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New York City’s response to the asylum crisis builds on Broadway Presbyterian Church’s model

Broadway Community, Inc., a nonprofit that nests in the church, helps draw the template for the city’s faith-based shelter program announced Monday

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Isaac Adlerstein, executive director of Broadway Community, Inc., is seen at left in the second row Monday as New York City Mayor Eric Adams announces a new faith-based shelter program that builds on model created by Broadway Community and Broadway Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)

LOUISVILLE — Broadway Presbyterian Church, a 100-member congregation across the street from Columbia University in Manhattan, is playing an oversized role in the creation of a faith-based shelter program announced Monday by New York Mayor Eric Adams. Watch Adams’ announcement and press conference here.

The shelter program establishes a two-year partnership with New York Disaster Interfaith Services that will fund up to 50 houses of worship — including Broadway Presbyterian — to offer shelter for up to 19 single adult men at each location, a total of up to 950 people. The program is a response as the city continues to care for more than 46,000 asylum seekers, many of them transported to New York City from other states.

Among the program’s designers is Isaac Adlerstein, executive director of Broadway Community, Inc., which operates a shelter, food program, medical care, life skills practice and faithful accompaniment at Broadway Presbyterian Church. For his efforts working with partners including the mayor’s staff, Adlerstein stood just behind Adams during Monday’s announcement.

“All the work we do here,” Adlerstein told Presbyterian News Service on Tuesday, “is only possible because of the church’s generous in-kind giving. It is a warm and welcoming place.”

Broadway Presbyterian Church in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan does ministry across the street from Columbia University. (Photo by Isaac Adlerstein)

Across New York, 50 houses of worship and faith-based organizations will receive funding to house up to 19 people each, Adams announced. “No matter what faith you practice, caring for those in need is part of every spiritual tradition,” the mayor said. “Not only will this increase the space we have by nearly 1,000 beds, but it will also connect asylum seekers with local communities.”

Adams said the city has spent more than $1.2 billion over the past year caring for more than 72,000 asylum seekers and has received just $40 million from the federal government to help pay for the care. That $40 million is enough to cover only five days of asylum seeker costs, Adams said. The city seeks multiple forms of support from the federal government, including expedited work authorization for asylum seekers, increased funding to manage the crisis and meaningful immigration reform.

“The more we can put in our faith-based locations, the better,” Adams said in response to a reporter’s question. “I would rather people be in houses of worship where they’re connected to people, community, care and compassion than being in a congregate setting that’s not connected to those things.”

Operated by the nonprofit Broadway Community, the shelter at Broadway Presbyterian Church serves a hot meal each evening year-round and makes sure guests have breakfast as well. (Photo by Isaac Adlerstein)

“We are thrilled this will be replicated,” Adlerstein said of Broadway Community’s program. “What I think the city needs most to address the crisis of street homelessness is better shelter options … We can’t put 400 or 500 people in the same room and expect it to go smoothly. 15-20 people works best in a community where everyone knows each other’s names … I’m thrilled the city will be expanding this model. I think it’s what we’re called to do as people of faith,” said Adlerstein, who’s an Orthodox Jew.

Broadway Presbyterian Church’s pastor, the Rev. Chris Shelton, said a key to the success of Broadway Community’s program, which is overseen by a board that includes church members, is the care, concern and ability of its paid staff.

Computers help guests at the shelter stay connected with loved ones. (Photo by Isaac Adlerstein)

“We made that shift [to a paid professional staff] to provide consistency for our guests to expand our capacity for ways of serving them,” said Shelton, Broadway’s pastor for the past 12 years. “We have a food service employee there every night” to ensure guests have a hot meal every evening and breakfast the next morning. Guests can have their laundry done for them weekly even as they sleep. The shelter has a computer room so guests can stay in touch with loved ones online. “These programs are possible by having a dedicated staff, a staff who gets to know guests and understands their rhythms and challenges,” Shelton said. “We provide a thoughtful array of programs and a consistent array of support for guests in an environment where people feel safer than they do in large shelters.”

The Rev. Chris Shelton

“It’s a different model, but I think it’s a meaningful one,” Shelton said. “We are so pleased to take it and translate it.”

While Broadway Presbyterian Church has about 100 members, “we have 900 people on our volunteer list,” Shelton said, including students from neighboring Columbia University who come in once each week while school is in session to help provide meals. “I celebrate the 100 people who are active parts of our worshiping community and equally celebrate the 900 people who put the gospel in action, whatever their background. We are a place of worship and a place of service, and we take it seriously.”

In a neighborhood that includes Union Theological Seminary, The Riverside Church and The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, “our call is to be a neighborhood church that takes the word ‘neighbor’ and really lives that word and lives that call to love our neighbors,” Shelton said. “We don’t need to be a big global church or a tourist destination. We have that already in our neighborhood. We are here for our neighbors.”

“We are a 24/7 church building,” Shelton said. “At any time of the day — at 3 o’clock in the morning — someone is finding shelter in this place, comfort and rest and welcome here at Broadway.”

“If a church of 100 members can do this, small churches really can change the world. It takes a lot of energy and creativity and a lot of time, and it does take money,” Shelton said. “One thing we have done well here is we have realized we don’t have to do it all ourselves.”

One example: twice each week, the Institute of Family Health sends a doctor and other staff over to provide medical care for Broadway’s guests. For 20 years, the institute has been working with the church. “Having the same care provider — that’s not a common experience” for guests of a shelter, Shelton noted.

“As the pastor of what is from one point of view a small church, I am always eager to hold up the small church to celebrate what we can do,” Shelton said. “The PC(USA) is increasingly a denomination of small churches. That says nothing about our potential impact in the world. It says we look a lot more like the early church, and if they can do what they did, think of what we can do. Jesus worked with 12 people and some sidekicks, and they changed the world.”

“The rumor is the church is in decline, and I just don’t accept that rumor,” Shelton said. The partnership announced Monday is “a $75 million initiative impacting the largest city in our country, and it’s taking its inspiration from what we are doing in this 100-member church. Don’t tell me little churches can’t change the world.”

Kathryn Graybill

Kathryn Graybill, a member of both Broadway Presbyterian Church and Broadway Community’s board, said when volunteers come to help out with ministering to those without a home, many are struck by the fact that “these people are normal people. They didn’t do anything wrong,” including the “false narrative” that “they made bad choices or don’t have willpower.”

“It’s a wonderful ministry in terms of telling a larger story, especially with what’s going on in our larger popular culture,” Graybill said, including “people attacking LGBTQ people and banning books.”

Isaac Adlerstein

Graybill praised Adlerstein’s persistence. “What Isaac did was see how this could be expanded, and he worked with other entities to lobby the city and say, ‘You’ve already got this model. It’s right here. How do we expand that?’” Graybill said. “I think Isaac is an incredibly persuasive person who did a good job spelling out how this could be expanded and got a lot of little churches like ours feeling like, oh, we can do this.”

Many houses of worship don’t have showers and the kind of kitchen that Broadway Presbyterian has but could become eligible for infrastructure grants as long as they continue to offer shelter services “after this [asylum seekers] crisis is over,” Graybill said.

Columbia University students who come by to help on Fridays will sometimes venture in again on Sunday for worship. “They see the church as really giving to the community,” Graybill said. During the pandemic, many older volunteers had to stay home because they were at risk. “A whole new set of volunteers emerged. Young people working remotely, working with flexible schedules,” Graybill said. “It really made a difference in terms of how the community around us views this little church that they haven’t paid attention to.”

“It has really helped to generate interest in our neighborhood from people of faith and people of no faith to come in and help,” Graybill said.

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