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North Central New York team does mission work in NYC

By Michael DeBorja
March 4, 2005

Often United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) is associated with building and repairing schools, homes and churches, but the program offers many kinds of service opportunities.

Recently nineteen youth and adults from North Central New York Annual Conference traveled to New York City to serve people who are poor, hungry and homeless. Several churches in the Northern Flow District participated in the trip, which was organized by Dr. Sylvia Reimer, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist. Sylvia had led quite a few groups to rural work camps and felt it would be good to raise people's awareness of needs in urban settings.

Before leaving, the team participated in a training session. They looked at some scriptural passages on being called to mission (Matt. 4:18-22, Acts 16: 9-10); being sent to mission (Mt. 28:18-20, Acts 13:1-4); and what is mission (Acts 4:32-36; Luke 10:25-37). Training and Bible study are important, Sylvia said, to make sure a team is grounded.

Arrival at the Youth Service Opportunities Project

The group checked in at the International Hostel located in the upper west side of Manhattan on Thursday, February 24. The following afternoon, with sleeping bags in tow, they took the subway downtown to the Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP) office at the Friends Meeting House near Union Square. YSOP is the largest provider of student volunteers to agencies that work with people who are homeless and hungry in New York City. They were greeted by Jean Sommerfield, YSOP associate executive director, and were joined by a group of high school students from Dalton School in the upper east side.

UMVIM team members from North Central New York wait for the Youth Service Opportunities Project orientation to begin at Friends Meeting House


Robyn Vogel, the workcamp leader, asked the participants what they think a homeless person looks like. She asked everyone to complete the statement, "Last time I saw a homeless person, I felt....", on a piece of paper, fold it, write their name on the outside, and return it to her. She observed that, although the stereotypical image is that of a dirty man in the late 30s or older, it can be anyone. The homeless are more varied than many of us think.

"Why is a person homeless?" she asked. It can be because of loss of employment, mental or physical illness, drug or alcohol abuse, or a variety of reasons.

.Later the group cooked for and served about 15 homeless persons from Peter's Place, a drop-in center, which is different from a shelter in that people can have a shower and get clothing, but not sleep there. Some volunteers prepared the food - chicken, salad, vegetables, bread pizza, and brownies - while others played board and card games and visited with the homeless persons. Everyone shared dinner.


UMVIMers conversing with homeless people at the Friends Meeting House dining room
Then James Macklin, formerly homeless and now outreach director for the Bowery Mission, spoke to the volunteers. He related how he lost his business due to cocaine addiction and was homeless for eight months. One day a young woman woke him while he was sleeping in the subway and handed him a card for the Bowery Mission, which gave him an opportunity to reclaim his life. Sometimes one might not know the road one might have to travel, he said, and a smiling face can heal more than anything else can.

Volunteer Teams Go to Seven Projects

On Saturday, the UMVIMers and Dalton students were divided into seven service teams. Wearing their blue YSOP t-shirts, they fanned out to Neighbors Together, a soup kitchen in Brooklyn; University Soup Kitchen in the East Village; St. Joseph's Soup Kitchen in the West Village; Christian Help in Park Slope (CHIPS), Brooklyn; Part of the Solution (POTS) in the Bronx; Open Door, a drop-in center in midtown; and St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue Christian Church.

The group that went to Part of the Solution (POTS) in the Bronx had the farthest way to go, with a change of subway trains and a walk of several blocks. The YSOP volunteers, including Jane Ferjet and Beth Archer, helped in the repacking of bread for the food pantry, preparation of fruit juice and other food, wrapping silverware, serving dishes, bussing tables, and clean-up after lunch. A woman in an SUV came by with several bags of clothes and the group carried them to the back of the building.

Founded in 1982 by a Jesuit and a Sister of Charity, POTS runs a community dining room where food is served restaurant-style, not with a prepared tray like a cafeteria. It serves lunch and dinner on weekdays, five days a week, and just lunch on weekends, to 300-450 people a day, depending on the time of the month. It is open 7 days a week, 365 days a year. A majority of the people served are working poor individuals and families with a place to live; some have been to college or served in the military. While striving to meet basic human needs, POTS "recognize[s] that the circumstances surrounding poverty can result from unjust societal structures" and "pursue[s] a vision for a better society."


Packing bread at Part of the Solution (POTS) Community Kitchen in the Bronx


The YSOP volunteers were amazed by the sense of community and compassion in the place. Everyone seemed to know each other. There were also tables with kids, unusual for a soup kitchen. It was small and could serve only 24 people at a time and it got hectic at times. From 11:45 a.m. to 2:15 pm, it served 175 people, and others were still coming in. The staff gave containers for leftovers. The bags of bread the group helped pack would be given out on Sunday.

Grace Burke and Rusty Kitto went to St. Joseph's Soup Kitchen in the heart of Greenwich Village as part of a team of six YSOP volunteers. Now in its 28th year, the kitchen operates only on Saturdays, serving lunch from 1:30 to 3 pm. YSOP began helping it out from its early years. The program has no paid staff and is completely run by volunteers. According to the volunteer coordinator, Miriam Lee, a doctor and his wife make a chef-quality salad and a Wall Street trader is one of the managers. The kitchen serves around 400 meals a week (20,000+ a year), more toward the end of the month. It relies on donations from the block associations and a caring community and grants and never has had to ask financial assistance from the church. The menu, which the volunteers cooked, included beef stew, chili, spaghetti, vegetarian food, and fruit cups.

