The line snaked around St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church on 125th Street and Morningside Drive in Harlem the morning of April 6. One man, looking up to the heavens, waved his hands in the air in a prayer gesture of thanksgiving. Others staked out their places, making their points in English, Chinese and Spanish.
As the morning concluded, some 350 bags of food were distributed, providing a needed lift in the form of 3,150 meals for households in upper Manhattan as the Easter holiday of hope and resurrection approached.
The food pantry is usually open every other Saturday, but as Christians prepared to gather for Holy Thursday to commemorate Jesus’ Last Supper, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York sponsored the food distribution to assist those who are in need. It also served as a reminder for those who enjoy relative abundance that Holy Week is not just a statement about personal spirituality, that it required more than prayer.
As Christians reflect on the Gospels, noted Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who came to assist the food distribution, they are reminded of Jesus’ command to feed the hungry.
“We got to do it,” he said, at a press conference attended by hundreds of food recipients, donors, volunteers, Catholic Charities workers and local media who crowded into a parish basement stocked with fresh produce and other essentials. The Cardinal noted that the salvation of souls depends upon acts of generosity to the poor. At the Last Judgement, the Cardinal said, Jesus reminds all Christians that they will be evaluated on whether or not they helped the needy.
While the special seasonal event brought out a large turnout – including reporters from most of the city’s television news outlets – Cardinal Dolan reminded the participants that Catholic Charities is doing the work of feeding the poor throughout the year, often quietly and without public acclaim. There are more than 35 food pantries supported by Catholic Charities in Manhattan, the Bronx, Staten Island and upstate counties.
Msgr. Kevin Sullivan, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, told the press conference that there is a special link between Holy Thursday and feeding the poor.
“Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. He thought of their needs,” he said, a reference to the Last Supper, during which the Gospels describe the Lord as emphasizing the ideal of service.
“We can’t love the God we cannot see if we do not love the neighbor we can see,” he said, noting that Jews and Muslims were also celebrating their holy seasons of Passover and Ramadan and recognize that all people of faith recognize the value of service.
The tiny church auditorium space was crowded with volunteers and Catholic Charities workers who assisted the food distribution and answered the call to love their neighbor.
Maria Arzu, an immigrant from Honduras, has been assisting the food pantry distribution for more than 20 years. The assortment of chickens, beans, rice, pasta, milk, as well as fresh fruits, are particularly needed this year as food prices have skyrocketed, she said.
Cheryl Jenkins, a volunteer for four years, works for the Bronx courts during the week and contributes to the food pantry at St. Joseph of the Holy Family through her labor on weekends. She noted that interest in pantry services continues to rise. “We do well with the donations we get. But we could always use more. The need is great.”
Marsha Gaillard, a pantry volunteer since 2017, said that on Saturdays when food is distributed people come out early. Fresh produce, while available in the neighborhood, remains expensive. “That’s true even to me as a senior citizen. This really helps,” she said.
Mary Mussalli, coordinator of the St. Joseph of the Holy Family pantry, walked the line, handing out tickets to those seeking assistance and answering inquiries from those seeking help. She said the pantry serves not only the immediate Harlem community, but clients come from the Bronx and New Jersey as well. No one is turned away as long as there is food, she said.
Last year the pantry served 23,309 recipients. This year the pace is about the same.
Some recipients are regulars, such as Jose Castro, who uses the food pantry to supplement the needs of his family, which includes two children. Gloria Ward, a widow who waited in line, said the cost of food, particularly eggs, makes it difficult to live without the help of the pantry. Eggs in the neighborhood supermarkets now go for more than $6 a dozen, a price she can no longer afford.
Volunteers came throughout the metropolitan area to assist the distribution.
Chirring Lama, a student at Lehman College in the Bronx and a Catholic Charities intern, assisted clients as they exited the line, carrying groceries up a temporary ramp leading from the church basement.
“I am happy to be here and helping,” she said.
Lehman student intern Peace Kanu said she volunteered because she wanted to make people happy. Awa Fall, another Lehman student, provided an example of sacrifice. Assisting elderly clients with their groceries, she noted that as a Muslim she was fasting for Ramadan and was hungry, even while working amid the food she packed and carried.
“Still I am glad to be here and helping,” she said.
Edward Kerwin, another volunteer, is a senior at Regis High School in Manhattan who assisted during his spring break. He learned about the event through his Chinese language class and hoped to hone some of his skills helping to translate but spent most of his time moving shopping carts.
NYPD Captain Jose J. Taveras, commanding officer of the 26th Precinct, headquartered next door to the church, was there to supervise security at the distribution. Impressed by the turnout of all involved, he said that he was looking at the food pantry as a place where officers could volunteer their time beyond their regular service to the city.