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A church struggles to do the right thing


Listening to the needs of the marginalized

By Beverly Dempsey | Presbyterians Today

Sunyu Kim/Unsplash

Mid-curve of the COVID-19 crisis, I received a call from a man who, in a distinctive and educated voice, asked about our dinner program. “Is it a hot meal?” Yes. “Can I take it out?” He hurried on, “I would feel very uncomfortable sitting down to eat next to people I don’t know.” He was almost rambling now. “I’ve never had to go to a soup kitchen before. I lost my job at the beginning of the coronavirus and I’ve run out …”

As his voice trailed off, mine eased in. “All New York City kitchens that are open are offering grab-and-go meals. Ours happens to be free and hot.” He asked for our location. I gave it. By the end of that week, his dinner was just one of nearly 10,000 meals distributed.

This conversation was in my thoughts when New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced in spring that all but “essential” construction projects were to grind to a halt. At this point, my congregation was in the midst of construction on a 20,000-square-foot former factory building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Having sold our historic Jan Hus Presbyterian Church property nine months before, we expected to open our new space to include a sanctuary, addiction recovery facility, urban outreach center and retreat house by the end of the summer. The word “essential” rang true for us. We primarily serve the homeless and deeply marginalized. Luckily, that’s all the city’s buildings department needed to hear. Construction on 1745 First Ave. could continue.

While good news, that left Jan Hus’ session with a throbbing tension: Should we risk the health of laborers who have to ride the subway to work on our building project? Or should we not enable workers to earn their livelihood from one of the only essential projects in town? You can’t tell a man who’s hungry that he might get sick tomorrow if he needs food to feed his family today.

All around the city, local grocers were closing for lack of people willing or able to staff them. Unemployment applications were stuck in cyberspace. Of the roughly 1,000 food pantries in a city of 8.4 million, fewer than 100 remained open.

COVID-19 brought deepened uncertainty to many facets of urban living, not the least of which was an uncertainly over where to find food. If one cannot buy it, for lack of availability or lack of funds, they needed somewhere reliable to receive it free of charge — and to be able to have a consistently reliable location for food or face an increased risk of exposure to the virus by searching from place to place. We had to continue our ministry. We had to continue building our new facility.

So, what was the higher moral decision — allow those laborers to commute into the city to continue our building project or put the building on hold, leaving them without income? When I advised our general contractor that the session voted to close our site, his company went into high-strategy gear. Forty-eight hours later, he resurfaced with a revised protocol for all of his company’s project sites. Most striking on their lengthy list: “Subcontractors must provide transportation for all laborers, to and from work, each day.” We were sold by his commitment — and his counterclaim that the workers needed and wanted their jobs so that they could avoid added layers of risk during this crisis.

For our church, the crisis led us to having to navigate complex decisions the best we could, hoping we have lived up to Christ’s call to love all people equally well. But once the crisis passes, or our worry within the crisis leaves time for deeper thought, we have an obligation to uproot the conditions that required an elaborate decision tree in the first place. The few are often privileged to navigate challenging decisions for the many. It is an inherent luxury of a society that pushes people to the margins of conversations, community and, in this case, a five-borough city, thereby requiring long commutes on still-crowded, COVID-crusted subways to reach more resource-rich places for employment.

Rather than perpetuate a society of personal convenience, we must ask ourselves, “Why do some people have salaried jobs with flextime or paid time off? Why can’t everyone have a pension plan or a savings account to fall back on in times of need? Why are there tiers in employment, housing, education and even high-speed internet service?” And, ultimately, “How am I complicit, by what I have done and by what I have left undone, in severing an ultimately fruitful, moral economy from a withering, though personally convenient one?”

Beverly Dempsey is the senior pastor of Avenue Church NYC, endowed by Jan Hus Presbyterian Church.

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