Thursday, February 05, 2009

When a church says 'enough'

The Open Arms soup kitchen had been serving a hot meal each weekday to hungry and often homeless people in the fellowship hall at First Congregational Church in downtown Riverhead for the past 16 winters. To many served by this program, supported largely by donations, that meal was their only meal of the day. The hour or two during which the church opened its doors was, for many, their only chance to sit in a warm room, sheltered from the cold, snow and rain.

On Oct. 1, 2008, the church trustees sent Open Arms a letter ordering the soup kitchen to vacate its premises by Dec. 31. No explanation was provided.

Zona Stroy, a retired IBM executive who heads up Open Arms' volunteer board, was puzzled by the termination notice, as there had never been any problems at the site, she told me last week. So she called the chairman of the trustees -- twice, leaving a message each time, she said. Her calls were not returned.

Ms. Stroy said she learned by reading this newspaper that the church trustees hoped to rent out the space for more money, possibly for use as a day-care center. She remains baffled that Open Arms was never even asked if it could pay a higher rent before it was told to leave. (It's been paying $125 per month.)

Clearly, Ms. Stroy concluded, the church just wanted the soup kitchen out.

Resigned to that fact, Ms. Stroy wrote a letter to the trustees last month asking if the church would extend Open Arms' occupancy of the space until the end of March, offering to pay a higher monthly rent.

Again, no reply.

I called the new chairwoman of the trustees myself last week and left a message on her home answering machine. I never got a call back either.

Ms. Stroy has since wrangled temporary use of the unoccupied Riverhead railroad station to distribute cold sandwiches and coffee, supplied by Suffolk County Community College's culinary school for $2 per person. About 80 people have been showing up for lunch at the train station. At $2 a head, it's costing Open Arms much more to feed the hungry than before. The group has use of the train station until April. Ms. Stroy is searching out other locations, so far without luck. And she's desperately seeking financial support. (Open Arms is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit. In addition to the soup kitchen, it operates a food pantry out of space donated to it by First Baptist Church on Northville Turnpike.)

I used to be a member of First Congregational Church. I was enticed to join by its former pastor, the Rev. Donna Schaper. We became good friends during her tenure there (late 1980s-early 1990s) and remain so to this day. She struggled as a pastor with the sometimes conflicting needs of a church congregation versus those of the world at large.

Whose church is it anyway? Does it "belong" to the families who attend services there on Sunday and support its maintenance with their weekly donations? Does it exist to tend to their needs? Or is its function to reach out beyond the congregation, to touch the lives and hearts of others, to care for the poor and the hungry among us?

These are not new questions. Some 20 years ago, Donna went head-to-head with church trustees who objected to her practice of allowing homeless people to sleep in the church office on frigid winter nights. And First Congregational is not alone in wrestling with this basic issue. At least it wrestles. Some church congregations don't even find themselves discussing such questions.

Meanwhile, the hall at First Congregational Church sits empty at mid-day. Plans to use the space as a day-care center, if they exist, are in the very earliest stages and months from fruition. There was no good reason to kick Open Arms -- and the hungry -- out into the cold this winter. Especially not this winter, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, when the needs of the poorest among us grow greater each day, and the number of people needing help is also escalating.

Copyright 2009 Times/Review Newspapers Corp.

1 comment:

Ceil said...

Hi Denise...To answer your question, "Who's church is it anyway?"
Well, my faith challenges me every day to "Be the church." For me that means to feed the hungry, care for the sick, widowed and orphaned;and to respect the dignity of every human being.

We are the church!

The First Congregational Church trustees has their priorities screwed-up. Their interests are self-centered rather than other-centered.

For shame!