Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board. He came to Long Island in 2010.
Walking the bustling streets of Babylon Village, you might not think they hold much poverty. And if you wandered into the residential area 100 yards from Main Street that has been home to Christ Episcopal Church since 1930, you’d be struck by the solidity and prosperity of the neighborhood. Monday night, the stately multistory homes on the quiet block glittered with decorations.
Inside the church, 20 volunteers served about 80 hungry locals of all ages. The meal featured roast beef and mashed potatoes, peas and cauliflower, cream of tomato soup and rolls, grapes and cookies, and coffee and tea. There were also bagged peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to carry home for later. Donated jackets were available for the taking, because the cold, though tardy, will come. And a jolly Santa passed out gifts and spread cheer.
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When she started working to establish a weekly community meal 10 months ago, the Rev. Claire Nesmith knew she and her parishioners wanted to feed the bodies and souls of hungry, lonely people. They knew there was community opposition. And they knew it would be an expensive, expansive undertaking. What they didn’t know was just how significant the need was, and how many people from the church, the community and across Long Island would want to help.
Back in February, that opposition got a little ugly, but on Monday, beaming at a full-to-bursting room of diners and volunteers, Nesmith said the controversy had its advantages.
“If it wasn’t for the people opposing us and all the publicity that created, I don’t know if we ever could have gotten so much support,” Nesmith said. “We have volunteers and donors from all over Long Island who heard what we were trying to do and felt called to help.”
There was an anonymous $10,000 contribution, and donations from grocery stores and individuals. Nesmith believes the publicity helped there, too.
The church probably never needed permission to hold the dinners, but sought it from the village as a way of informing others of the plan, and in an attempt to be a good neighbor. Once word got out, some objected, and a huge crowd attended a Zoning Board of Appeals meeting. Neighbors against the plan spoke of parking and traffic, vulnerable property values and fears of attracting criminality. Locals who supported the plan spoke just as vehemently about what it means to be a loving community. The church’s right to offer the meals, based in religious freedom and its mission to care for others, won the day. Six months after the first weekly meals were served, the objections seem to have vanished. Parking spots were easy to find Monday and traffic was light, even as dinner was in full swing. Ne’er-do-wells are not coming around. Litter and disorderly conduct have not been issues. None of this shocks Nesmith or her team of volunteers, which totals around 60. But the level of urgency locally does.
“I was surprised that the hunger was here,” said volunteer Gilly Morrow, 16. “I mean you hear about it, but I had no idea it was here in my community.” Revelation led to action for Morrow, who handles the peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich ministry and helps at the dinners.
Nesmith said some guests live in cars or tents. Many are elderly, but young families with children were also in attendance. Some live in single rooms with only a hot plate or microwave. Others may just be short on cash, elderly folks whose fixed incomes are eaten up by property taxes and utility bills.
Long Island is an expensive, difficult, even brusque place to live. But it’s also a caring one. Both the needs here and the loving response to them could use more attention.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.