BY RYAN BUXTON | A spiritual buffet is being served in Chelsea.
Outside, the wind is ferocious and the ground is dusted with the previous night’s snow. But inside, the Manor Community Church is an oasis for people in need. They are at the church, located at 350 West 26th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, for a food ministry that has become a regular event in the neighborhood.
Each Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, the church welcomes a host of patrons who come, grocery carts in tow, for free food items and a short religious service. The food is donated by Trader Joe’s, and the sermon is delivered by the New York Gospel Mission (NYGM).
On a recent Saturday, more than 70 people were on hand. The mission’s volunteers and its director, Bill Jones, kept things running like clockwork. Everyone neatly lined up carts labeled with their names and took a seat inside the church — where they heard a 25-minute sermon before pushing their carts down an assembly line that distributes bread, fruit and a dessert. On this day, each person also took home a package of frozen meat — and on the way out, the edible goods were topped off with a handful of flowers or a plant.
Jones’ mission picks up the items from Trader Joe’s multiple times each day, and the donation goes a long way. After distributing some of it to eight other ministries in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, NYGM gears up for the food distribution at Manor Community Church — which takes place at 3pm on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and at 5pm on Thursdays (with a Chinese language service that day, at 3pm).
“Trader Joe’s doesn’t get the credit they really deserve,” Jones said. “People have no idea the effort and expense that Trader Joe’s goes through to scan and donate and sort this food instead of it being thrown out.”
Jones said the volunteers in his mission feed patrons both physically and spiritually. “There is a text in Philippians that invites believing people to have the mind of Christ, the thinking of Christ. Though he existed in the form of God, he came down here and took the form of a servant,” he said. “He loved people…more than in just word, but in deed.”
After moving to Chelsea from the East Village in October, the ministry has attracted a large turnout that reaches as many as 150 people on some days, Jones said. At first glance, those people don’t have much in common. They’re different races, they speak different languages and some need the food more than others.
Another thing that separates the patrons is their religious beliefs. Some of them are Christian, but others admit they aren’t religious at all. NYGM’s sermons, which are typically delivered by Kevin Vigneault, focus primarily on scripture. “We preach a nondenominational view because of the difficulties of the city,” Vigneault said, in reference to a wide variety of faiths.
The presence of nonbelievers doesn’t make a difference to the NYGM volunteers. Some of them are not religious themselves, like Raymond Grafal — a volunteer from Washington Heights who takes in the service despite his own views. “I don’t knock other people’s religions,” he said.
And even if patrons show up for the food and listen to the sermon only as a courtesy, that’s fine by the ministry. Mason Trumble, who is interning at the church, said he knows that not everyone finds spiritual fulfillment from the service. “Some do, some don’t. We’re supposed to pass on Christ’s love even if they don’t take the religious benefits,” he said.
Despite the diversity among the people NYGM serves, they have one thing in common — gratitude. For most, their need is great and their appreciation is palpable. “Almost anybody who comes in is depending on this,” Vigneault said.
That is the case for patrons like Karen Carreras, who traveled all the way from the Bronx to get food for herself, her husband and her three sons. Or Shere Marcus, who is a caretaker for a 60-year-old man in Chelsea. Her client is on a fixed income, she said, and without grocery supplements from NYGM, she wouldn’t be able to stretch the money far enough to stock the pantry. A local resident noted that she comes to pick up food about twice a week, for her family of three. “It’s a great help, since I’m not working. It’s very important,” she said.
Money is short for most of them, and the same is true for NYGM. The costs for gas for food pickups, vehicle maintenance and other expenditures reaches about $1,500 a week, Jones said, and he’s never sure where the money will come from. Most of the funding is supplied by donors around the country. The ministry does take a collection from its patrons, but it’s never much. On this Saturday, Jones expected to collect about $30 from the 70 people in attendance.
But the financial uncertainty doesn’t faze him. Jones said NYGM is like the people it serves in that sometimes they aren’t sure where the next payment is coming from. To Jones, that’s a lesson in how the Lord works. “The prayer says, ‘Give us this day our daily bread.’ You may be worried about what God will do a month from now, but God will meet your needs today.”
For more information, visit nygm.org.