Communion Across Difference
By Neva Rae Fox
While many congregations were forced into withdrawal during the pandemic lockdown, a well-known church cast a wider net beyond its immediate environs to assist neighborhoods 10 miles away while concurrently switching to new business practices.
Church of the Heavenly Rest sits in a tony section of Manhattan: the Upper East Side at 90th St. and 5th Ave. Nearby are the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Despite its fashionable address, “we are a neighborhood church,” said the Rev. Anne Marie Witchger, associate rector and chief of staff. “Even before the pandemic, we were a neighborhood parish and connected particularly to the art scene. We’ve always tried to reach beyond our immediate blocks.”
Heavenly Rest has long practiced robust outreach efforts, including offering job skills, MetroCards, toiletries, and appropriate clothing to inmates returning to society; back-to-school backpack drives; holiday toy collections; tending to homebound seniors; and a longstanding arts ministry.
Nonetheless, the pandemic “has taught us a lot,” Witchger said. “It is the movement of the Spirit. It has never been more clear that the church needs to offer hope and stability.”
The Rev. Matthew Heyd, rector, noted that since March 2020, it’s been difficult for many. “We knew helping was part of our call,” he said. “New York was affected in a way that it had not been affected since the Great Depression. We wanted to step out and be of service to our New York City.”
The church expanded its ministries to partner throughout the city.
One of the first issues Heavenly Rest tackled was widespread food shortages. Heyd said that during the pandemic, food pantries immediately faced a high demand. “In the first week we saw the restaurant folks and arts folks who needed immediate help,” he said. Heavenly Rest sprang into action.
Witchger said the goal was to connect feeding programs in need of food with struggling restaurants in need of sales.
“We wanted to buy hot food from restaurants and give the food to feeding programs,” she said. Called Nourishing Neighbors, the initiative garnered a “great reaction.”
While partnering with established feeding programs, Nourishing Neighbors focuses on Black and minority-owned restaurants in East Harlem.
A $25,000 donation, earmarked for emergency food needs, went a long way for the feeding ministry. That gift, Heyd said, “was bigger than we ever had done before and it was part of our service to the city.”
Then, Heavenly Rest raised $150,000 on top of $25,000. “Our people saw this moment and stepped up,” he said. “It was a new moment for us.”
Witchger discovered that “people really wanted to do something. They wanted to do something meaningful. People were at home during the pandemic and felt helpless.”
Therefore, Heavenly Rest reached out further. “During the pandemic we continued to address food insecurity but in new ways,” Witchger said, such as the Fund for the Not Forgotten, for people who may have slipped through the cracks of assistance.
The church website explains that the fund “helps New Yorkers who have been excluded from Federal assistance, including undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, workers in the gig economy, formerly incarcerated women and men, and will also support faith communities to use broadband connections to be an even stronger resource to their neighborhoods.”
Witchger said Heavenly Rest’s assistance initiatives were rolled out in three phases. The first supported essential needs. The second, she said, was for “people in immigration detention centers, to help support bail bonds for those awaiting immigration hearings.” The third was “to support New York churches, particularly in Harlem and the Bronx, to be wired for internet connections.”
Stretching its pandemic help was important to Heavenly Rest. “Our expanded sense of community and the expanded sense of our neighbors, and the ability for us to engage way beyond our immediate neighborhood, have been a really important part of this moment for us,” Witchger said.
The pandemic prompted other significant behavioral changes at Heavenly Rest.
In response to the Black Live Matter movement, “the Vestry made the decision to make the shift to minority-owned vendors,” Heyd said. “What that means is to support our city. I think about the future of the city, not just in crisis but in recovery, for a stronger city.”
Both Heyd and Witchger see a continued expansion of Heavenly Rest’s ministries in the future, and not ending at the lifting of pandemic restrictions.
“As we emerge from this time, when so much has been lost and there is so much devastation, there is an opportunity to reimagine and rebuild in a way that is stronger, more just, more equal, that the church has a stronger role to play,” Witchger said. “This is the time to step forward, not step back.
“We are in a mission-claiming process right now. Our hope is that we don’t slide back into 2019. We see a future that is closer to God’s kingdom. That will take prayer, creativity, discernment, and hard work, and we are committed to that.”