Volunteers make lunch in St. Joseph's Soup Kitchen in Greenwich Village

University Community Soup at the basement of Nativity Church in the East Village, where Sylvia Reimer, Eunice Tabor, and Rebecca Harvey went, serves breakfast and lunch for 300 to 350 people from 1:00 to 2:30 pm. on Saturday. It always has the same menu, including meat loaf, meat balls, salad, cake and fruit. Some of the food is donated; funds come from federal, state and city grants and private contributions.

Started by two New York University professors, it's been around for over 22 years. More than 25 volunteers run it, with no paid staff. It provides clothes in winter and social services like helping people with housing, medical, substance abuse and employment problems. Very well-organized, it feeds a lot of people in a hour and a half. The guests are a varied group, with some Asians and close to one-third women.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church is located in midtown Manhattan, a stone's throw from Rockefeller Center. The volunteers prepared and handed out 300 sack lunches in two teams, with some people coming up to them. In a matter of a few blocks, one volunteer's 25 bags were gone. Park Avenue Christian Church has a high-tech kitchen donated by Colonel Sanders where the YSOP volunteers helped feed 150 people.

Open Door is a drop-in center run by the city in midtown Manhattan near Port Authority Bus Terminal. It serves three meals a day in a big mess hall to about 150 middle-aged, minority men. The volunteers helped prepare lunch and dinner, serve lunch, and clean up. Without them, the two staff cooks would not been able to cope.

Neighbors Together in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, serves lunch six days a week for 300 people a day. Aside from its community kitchen, it also offers various social services like helping prepare taxes and acquisition of food stamps. Christian Help in Park Slope (CHIPS), Brooklyn, also has a soup kitchen open six days a week which serves 6,000 meals a month, where a lot of volunteers helped, including family groups.

Evaluating, Reflecting, Setting Goals, Getting Involved

After returning to YSOP, each team filled out an evaluation form and shared what they did that day, what the sites were like, where the sites get their funding and so forth, while the others asked them questions. The groups had served 1,912 people that day and done a lot of work. Lastly, Robyn Vogel, the workcamp leader, returned the pieces of paper that the volunteers had given her the night before and asked them to complete a second sentence, the "Last time I saw a homeless person, I felt...". She also asked them to write their impressions of their experience and to write three personal goals related to community service or the like.

It had been a long, exhausting but fulfilling day. Sunday morning, the team had a worship service reflecting on this step forward in their faith journey. The session was important to pull things together, Sylvia said. They focused on the people they met - where they "saw light shining through (our darkness and theirs)". A couple of people also staying in the hostel wandered in, stayed through the service, and expressed their gratitude for being welcomed.

Sylvia Reimer reported that everyone was very glad they went to the February 25-26 event. There is enthusiasm for more UMVIM activity. In addition to a trip to Red Bird Mission in Frakes, Kentucky, in April, the Northern Flow District UMVIMs are scheduled for a work camp in Maine in July, partly house repair and partly leading a Vacation Bible School for a rural church.

The "danger" in getting involved with UMVIM, Sylvia warned, is that "it can get addictive and lead to complicated life style changes." She said that she and her husband, Marvin, also a doctor, "did a lot of UMVIM trips to Central and South America. It is part of what led us to full time service in Zimbabwe - we decided we needed more than two weeks to get to know people and their needs and culture to serve as we were being called. So we got sent!"

United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, which began in the early 1970s in the Southeastern Jurisdiction (SEJ) and was recognized as an official entity of the SEJ in 1976, has been a growing movement in the United Methodist Church as a whole since the 1980s. Last year, based on reports from 56 out of 63 annual conferences, more than 60,000 UMVIMers served in 51 countries and 37 U.S. states and contributed almost $15 million in money and in kind for construction and medical projects. A list of UMVIM opportunities all over the world is available at http://umvim.info.

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The NCNY Northern Flow District UMVIM team members were: Dr. Sylvia Reimer, Kristen Boshane, Katie Thompson and Rusty Kitto from First United Methodist Church of Watertown, New York, which was the sponsoring organization for the team; Dr. Grace Burke from Asbury UMC, also in Watertown; Rev. Eunice Tabor, Dick Tabor, Liz, Larry and Simon Alderman, Brian and Michelle Delosh, Rebecca Harvey, and Morgan Mayette, from Massena First UMC; Rev. Marilyn Stevens and Nicole Merritt, from Park UMC in Pulaski; Yvonne Lee and Beth Archer, from Lowville UMC; and Jane Ferjet, from Alexandria Bay UMC.

See also: Mission Volunteers Have Variety of Opportunities for Service, United Methodist News Service, March 23, 2005 (a shorter version of the article above)

Photo credits: Michael DeBorja, Mission Volunteers, General Board of Global Ministries