Soup kitchen in the hot zone
A church in New York City is learning how to minister to the homeless and addicted from a distance
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One Sunday morning in late March, 25 homeless people lined up outside Recovery House of Worship in Brooklyn, New York City. The week before, Pastor Edwin Colon told a group of homeless people: “Hey, guys, don’t come back. We love you, we want to serve you, but it’s not safe.”
He knew it didn’t matter: “We have a 20-year reputation of providing help, so they’re going to come.” When they do, Colon shares a brief gospel message with them, and the group sings a hymn. Then each homeless person gets a chicken sandwich that Chick-fil-A donated.
Situated in a COVID-19 hot spot, this small church has had to change how it does ministry: Zoom calls now replace in-person Bible studies, church services, and recovery meetings. But nothing has changed about its mission to serve the needy and offer gospel hope.
Between 110 and 150 people attend church services at Recovery House of Worship (RHOW), and many are recovering from addictions. The church offers shelter in its basement for homeless men and provides 12-step meetings, Bible studies, and a soup kitchen during the week. Church members build friendships with addicts and help them get involved in leading and serving.
The coronavirus outbreak means RHOW has temporarily replaced its Sunday morning service with 10 weekly prayer meetings on Zoom, one each weekday morning and one each evening. The soup kitchen still operates Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, but staff can no longer bring people inside and talk with them while they eat. Now staff members pass to-go bags with food and a tract out a window to visitors seeking a meal. (The basement shelter is still open, but is not currently accepting new residents.)
When the homeless come to the church, Colon tries to keep everyone safely distanced while he shares the gospel and learns their needs. Still, he knows there’s a contagion risk for him and his staff. “We’re grateful to be able to expose ourselves to harm’s way to serve others,” he said. “The basis of our service is that Christ has given us everything. Everything. So we’re eager to share the love of Christ during these difficult times.”
A former addict himself, Colon described the pandemic’s forced isolation measures as particularly hard for addicts trying to stay clean and sober. “Stinking thinking” can take hold when an addict is alone, and he’ll imagine using drugs or alcohol again. The pastor said the church needs to be in touch with such people every day, giving them hope: “When meetings close, addicts die.”
People still call the church regularly, asking for help to detox and change. But currently the pastors are struggling to find places that will take them in: Hospitals and rehab facilities are locking down their programs and refusing newcomers to avoid any risk of coronavirus infection.
The church is serving other vulnerable populations in the pandemic as well. In early April, another local church phoned RHOW to request groceries for 50 immigrant families. Now RHOW distributes 200 bags of groceries weekly to that church and others. The immigrant families who requested groceries are construction workers, maids, and car attendants who, because of their legal status, may not receive checks from the government stimulus package. RHOW also provides Bible studies, baby supplies, and food to single moms.
However, the church’s resources are draining. With a ministry budget of $350,000 a year, the church had less than two months of funds in reserve when the pandemic hit. Most funding came through offerings at its now-suspended Sunday services.
Despite the challenges, Colon is hopeful the pandemic could provide an answer to the church’s prayers for revival as people recognize their dependence on God. He said atheists have been coming to the church’s online prayer meetings: “It’s a wonderful thing, the spiritual hunger. Because nothing else works.”