For years, my aunt, Marian Hutchins, would wake up between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. nearly every Saturday to make coffee, pray, and check her email. “Pastor Marian” as she’s known, executive director for the Father’s Heart Ministries,* and my uncle, Perry, would then drive into Manhattan from eastern Queens to open up Father’s Heart’s Hunger Prevention Program, a soup kitchen offering an all-you-can-eat breakfast and a food pantry. By 6:30 a.m., faithful volunteers were at work, brewing coffee and popping breakfast potatoes in the oven.
Upon arrival, Pastor Marian would make sure that all 150 volunteers were accounted for and that there was enough food for the approximately 600 guests — many of whom are elderly or working families — they served in the church sanctuary-turned-dining room each week. At 9:30 a.m., the doors would open and guests were ushered into the building to the sound of joyful music, and a receiving line of smiling volunteers offering handshakes and hugs. Guests were not only fed, they were prayed for (if they wanted it), given opportunities to take GED, ESL, or computer classes, and provided legal aid.
“Lots of people come and just are lonely,” my aunt shared with me over the phone. “... People are hungry for food and they're hungry for love and they're hungry for community. And so that all took place [there].”
But that was before COVID-19 hit New York City. In the weeks since the pandemic began, Father’s Heart has grappled with a new reality. Because the Hunger Prevention Program was deemed essential, the ministry has been tasked with feeding hundreds of New Yorkers, some of whom find themselves food insecure for the first time in their lives. They are doing so with a massively scaled down operation, as some staff are isolating at home. Still, the ministry has a waiting list of people wanting to volunteer.
The Hunger Prevention Program now opens at 8 a.m., to reduce crowding outside. The volunteers get to work chalking up the sidewalk to ensure social distancing. Gone are the rows of tables set for breakfast with pitchers of orange juice and carafes of coffee and milk. In their place are boxes of food and bags of groceries ready for distribution. Though the food pantry is now in the sanctuary, the chapel that turns into a makeshift kitchen on Saturday mornings prepares a healthy breakfast-to-go that can last for two or three meals. Volunteers hand these breakfasts out of the chapel window for distribution on the sidewalk.
“Everything that was magic for us, if I could put it that way, was gone. I mean, this is the community, this is what we do. We embrace people, we love them, we hug them, we don't just give out food. And now what we're doing is giving them food,” Pastor Marian told me.
Though many regulars have stayed home, Father’s Heart still serves hundreds. Each week, about 15 percent of their guests are first-timers.The pandemic has pushed people who never imagined themselves going hungry into a new reality, one they never prepared for. One regular volunteer mentioned to Pastor Marian that “friends of hers that lost their jobs, they have no money, they need food, but they live in Brooklyn. I said, ‘Well, they should call 311 or look on the hotline.’ She said to me, ‘They don't even know there's a hotline.’ Unless you knew, unless you have been food poor before, you don't know there's a hunger hotline. You don't know there's a food bank for New York City.”
When my aunt first came to 545 East 11th Street back in 1983, it was to help my parents with their church. In the 70s the community had essentially been a drug supermarket and most of the congregation was made up of former drug addicts and dealers. My earliest memories of the neighborhood were of treeless streets, burned-out cars and buildings, and the occasional sounds of gunfire. There definitely weren’t any expensive condos or Michelin-rated restaurants.
AIDS was spreading and many in the church became infected. My aunt sees some similarities between the start of AIDS and COVID-19. “When finally we found out how it was passed along, needles and whatnot, then it was just at least manageable … . And so most of the population could breathe a sigh of relief, so to speak. But for us, we lost our whole church because the drug addicts, unbeknownst to them, were passing it along. And so it was horrible for us because people that we loved dearly were gone, young and old alike.”
When the Twin Towers were hit on September 11, 2001, and the city below 14th Street was closed, Father’s Heart stayed open to serve the community. Volunteers from around the country came to help serve food to mourners in Union Square Park.
But for my aunt, COVID-19 is so different from any of the crises she has faced in her ministry. “This is so much more broad. ... people are dying without their families, people can't be together and comfort each other, people can't go to church. That community that brought so much comfort through these horrible times is disconnected.”
Much has been written about the ways in which the pandemic is exposing the fragility of our communities and the underlying vulnerabilities that were ignored. Over the years, Father’s Heart has tried to do what it can to knit the fraying margins of the neighborhood back into the whole, by reminding people of their God-given dignity and worth. But they are working against decades-long policies that have kept so many New Yorkers from accessing affordable housing and better paying jobs.
“I don't know what has to be broken,” Pastor Marian said. “I don't know if it's the greed. I don't know what it is, but there's got to be more solutions economically.’’
The space for hope that my aunt was talking about seemed to have broken open on the last Saturday in April. “The guests have been so... rigid, they have been scared, they have been in their own little shell, and they've come in like just hiding almost,” my aunt shared. But that seems to have changed in the past few weeks.
“This past week, they looked at you in the eye and were open,” she said. “There was so much conversation. There was so much love. There was so much hope. There was so much connection. People asked for prayer. People poured their hearts out. You didn't have to ask anybody, everyone was open to you, everyone was thankful, everyone was engaging. It was phenomenal.”
*Pastor Marian helped found Father’s Heart with my parents and some other local pastors in 1997. For 15 years, I also served in the soup kitchen and food pantry.