Early in the 1980s, the historic Church of the Holy Apostles, serving the Chelsea neighborhood of New York since 1848, was dying. Membership was down to 125 and money was scarce. The church did not have the $500,000 needed to replace the roof, in danger of collapse. Undaunted, Father Rand Frew, the pastor, suggested starting a soup kitchen.
The congregation approved the project. According to New Yorker writer Ian Frazier, in an article titled “Hungry Minds: Tales from a Chelsea Soup Kitchen,” the consensus was that “if Holy Apostles is going out of business anyway, it might as well do some good before it does.”
It is a good philosophy for all of us, whether young or old. As the liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us each year, we are not destined to be in business long. Life is short. Recently, a friend of one of our sons died, reminding us of our mortality.
Doing good has unanticipated rewards. The Church of Holy Apostles, part of the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of New York, discovered that donors were more willing to give to a historic church with a well-run soup kitchen than to save a dilapidated one with a shrinking congregation. The soup kitchen went forward and the church was able to borrow to repair the roof.
Father Frew found $50,000, donors of food, a head chef, cooking supplies and volunteers. On the soup kitchen’s first day, Oct. 22, 1982, it served 35 homeless guests in the church’s Mission House. By the mid-1980s, 900 or more guests were coming for lunch every weekday. Now, the soup kitchen serves an average of 1,200 at a cost of $10,000 a day and $2.7 million a year. In its 33 years, the soup kitchen has served more than a million meals.
The story of the Church of Holy Apostles and its soup kitchen, as detailed by Frazier in his 2008 article, has been one of taking a chance to do good, of using God-given talents wisely and of selfless volunteer service, but also of not being discouraged by adversity.
When a fire destroyed the roof, blackened the church and caused $8 million in damage, insurance made it possible to rebuild. The soup kitchen expanded to the church itself to accommodate the guests. Pews were removed, replaced by tables and folding chairs. On weekends, when no lunch is served, the tables are put away so religious services can be held.
To deal with hungry minds, Frazier and other volunteers started a writers’ workshop. “Somehow, writing even a few lines makes the person who does it more substantial and real,” he wrote. In 2004, Susan Shapiro, one of the teachers, co-edited an anthology of the writings with the Rev. Elizabeth Maxwell, associate rector of Holy Apostles, titled “Food for the Soul.” Proceeds went to the authors, some of whom appeared on national television and radio shows.
“Many people on the streets of New York are hungry right now,” Frazier wrote. “Every year, the city has been getting hungrier. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger estimates 1.3 million New Yorkers can’t afford to buy enough food for themselves and their families all the time. That works out to about one person of every six in the city.”
When Frazier questioned the Rev. Elizabeth Maxwell about her church’s religious inspiration, she said: “Well, we do this because Jesus said to feed the hungry. There’s no more to it than that. Jesus told us to take care of the poor and the hungry and those in prison. … We meet him, unnamed and unrecognized, in the guests who come to the soup kitchen every day.”