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.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Will happy days be here again?

The Great Depression was something my grandparents talked about, something I read about in history books in school, something depicted in scratchy black and white photographs and the jumpy frames of celluloid film reels.

Its psychological impacts could last a lifetime -- exemplified by a family friend, a "Depression-era baby" who grew up poor in 1930s Tennessee and to this day saves, reuses and hoards everything -- though she would live out her life in upper-middle-class comfort on Long Island -- because, in her perspective, you just never know when you'll have to make do and go without again. The day she's long dreaded may have finally arrived. (And she's lived to see it. Yesterday, coincidentally, was her 90th birthday. Happy birthday, Ruth.)

Monday night we went to sleep trying to digest staggering reports of massive job cuts totalling about 64,000. That's on top of the 2.55 million jobs lost since the recession began (in December 2007) and not counting the jobs lost in December 2008. The national unemployment rate is now pushing 8 percent.

The unemployment rate is even higher when you count previous full-time workers forced to take part-time jobs and people who have given up looking for work and are no longer counted in the official tally. Adding those folks into the mix, unemployment rates are already in the double-digit range, according to economists.

It's all very depressing. And scary.

For the first time in my life I truly understand the meaning of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's admonition to the nation upon his taking office in March, 1933: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Until recently, that famous quotation was little more than rhetorical flourish to this child born into the prosperity of post-World War II America. In my world view as a child growing up during the 1960s anything was possible. There was nothing America couldn't do, invent or build. It was an age of wonder.

I remember as a kid watching the Verazzano Bridge take shape not far from where I lived in Brooklyn -- the longest single-expansion bridge in the world. Across the river, work began on what would be the tallest skyscrapers in the world, and we watched in awe as their towering, square steel frames -- the Twin Towers, they'd be called -- rose on the tip of Manhattan Island.

We eagerly watched every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo rocket launch and every capsule splash-down in our nation's quest to fulfill President John Kennedy's challenge -- to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return him safely to earth. Each one was an event -- a kind of modern-day, man-made miracle worthy of observance. And so, briefly, America would pause from its work and watch.

It was an age of optimism, a time when Americans believed we could accomplish anything. And so President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" was born. No one would be left behind in our new era of progress, not even the poorest of Americans -- especially not the poorest of Americans -- nor Americans who had not had a seat at the table because of the color of their skin. America could overcome and heal the injuries inflicted by a history of slavery and racial segregation.

America could, after all, do anything.

Even through the troubled times that followed those halcyon years -- the country's bitter division over the Vietnam war and the crisis of confidence and trust in government wrought by Watergate -- we still held tight to the belief that America could overcome any obstacle, meet any goal, accomplish anything it set its mind to.

This age of optimism and confidence shaped the world view of our 44th president. It is in Barack Obama's blood. He exudes it. And that's good. It's just what we need right now. It's exactly what we need to overcome the only thing we really have to fear, as FDR said: fear itself. We have to shed that fear, and, to borrow from Mr. Obama's inaugural address, pull ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and set to work remaking America. We have to set things straight, fix the broken systems that allowed the current crisis to take shape, and reinvest in America.

I believe the president when he says yes, we, as a nation, can do this.

I have to. The alternative is too bleak for me to imagine -- and it's one I refuse to accept, not only for myself, but for my children, coming of age as they are at this pivotal moment in history. I want them to optimistically and confidently embrace life in an America in which anything is possible with hard work and perseverance. That's the essence of the true meaning of freedom at the heart of the American Dream. And the dream still lives.