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Owing to the pandemic, Stony Point Center forced to eliminate most of its staff

But the vision of a Matthew 25 laboratory may one day come about, in some fashion

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Elise Bates Russell, architectural consultant with Run River Enterprises, speaks to the Presbyterian Mission Board inside Stony Point Center’s Meditation Space in September 2019. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — COVID-19 and its attendant restrictions on gathering has led Stony Point Center in New York to permanently lay off 40 of its 49 staff, part of a plan co-director Rick Ufford-Chase says is a retooling to survive the pandemic and keep the facility open for small group use.

Ufford-Chase and his wife, Stony Point Center Co-Director Kitty Ufford-Chase, met individually via videoconference with affected staff Wednesday and Thursday. Those staff members whose jobs are being eliminated are receiving severance packages.

Over the next few years, Stony Point Center was to have become the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 laboratory. Last fall the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board approved $75,000 to carry out a study of the feasibility of a $10 million capital campaign to modernize the retreat and conference center along the Hudson River about an hour north of New York City. Down the road, Stony Point Center still could fulfill that Matthew 25 vision, in some fashion.

In March, the company that carried out that study released its report, which included a recommendation that the PMA Board consider a $4 million campaign. The board heard that recommendation the week that Stony Point Center was in the process of closing down its operation due to COVID-19, Ufford-Chase said.

“We are disappointed that the long-range vision plan for the Stony Point Center is no longer viable,” said the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. “However, God’s wisdom is always greater than ours and we are discerning how best to utilize Stony Point to support the Matthew 25 vision.”

“The bottom line is that Stony Point Center is being forced to downsize because of the pandemic,” Rick Ufford-Chase said Wednesday. Even though “we don’t know what the economic outlook will be for conference centers to come back,” the idea is for SPC “to continue to fill the role as conference center to the national Presbyterian Church and the broader faith-based movements” for justice, equity and Earth care, he said.

“The pandemic makes it a challenge to gather,” Ufford-Chase said. Uprisings across the nation following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others “make it clear why we have to gather.”

As recently as February, he said, Stony Point Center “was on track to fulfill this dramatic and exciting vision” of how PMA “was to make us a national training center. We were expanding staff and meeting every metric” laid out in a report by a consultant, Run River Enterprises. The results of a capital campaign were announced a week before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his stay-at-home order.

Since that order, all 49 staff members have been retained through June 20. That was due in part to the $8.8 million Paycheck Protection Program loan the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) received in April. SPC employees have been paid to stay home since the pandemic took hold in New York in early March.

Rick and Kitty Ufford-Chase, co-directors of Stony Point Center, were photographed last year outside the center’s Meditation Space. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“That bought us time to make a thoughtful decision about prospects for the future,” Ufford-Chase said. “What’s clear to us now is that the major conference center work is going to be slow coming back to New York.”

Stony Point Center is a program of the PMA, but it relies on revenue from guest bookings to cover its expenses. Without the ability to host guests, Stony Point has not been able to meet expenses. SPC hopes to re-open slowly this summer for smaller groups following guidelines required by New York authorities.

Ufford-Chase said Stony Point personnel “will be working hard with Diane to imagine what a national training center and curriculum will look like.” This summer, he said, Stony Point Center and Johnson C. Smith Seminary are developing Matthew 25 curriculum together.

Over the last two months, an immigration advocacy organization has used Stony Point Center to stage food donations that have fed about 200 undocumented immigrant families each week. “That’s been entirely immigrant led, and we will continue that,” Ufford-Chase said. “We trust that God is accompanying us, and that means that God has always been here and will continue to be at work in this remarkable, Spirit-filled place.”

The 21-member Community of Living Traditions, the multifaith community in residence at Stony Point Center, is becoming its own independent entity “to make sure they have a future,” Ufford-Chase said. “For the time being, independence means that no matter what happens at Stony Point Center, the work will continue.”

Beginning next week, groups of up to 25 people will be allowed to gather in Rockland County, where Stony Point Center is situated. “The question is, will our client groups want to come?” Ufford-Chase said.

While the decision to eliminate most Stony Point positions is, according to Ufford-Chase, the responsible course of action — with the separation payments, Stony Point Center is on track to lose $1.5 million this year on a budget of $3.3 million — “we are heartbroken,” he said. While he and his wife have been at Stony Point Center for nearly 12 years, other staff members have worked there much longer. “It is devastating to have to go through this,” he said.

Stony Point Center “operated solidly in the black” during 2019 and, before the pandemic, anticipated doing the same in 2020, he said.

The nine employees being retained will keep the doors open “as we begin to come back to life,” Ufford-Chase said. Remaining employees will do a little bit of everything, including housekeeping, guest services, dishes, food preparation and farming.

“We’re all becoming generalists,” he said. “The farm will continue, which is a big part of who we are.”

Taken together, the pandemic and the uprising “mark a remarkable opportunity for us to re-imagine the role we are going to play to support the broader Church,” Ufford-Chase said.

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