Mid-curve, I received a call from a man whose name did not match his Caller-ID. He asked about our dinner program in a distinctive, educated voice, “Is it a hot meal?” Yes. “Will I have to sit down to eat or can I take it out?” He hurried on, “I’m new to this. 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, “Well, you’re safe. During this COVID crisis, all NYC kitchens that are open are offering grab-and-go meals. Ours happens to be free and ours happens to be hot.” He asked for our location; I gave it. He asked where else he could go; I told him our Program Director would email a list of locations (thinking that would also give us a way to check in on Jack - or Philip).
The Urban Outreach Center of NYC (www.UOCNYC.org) distributed nearly 10,000 ready-to-eat and pantry meals by the end of that week. To God be the glory.
This conversation was foremost in my thoughts when Mayor DeBlasio announced that all but “essential” construction projects were to grind to a halt. At this point, Avenue Church NYC was in the midst of construction on a 20,000 square foot former factory building on the Upper East Side. Having sold our historic Jan Hus Presbyterian Church property on 74th and 1st 9 months before, we expected to open our new space by the end of the summer. It would include a sanctuary, addiction recovery facility, Urban Outreach Center and retreat house. The word “essential” rang true for us: spiritually, mentally and physically. We soon learned that the Mayor thought so, too. Construction on 1745 1st Ave. could continue.
This left the congregation's Board with a throbbing tension: Should we create the condition for laborers to ride the subway so our essential project could stay on track? Or should we not enable workers to earn their livelihood from one of the only essential projects in town?
You know, you can’t tell a man who’s hungry that he might get sick tomorrow if he needs food to feed his family today.
Local grocers were closing for lack of people willing or now able to staff them. Unemployment applications were stuck in cyberspace. Of the roughly 1000 food pantries in a city of 8.4 million, fewer than 100 remained open. The Time of COVID-19 brought deepened uncertainty to many facets of urban living, not the least of which an uncertainly over where to find food. If people cannot buy it, for lack of availability or lack of funds, they needed somewhere reliable to receive it free of charge. If the food pantries are closed, then they need to be able to use their financial resources to buy some at a consistently reliable location or experience increased risk of exposure to the virus by searching from place to place.
So what was the higher moral decision: To remain a place of employment for hundreds of construction workers who would otherwise face increased vulnerability? Or to close our “essential” site and lower our perceived contribution to the likelihood that these people contract the coronavirus either way?
When I advised our General Contractor that the Board voted to close our site, his company went into closed-doors, 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.
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 5-borough city, thereby requiring long commutes on still-crowded, COVID-crusted subways to reach more resource-rich places for employment.
In the midst of a crisis, we navigate complex decision trees the best we can and hope we have lived up to Christ’s call to love all people equally well. But once the crisis has past, or our worry within the crisis leaves time for deeper thought, we have an obligation, you and I, to uproot the conditions that required an elaborate decision tree to be required in the first place. Rather than perpetuate a society of personal convenience, we must ask ourselves, “Why do some people have salaried jobs with flex time, 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?”
May we be troubled by the spreading roots of inequality. May we be nourished by the word of God to seek justice for all people. May we be plant seeds of righteousness along the many paths we walk. And may we be delighted by the fruits that are sown from the branches of liberation that spring forth.
This article first appeared in Presbyterians Today's July/August 2020 Issue, a missional publication of the Presbyterian Church (USA).