Today, two scruffy men arose to meet the morning without any expectation about where their next meal would be. Their braids and dreadlocks slid off their shoulders, and thick headphones looped around their necks as they prepared for another day without a job.
By noontime, they were wearing bewildered looks as they sat in the storefront sanctuary of Upon This Rock Anointed Outreach Ministries. They were curiously looking up at Reverend Marlene Walker as she spoke to them in the sanctuary of her storefront church. "Come again," Walker told them. Each now held a white Styrofoam box filled with food, prepared for them by Walker and her crew. The men, who were barely in their mid-20's, nodded their heads, picked up their skateboards off the carpeted floor and left wearing lopsided smiles.
Each weekend, Upon This Rock Ministries hands out free boxes of food to the Crown Heights community. On top of the church's awning, a white sign with red and black bold letters reads, "God is Love. Free cooked lunch served 12 pm to 4 pm every Saturday."
Large pots of rice and beans, potato salad, jerked chicken and pork, and a cooler with homemade lemon iced tea lined the counter on the unfolded tables spread out along the sidewalk outside of the church. Members of the congregation had donned latex gloves and hair nets to beckon the passerbys and the homeless to come receive their share of food, gratis and no questions asked.
Founded in October 2011 by Walker and her husband, Maurice, Upon This Rock Ministries is located on New York Avenue in the South Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. SUNY Downstate Medical Center is four blocks away. Walker is a former hospital nurse who currently works as a private health aide.
The church, which seats a maximum of about 50 people in the sanctuary, began offering free food on Saturdays since the end of May. They distribute an average of 100 meals every week. People from both the northern and southern parts of Crown Heights come for the treats. It’s aroma fills the air and makes your mouth water and stomach scream for a bite.
The taste doesn’t disappoint.
Locally, an equivalent meal would cost about ten dollars. That means that the congregation puts $1000 of meals on people’s tables every week. That’s $4000 per month and about $50,000 per year of value given out. In such an almost invisible way a substantial benefit comes to the neighborhood.
For a small and young church like Upon This Rock, its help to the downtrodden outside of their own congregation is a much bigger sacrifice than for churches with established networks and resources. As an independently operating church, Upon This Rock pays for their Saturday feeding program out of pocket, in addition to the rent and utilities for their storefront space. Sterling-Walker observes that they will adjust their times and amount of food service to the maximum allowed by their donations as they come. All the labor put into the effort is voluntary and unpaid.
Yet, for Walker, a woman in her late 30s natively from Jamaica, the Saturday feeding program is not a heavy load to bear. "When you're doing it in your heart, it's tiresome, but not a burden," she said. "It's a sacrificial call."
Their motivation to help the poor was spurred by an interaction Walker had a few years ago with a young man who "was broke down in crime," as she described him. He had become homeless after a fire impoverished his family. As the man recalled his sudden fall into the streets, Walker reflected how she, all of us, are just a couple of steps away from falling into homelessness due to a fire or an illness.
Walker rearranged her Protestant work ethic perspective on the homeless. "I used to think the homeless were different and crazy," Walker said during an interview on the sidewalk in front of the church. "Society tends to write them off, but now I think they are just like anyone else."
With this mindset shift , she started to rethink how church should be done differently. She described how they came up with the idea to establish a church that "specializes in the homeless," The Saturday feeding program is not just a community outreach component of the church, but integrally part of their ethos.
Walker said the church also preaches every Monday at the Salvation Army Men's Shelter on Clarkson Avenue. In June 2013, she organized a catered banquet for homeless men from the shelter. The theme of the banquet was titled "Come as You Are." She rented space inside another church, the Power of Faith Ministry International on Church and Brooklyn Avenues and organized transportation vans for the men from the shelter to the banquet hall. One hundred and twenty homeless men showed up.
When A Journey first visited Upon This Rock on a Saturday in the Fall of 2013, the community was demonstrating more food need than the church was prepared to meet. "We had to go home today and cook more rice," said Tamar Edward, a member of the church for four months. The church says that the food needs have substantially increased this year.
A group of Hispanic teenage guys came up to us on the sidewalk and one fellow asked, "How much is it?" He nodded his head towards the table of food.
"It's free, just come line up," responded Walker.
"Really? No way," he said dumbfounded in disbelief. The young men scooted up to line up at the end of the table to wait for their turn.
Another man, an older Black gentleman with a thin figure, passed by pushing a metallic blue shopping cart. Walker looked at him with concern. She turned to us and said, “He's homeless. We just fed him today.”
The pastor's goals for the church consist of having a fully equip kitchen and a recreational area. She wants to give the homeless a place to shower, a cafeteria where they can eat meals (as
well as a kitchen where church members can cook), and classrooms where the homeless can learn in skills and attend seminars on job opportunities. "Now, some of the homeless walk the streets, commit crime, and go back to the shelter at night," she said. The church plans on continuing the feeding. perhaps with sabbaticals for the purpose of gathering more resources.
Walker serves the community with gusto. About half an hour past 4pm, she and four other church women begin to wrap up. They place tin foil on top of the jerked chicken and pork, pot lids go on top of the rice and beans, and the cooler of iced tea is taken inside the church.
As they clean up, she said to us, "We look forward to doing it again." Saturdays on this block in Crown Heights means good smells, friendship and the little sacrifices that you make for people you love.