Providing Food and Fellowship

Providing Food and Fellowship

At a workshop four years ago, Janice Anderson surprised herself.

A fellow parishioner at St. Thomas in Farmingdale was talking about the possibility of the parish offering a monthly meal, and Anderson loved the idea. “I jumped out of my chair with my hands so far up in the air and said ‘Yes! Yes! Yes! I would love to do this,” Anderson remembers.

Within no time, a committee formed within the parish, and planning for the project began. Now, four years later, Fellowship Café is a self-sustaining ministry, funded by donations and a “sponsor-a-month” initiative. “We have evolved from having 13 guests at the first café to currently serving 90 to 100 people each month,” says Angela Zimmerman, who was facilitating the meeting at which Anderson made her commitment.

Episcopal Ministries of Long Island (EMLI) was one of three organizations that gave the grants that got the café on its feet. And the café’s leaders have served as mentors for their fellow Episcopalians who founded Nourish Babylon, the feeding ministry at Christ Church, Babylon, which provides dinner for 50 to 60 guests every Monday.

“We like to say that our annual appeal is ‘nurturing a network of hope,’ and its is gratifying to see how a well-placed grant can not only launch one ministry, but also shape the thinking of other parishes that are involved in this important work,” says Mary Beth Welsh, Episcopal Ministry’s executive director.

From the outset, the leaders of Fellowship Café envisioned it as a different kind of feeding ministry. It was important to the community of St. Thomas that the Café be a truly welcoming experience and not create an “us” vs. “them” division between those serving and those being served. It was important that the guests themselves take part in setting community guidelines for the Café.

“A couple months into it, we sat down and we said, ‘This is your Café. What are your worries? Are there any guidelines that you would like to put out?’” Anderson says. “We put it in their lap, and they told us. One person said, ‘Well we really don't want people to be drinking.’ So we put that up on the board. We took their ideas and made the rules from what they contributed.”

Fellowship Café guests include people still displaced by Hurricane Sandy, those living on fixed incomes for whom the end of the month is a difficult time, and those who are homeless. Some travel by train or bus to get there each month. “We all know their stories and what they're going through,” Anderson says. “We've grown as a church through this experience. People come and help who were never involved before. It's not just a feeding program, it's about the fellowship -- and that's why we named it Fellowship Café -- because we wanted people to come in and feel comfortable. It’s my favorite day of the month.”

Diane Gaidon of Christ Church in Babylon says her congregation had “some great mentorship” from the leaders of Fellowship Café. Nourish Babylon provides free hot meals every Monday as part of an ecumenical and civic effort that now makes hot meals available in Babylon four nights per week. By identifying the needs of its guests, Nourish Babylon has expanded to include other services such as distributing warm coats in the winter.

“We have over 60 volunteers,” says Gaidon. “About 25 are parishioners and the rest are from the outside community. Instead of calling myself a ‘coordinator,’ I call myself an ‘empowerer.’ People want to help, and we’re empowering them do that.” For Welsh, feeding ministries are gospel work in and of themselves, but they also provide opportunities for congregations to explore deeper relationships in their surrounding communities. “The mission of the Episcopal Ministries of Long Island is to respond to Christ’s call to care for our neighbors as if directly for Christ,” she says. “God’s message is very clear in Matthew 25: ‘when I was hungry, you gave me food.’ But we also know that food is just one part of the equation. Providing food often opens the door to understanding and offering the additional support people need.”

The 5,000 square foot Garden of St. Francis in Bellmore has created an opening for the parish to become involved in wider community life, thanks in part to a popular weekly farm stand that has also helped the ministry become self-sustaining. Since it began in 2011, the garden has provided 7,000 pounds of fresh produce to the Long Island Council of Churches Emergency Food Pantry in Freeport.

“If you had asked us, we never would have thought that the garden would have lasted this long,” says St. Francis parishioner Ann McPartlin. “Never in a million years. We thought we were going uphill and it was going to be uphill the whole time. There have been challenges, but you just have to persevere and not lose hope, because the ultimate goal is glorious. It really is.”

A feeding ministry is also fostering new relationships on the easternmost tip of the diocese. The Brown Bag Lunch ministry was the vision of diocesan missioner for Latino ministry the Rev. Gerardo Romo-Garcia. The program is based out of St. Luke’s in East Hampton, where Romo-Garcia’s office is located. The program brings packed lunches out into the neighborhood where they are needed. “Though the target is day laborers, we also give to those who are homeless and to whoever is around,” says Romo-Garcia. “This area is so expensive. A sandwich in East Hampton costs $10.00.”

The community has taken notice of Brown Bag Lunch and Romo-Garcia has found that in addition to the support of parishioners at St. Luke’s, he has received support in the form of volunteers and donations from the outside community.

“I tell the people we give lunches to, ‘these people made these for you,’ and I always talk to them about it, and they're so appreciative. It’s so important that we always remember that whatever we do, we do it for the love of God.”

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