Bring Christlikeness to the Streets of New York
By Sdn. John Segvich
“For I was hungry, and you gave me food: I was thirsty, and you gave me drink: I was a stranger, and you took me in Naked, and you clothed me: I was sick, and you visited me: I was in prison, and you came unto me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
In a recent Church School class, I mentioned to the teens that Orthodoxy is always concerned with the welfare of the human person. This tenet of our faith seemed to resonate with them. After all, we are all created in the image and likeness of God and we naturally want to be love and respected. We are icons-in-process on a journey of Christlikeness.
Yet, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, 16% of our fellow Americans live a life in poverty. As Christ’s disciples, we have a call to care for all those in need regardless of color or creed. Through the incarnation, Christ revealed how we are to care for the sick, suffering and outcast among us. All who Christ encountered experienced his loving-kindness and great mercy. Redeemed in Christ, we work out our salvation in part through ministering to others. St. Basil the Great notes that the day will come when God will ask us how we have shared the gifts He has graciously given to us with our brethren (On Social Justice, 61). Thus, when we see suffering it is time for us to act on the Lord’s behalf.
In June of 2011, I was at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, NY to participate in a diaconal practicum. Since a deacon’s ministry is one of ministerial service to the Body of Christ, diaconal formation is academic, liturgical and practical. The practicum brought together all that we had learned thus far and put it into practice in context of our divine services. By day, we learned how to serve at the Divine Liturgy, practiced chanting and discussed homiletics. When evening came, His Grace, now His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon, Fr. John Behr and Fr. Chad Hatfield discussed patristics and the challenges and joys of life as a clergyman.
When Archdeacon Kirill Sokolov, the director of the Diaconal and Late Vocations Programs for the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), first told us we were going to take “a little field trip” to put diaconal service into practice our group of aspiring deacons had no idea what he had in mind. Looking back, it was a turning point in my life in Christ.
On a warm Wednesday evening, we found ourselves on the Metro North train line headed deep into Manhattan, one of the wealthiest areas in the world. Beggars were everywhere. Providentially, the parishioners of Holy Trinity Church in East Meadow, NY, a local OCA parish, had a vibrant urban ministry to the homeless. Most weeks, Fr Martin Kraus and his parishioners distributed socks, sweaters, deodorant, toothbrushes and other assorted items to those in need. Archdeacon Kirill reminded us that a key part of this act of charity would be ministering to our homeless brothers and sisters as we offered them food, clothing and sundries. Christlikeness was our prayerful aspiration.
Exiting a series of subway trains, we emerged from the man-made caverns to navigate the streets of New York City. Some people shuffled about with shopping carts that contained their few earthly belongings. All had mismatched ragged clothes on their backs. A man in purple snow boots held his hat out for spare change.
It was almost 7 p.m. Unlike Chicago, food trucks were everywhere with falafel, tacos and hot dogs. Bankers, stock traders and business executives rushed on home through the emptying streets. The famous Madison Square Garden loomed over us from a few blocks away. I learned that each evening more than 60,000 homeless people are on the streets of New York City. More than 1/3 are children. In an era of plenty, this number is numbing.
The needy gathered quickly. People pressed in from all sides as Fr. Martin warmly greeted us. We began to set out pizza and pop on various tables and retaining walls in a small plaza set between several buildings. More people approached to partake of the feast. Later, we moved across the street to offer clothing and sundries to those in need. Those who sought assistance were grateful for what we had to offer. One disheveled woman only asked for a toothbrush. Lord have mercy!
With our supply of material goods depleted, it was time to switch gears to share spiritual goods as we offered a ministry of presence. We served coffee and chatted with the women and men of the streets of New York City. Some suffered from mental illness, others from addictions and many had endured job loss. They had families, struggles and dreams. The financial crisis of 2007-2008 had hit them especially hard. Before I knew it, darkness had descended on the city and it was time to make our way back to the seminary. Many thoughts swirled in my mind.
Alms from the heart
Christians, by way of baptism, are charged to participate in Christ’s ministry to the world. Christians are called to serve those in need. Deacons incarnate Christ’s ministry of serving those in need in a very tangible way. Christ knew poverty well. Galilee — the primary region of his ministry — was a stark contrast of wealth and scarcity. America is a land of plenty, yet poverty persists. St. John Chrysostom argued that "Not to share our own wealth with the poor is theft from the poor and deprivation of their means of life; we do not possess our own wealth, but theirs” (On Wealth and Poverty). Seeing the needy around us offers an opportunity to be like Christ and offer alms from the heart.