What church would get rid of its pews to make more room for feeding the poor? Surely, wouldn’t the pastor resign, the elders stomp out in exasperation, and the members hastily decamp for a properly pewed church?
All that didn’t happen at a Lower East Side church ten years ago when it did just that--throw out the pews. Now, there are more people in the church than ever.
Thirty years ago, evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Manhattan below 116th Street were on the ropes and threatening to disappear except for some immigrant areas like Chinatown. The comeback of these churches is an outcome of their flexibility and innovation in meeting the physical and psychological needs of the poor and afflicted and the existential need for meaning among well-to-do newcomers to the city. The evangelical and Pentecostal churches in Center City Manhattan have grown as they simultaneously did good to the poor and the rich.
Now, over 700 homeless, elderly and working-poor pack the church sanctuary of Father’s Heart Ministry to eat every Saturday. With their walkers, canes and shopping carts they solemnly line the sidewalks of Eleventh Street near Avenue B in the East Village to wait outside. At 9:30 A.M., as the doors edge open, wrinkled faces relax, walkers shuffle forward a lively pace and a few smiles crack out as the aroma of hot brunch and sounds of an acoustic guitar and tambourines greet them. The church growth happened like a business flexibly responding to a market.
“It wasn't like we sat down and came up with this plan. The plan evolved,” said Pastor Chuck Vedral, who founded of Father’s Heart in 1997. “We started in our house with 12 people.”
Pastor Vedral, his wife Carol and a handful of others started praying for the homeless in the Vedral home. The prayer group attracted like-minded souls, outgrew the living room and moved into their garage. Eventually, they felt confident enough to go to the streets to pray with the homeless and tell them about God’s love for them.
But the group was left dissatisfied. A conventional preaching the gospel of love seemed rather empty without real loving action.
“This is what the church has done historically, we preach the gospel but we haven't demonstrated it,” Vedral said. The Vedrals wanted to join word with deed, saying love with doing love. The Old Testament prophets said that they “felt the burden of the Lord” to denounce callous disregard of the poor. Vedral uses a Twenty First Century variant of the language, saying, “We felt a real conviction from the Lord that we had to demonstrate it.”
Once the ministry moved into the chapel of the church and started feeding people, the ministry grew rapidly. The numbers began to exceed the fire code for the small chapel, so they moved the ministry into the church sanctuary.
“We tried to serve people in pews and it just didn't work at all,” Vedral said with a laugh, shaking his head at the memory. So out went the pews and the numbers increased.
Vedral can list many individuals, such as Judy, Nick and Joe (who goes by the monicker “Halloween”), that regularly came to FHM for food and eventually overcame substance abuse and addiction, entered the work force and were reconciled to their families.
But these sort of happy endings do not come easily or painlessly.
Vedral said they have worked with many individuals for four and five years without seeing any substantial changes in their life. The Vedrals are like parents who never give up on their children.
“We just kept responding with the Father's heart until finally they would say, we want that,” Vedral said.
Even if you get cussed out, do not take it personally and do not get angry, he said. If you must, take a moment, but go back to the table and ask the guest if they would like some more food, with a smile on your face. That's the Father's heart, the pastor said.
Changing with the times
Since its inception, the ministry has reconfigured itself according to the needs of the surrounding community. The pastor says that the church has never controlled the direction of the ministry. He says that the flexibility comes from seeing their circumstances as God-given opportunities to serve in different ways.
The ministry has its roots in a Russian Baptist church that made a turn toward Pentecostalism in 1919. After World War I and the Communist Revolution in Russia in 1917, the moment seemed apocalyptic, a time of a great ending of one era and the beginning of another. Christians in New York City searched for a new way of relating to the times. Some evangelicals like John Roach Straton at Calvary Baptist Church became fundamentalists inveighing against drink, dance and risqué theater. Other evangelicals found the fresh start to a new time in an ecstatic, prophetic, healing presence of the Holy Spirit. Tongues of fire, as the participants called it, spread out to meet the transformative moment with a transformative spiritual experience.
After the original ecstatic Pentecostal meetings on Azusa Street in Los Angeles, California in 1906, the word spread quickly back to New York City. Ivan Efimovich Voronaeff, a legendary founder of Pentecostalism in Russia, returned from California to help organize within the Baptist church a group which a few years later split off to become The Russian Ukrainian Polish Pentecostal Church. Voronaeff, a brave Cossack from the Ural Mountains, returned to Russia under the Communists, founding 350 Pentecostal churches there before being arrested and executed.
