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Unlikely partnership between the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People and the Rochester Hyatt Regency transforms a cancelled celebration into a new opportunity to embody mission

‘We should just be open to relationships that may seem unusual or completely extraordinary, because that may be where your future is’

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

Serena Harrington, Director of Events at the Hyatt Regency in Rochester, New York, boxes lunches for nonprofit organizations. The hotel joined with recent food distribution efforts after the pandemic cancelled a planned celebration of 50 years of ministry by the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt Regency)

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — In 1970, the National Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) began with a question: How should the Church respond to the growing disparity between rich and poor across the globe? Half a century later, the Covid pandemic and a canceled 50th anniversary celebration became an unexpected opportunity to answer that founding question in a new way.

SDOP was formally developed before the 1971 General Assembly of the former United Presbyterian Church, held in Rochester, New York. The newly formed committee was given initial funding and a mandate: “to assist the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in carrying out its global commitment to work toward the self-development of economically poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged people who own, control, and benefit directly from projects that promote long-term change in their lives and communities.”

As SDOP leadership began to imagine a 50th anniversary celebration for 2020, returning to Rochester seemed like an obvious choice.

They scheduled the event for September of 2020 and planned to host it at Third Presbyterian Church and the Hyatt Regency Rochester. The theme of the celebration was intended to be, “Journey to Justice: Where to from Here?”

Instead, the Covid pandemic brought everything — including SDOP’s anniversary celebration plans — to a grinding halt. Eventually, SDOP leaders made the decision to cancel the gathering entirely.

However, when it came to their contract with the Hyatt, cancellation carried a heavy financial cost. SDOP had paid a $10,000 deposit to the hotel to reserve rooms and space for the event, and after months of back-and-forth negotiations between SDOP and hotel management, it became clear that their deposit would not be refunded.

Covid brought new urgency to SDOP’s founding question, and the complications surrounding the canceled anniversary event echoed the new question posed by its intended theme: in the journey to justice, where to from here?

Rather than forfeit the $10,000 entirely, SDOP leaders were determined to pursue a creative solution in line with their mission.

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, SDOP National Coordinator said, “We started to think generatively about how the money could benefit those impacted by poverty in the Rochester area. In the spirit of our justice-themed event — knowing that it could be a long shot — we decided to contact the hotel and folks from the Presbytery of Genesee Valley to talk about ways that we could possibly work together in this endeavor.”

Susan Orr, Transitional Leader and Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley, said one question in particular guided their conversation. “We started asking, ‘What does the Hyatt have that would impact our community in a way that helps us live into our vision of being a Matthew 25 presbytery?’”

Susan Orr is Transitional Leader and Stated Clerk for the Presbytery of Genesee Valley.

Genesee Valley had already been designated as a Matthew 25 presbytery, Orr said, and this became an opportunity to explore what that means and how they live into that designation.

Several different ways to use the money were considered, but one idea stood out as the most workable solution: putting the deposit toward providing meals for local people in need.

A plan came together. The catering team at the Hyatt would prepare high-quality boxed lunches and deliver them to two local nonprofit organizations, Cameron Community Ministries and The People’s Pantry. The two organizations would then distribute the boxed lunches as part of their existing meal programs.

Both Cameron and The People’s Pantry had ongoing ministry partnerships with the presbytery. Cameron has been around for decades and has a relationship with nearly every church in the presbytery.

The People’s Pantry is a newer organization. Program Manager Josh Knoblock explained that It grew out of the ashes of a former Presbyterian church, Calvary St. Andrews, which had its own food ministry before it shuttered seven years ago. The need for The People’s Pantry services expanded exponentially when Covid hit, and last year the ministry formed its own tax-exempt organization and relocated to a new building in another Rochester neighborhood.

The Rev. Tedd Pullano, associate pastor for Congregational Care and Outreach at Third Presbyterian Church and a member of the team that organized the Hyatt food initiative, said partnering with existing ministries was a crucial part of the plan.

“Worshiping congregations oftentimes are like, ‘We want to help the world so let’s create this new ministry from the ground up.’” Instead, Pullano said, their approach was, “Let’s make some lunches. These two organizations know exactly what to do with them because they already are doing it.”

The first meal distribution day occurred in October, just over two years after the 50th anniversary celebration was meant to take place. Serena Harrington, Director of Events at the Hyatt Regency, oversaw the meal production process and helped deliver the first batch of boxed lunches to Cameron and The People’s Pantry. The hotel’s general manager joined her.

Cameron Community Ministries Director Olivia Kassoum-Amadou, left, is pictured with the Hyatt Regency’s Michael Harrington and Serena Harrington. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt Regency)

Harrington was particularly impacted by their visit to Cameron and their conversation with Cameron’s director, Olivia Kassoum-Amadou. “They do some really amazing work there with all ages in the community.” Harrington went on to say that, without their partnership with SDOP and the presbytery, they never would have known about these organizations or met “the people who help the community run.”

A second meal distribution occurred in November, and a final one is scheduled this month. In the end, the repurposed deposit money will have provided nearly 500 meals to people in local Rochester communities.

About 500 meals like this one have been provided to people in Rochester, New York. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt Regency)

Margaret Mwale, Associate for Community Development and Constituent Relations at SDOP, said that more unexpected good has come out of the canceled anniversary event as well. As a direct result of the cancellation, national and mid-council SDOP committees were able to award over $100,000 in Covid grants to 30 community-based organizations across the country.

Meanwhile, in Rochester, the relationship between the Hyatt Regency and Cameron Community Ministries is just beginning. Kassoum-Amadou said Harrington and the hotel’s general manager talked with her for at least an hour after delivering the first batch of lunches.

They are already discussing how the Hyatt might help with needed kitchen renovations. Harrington said she’s also been invited to share some of her own story with the people Cameron serves.

“It’s just a win-win,” Kassoum-Amadou said. “We didn’t know it would snowball into all of this.”

While the cancellation of SDOP’s 50th anniversary event was an unfortunate consequence of the Covid pandemic, it has led to some remarkable — and surprising — good.

Still, SDOP’s Johnson emphasized that it’s important not to oversimplify this story. Arriving at such a positive outcome took more than two years of determined negotiating, out-of-the-box thinking, a complex network of partnerships and a willingness to excavate hope and opportunity from an unlikely source.

Johnson hoped that others might find in this situation encouragement that sometimes that kind of hard work is worth it. Sometimes, even corporate entities and business contracts can be used in service of community good.

Hyatt Regency managers prepare boxes of food for people in Rochester, New York. (Photo courtesy of the Hyatt Regency)

Orr agreed. She said they never would have contacted the Hyatt to provide lunches outside of this unique circumstance, but because they pursued the opportunity presented to them, new relationships have formed.

“Especially in these days when it is really hard to do and be church,” Orr said, “we should just be open to relationships that may seem unusual or completely extraordinary, because that may be where your future is.”

The work of Self-Development of People is made possible thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.

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