they were here, just as a friendly face and a friendly voice. I think it's great to remember the reason that we celebrate Christmas.

LAWSON: Father Jeff says, while the friars want to share their faith, they're not pushing it on anybody. They're just happy to be available.

SCHEELER: And we just want to kind of be good news and to share good news with people. And that's what we're attempting to do in just our modest kind of way.

LAWSON: The friars will continue their ministry of presence through Christmas Eve. For NPR News, I'm Cheri Lawson in Cincinnati.

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