As the original generation of fervent Pentecostals passed on or moved out of the East Village, the church shifted its ministry into English. Then, in the late 1970s the drug scene of the area exploded around the church. It shifted again toward helping people with substance abuse and broken families.
As the area gentrified in the 1990s, the neighborhood, comprised of Avenues A through D, surrounding FHM changed significantly, shedding the title of murderous, drugged-soaked Alphabet City to emerge as the more gentrified East Village. Consequently, the make-up of the guests and volunteers has changed significantly over the past two years. The church recognized that the poor and the homeless paradoxically stood out as particularly helpless in the nouveau rich situation. So, The Father’s Heart Ministry was founded to complement the work of the church.
After the events of 9/11 happened, Father’s Heart adapted again and started an emergency service site inside the frozen zone in lower Manhattan where no one could enter or leave.
“Food would come to the barricades and they'd say, 'Where should we bring it?' and the police would say, 'Take it to Father's Heart,'” Vedral said.
During the two weeks following the terrorist attacks, FHM was open 24-hours a day, designated an official FEMA site and served 10,000 extra people, including firefighters and emergency crews. They also gave away more than 100,000 Bibles within a couple days.
The next page in Father’s Heart’s history seems to have already started.
The number of people visiting the ministry continues to grow, with a larger percentage coming from nearby shelters, housing projects and even Chinatown. There are twice as many people at the Saturday morning brunch and food pantry. According to a Values Research Institute analysis, each church in New York City contributes on the average about $247,000 of social services. Some churches contribute far more than this.
Today, only 20 percent of those who attend the Saturday-morning feeding program are actually homeless. The elderly make up 50 percent and the working poor the other 30 percent of the guests, all of which receive an all-you-can-eat hot brunch and a large grocery bag of fresh produce and dried and canned goods.
“It was really the recession that brought to us more of the working poor and even people whom you would look at and say, 'They don't have a hunger need.' But they're spending all their money just on rent and getting a roof over their head and they need food assistance,” 66-year-old Vedral said. The ministry has started programs to help immigrants, the working poor and their families. The Vedrals and their co-pastors Marion and Perry Hutchins depend on about 90 volunteers to handle the volume of ministry.
The gentry who have moved into the neighborhood have turned to Father’s Heart as a place to satisfy their social consciences and to develop more meaningful lives. They have also been a key for a new phase of ministry. They are highly skilled volunteers who are helpful in training and mentoring people for sustainable independent lives.
“We have social workers on the platform, and once a month we have lawyers on the platform,” Vedral said of the Saturday morning activities.
Consequently, Father’s Heart has expanded into a sort of alternative community center, offering free educational services and events throughout the week. It has begun ESL courses on Sunday morning and programs such as youth ministry and gang prevention, parenting, anger management, self-defense and nutrition.
Every Tuesday night, approximately 100 children and families come to FHM for Kids Zone, where they eat dinner together, play games and participate in various educational opportunities.
After the Saturday morning feeding program, the ice cream shop Alphabet Scoop is the ministry's second biggest project. The shop’s slogan is “changing lives one scoop at a time.” It is provides life-skills and jobs for the youth.
“Alphabet Scoop is a teen mentor program which teaches teens job skills by running an Alphabet City Ice Cream shop,” says Ryan Kurlbaum, a 28-year old architect who has volunteered with the ministry for the last two years.
In 2008, a group of New York University business students discovered the vision for Alphabet Scoop and successfully pitched it to Macy's, who funded and performed a facelift on the building and business model.
Vedral said many young people have since moved from the Alphabet Scoop program and received jobs elsewhere in the community. One teenage boy received a scholarship to study filmmaking at a university in Boston, reflecting the highest hopes of Father’s Heart’s.
“Their mission is to provide a way in which the underserved can become self-sufficient,” said Kelly Kurlbaum who runs the food pantry with her husband Ryan. “They do more than just feed the hungry, they help them build the confidence to move away from dependency.” The volunteers often see the dream realized.
“It is an amazing thing to see someone who was once in the line on Saturday morning come full circle and come back to serve those in the line,” said Ryan, a 28-year old architect in the city. “The ministry will achieve its goal when there is no need for the ministry.”