[Episcopal News Service] People lined up along the fence outside St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx Jan. 27 waiting for their turn to get inside — not to get a glimpse of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who was incidentally visiting, but to shop the parish’s weekly Wednesday morning food pantry.
Williams arrived and left with little fanfare. More food pantry clients lined up along the fence outside, paying little notice. Inside, the Rev. Martha Overall, priest-in-charge, along with members of the vestry and volunteers, opened up the parish and its programs for Williams to see. His visit was significant, Overall said, given the archbishop’s reason for being in New York.
The archbishop is here to participate in the 2010 Trinity Institute’s National Theological Conference, themed "Building an Ethical Economy: Theology and the Market Place." On Jan. 26, he participated in a panel that discussed ways to safeguard children from the effects of the global financial and economic crises at the Desmond Tutu Center, took part in discussions at the United Nations and, along with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, met with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Williams asked to see the work of the Episcopal Church on the ground, said New York Bishop Mark S. Sisk, who accompanied the archbishop on his visit.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for those people who have opened their work for him to see," he said.
As Overall explained to Williams, St. Ann’s is located in the poorest congressional district in America, where 60 percent of the population is without a high school degree and 40 percent of households earn less than $10,000 a year.
"We are really the poorest of the poor," she said. "Since we are open all the time, we are the community church. The un-churched feel a loyalty here."
The food pantry serves more than 350 clients on both Wednesdays and Fridays. Combined with the Sunday soup kitchen and meals for children enrolled in the after-school program, St. Ann’s food programs feed more than 1,000 people a month, Overall said.
Food pantry items Jan. 27 included cereals, canned vegetables, fruit and fish, and beef stew. The feeding program stresses nutrition and has its own garden, overseen by longtime volunteer Janet Scott, which not only teaches children about nutrition, but also where food comes from and gets them interested in fresh foods, Overall said. Scott showed Williams around the garden, which lies fallow in winter.
After a tour of the grounds, which includes a basketball court and the garden, Overall took Williams on a tour of parish’s education space and computer lab. She explained that the rector’s apartment was converted into classroom space to accommodate the parish’s program.
"Our ministry takes over every space of the church … we are always full with children and happy noises, and tears too," she said.
St. Ann’s runs a daily after-school program for 100 children, grades first through seventh, offering homework help and enrichment classes to students from six schools. The program accepts children on a first-come, first-served basis and has a waiting list.
"Families come here because they want a better life for their children," said Nora Schaaf, an education volunteer at St. Ann’s and a member of St. James Episcopal Church on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.
In the summer, St. Ann’s hosts a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School.
When asked if he had any questions, Williams wanted to know how the church goes about recruiting volunteers.
Overall answered that many of the parish’s food pantry volunteers used to be clients and want to help out of appreciation. Some volunteers come from the court system and are fulfilling community service hours; others are youth volunteers. Children’s program volunteers, she said, typically come from outside the community — from colleges, other congregations in the diocese and private high schools as far away as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Sisk pointed out that the diocese uses its website and diocesan newspaper to promote volunteerism, and that all congregations are encouraged to do mission work near and far.
St. Ann’s 400-strong, multi-cultural membership is half English-speaking, half Spanish-speaking, with members from the Caribbean, Africa, Latin and South America, as well as African Americans.
"We are in many ways closer to the rest of the world than we are to the rest of the country. We often get the first wave of immigrants," Overall said, adding that there has been a recent wave of Africans, and that because immigrants often keep close ties with family members at home, when natural disasters hit like the earthquake in Haiti, "we are the first to see it."