This week, March 19, First Churches held a joint choir cantata with Williamsburg Congregational Church with the themes “Songs of Hope and Peace.” The sermon focuses on local stories of people working together. Our scripture text for the day was Exodus 17:1-7, and the sermon begins with a New England version of that text. You can hear the sermon by clicking below, or you may read it following:
Here is the New England version of Exodus 17. Its March and Spring is near, and after a few warm days teasing us, we suddenly get two feet of snow just before St. Patrick’s Day. And as we shovel out we quarrel with each other, “Why don’t we just move to Florida?” And Moses said, “Why do you quarrel with me, just get a snow blower.” But the people replied, “God has turned from us, God is a cold hearted and fickle despot.” So Moses went skiing and said to God, “What shall I do?” And God said go before the people and hold up a snow shovel and tell them that shoveling their own snow builds character. Its makes a person hearty and resilient. That is why we have Harvard and MIT and the most sports championships in the world, and Elizabeth Warren. So Moses took the shovel and began to work and soon everyone pitched in. So remember, when times get tough, do not quarrel with each other, and they named this place Massachusetts because this is where God puts people who test divine patience, so they may learn God’s ways and prosper.
So today I would like to tell some stories of hope and peace from our local community, so we don’t forget that there are good people doing positive things that make a difference every day. This week I went to my favorite volunteer job, which involves spending three days in hearings for local Community Development Block Grants. This is always one of the best weeks of the year, because I can make a connection to the web of care and compassion that exists mostly unseen all around us.
This was even more poignant on Monday as we all prepared for the great blizzard. While we were standing in line at Big Y or the Co-op and getting milk at the gas station making sure we had supplies, what about all the folks who are homeless, or panhandling, or on a tight budget or seniors dependent on Meals on Wheels? Weeks like this are really tough. So here are some of the heroes of the week.
115 senior citizens who are homebound depend upon meal deliveries 5 days a week. Monday the cooks at the Highland Valley Senior Center worked overtime to prepare double meals to stretch people till Wednesday. These were then delivered by 25 volunteer drivers.
At lunch time on Monday, I noticed no one was out on the streets looking for spare change. They were most likely at MANNA Soup Kitchen, which provides lunch 3 days a week for 500 people at St. John’s and Edwards Church. How do they provide 16,000 meals a year? Mostly through local donations and volunteers. A big part of their budget comes from the Happy Frog right here on the corner in front of First Churches. People donate $6000 annually, and twice a year, some anonymous individual puts in five $100 bills at random times. Manna also gets food from Smith College Students working through the National Food Recovery Program. Most of the dorm cafeterias save left over food and share it with Manna during the school year. Hungry Ghost donates leftover bread. Stop and Shop flash freezes unsold meat, which provides hundreds of pounds of good meat, most of which ends up at the Survival Center on Prospect street.
When we think of hunger we may imagine people who are homeless and jobless and on the street. But the biggest hunger problem is with families. At least 2000 Northampton residents will go to the Survival Center for groceries. They estimate sharing 65,000 pounds of food annually. Where does it come from? You may notice the ushers carrying baskets up to the communion table each Sunday. That is about 500 pounds a year, which is almost 1 percent of what they need. What I really like about the Survival Center is how they are expanding getting fresh food from farms, and they have a partnership with Abundance Farms which is right next door at Bnai Israel. This year 40 families could go and pick their own food, and kids learned about gardening, and for many people helping grow food is something they have missed.
Those are the larger program, and then there are 21 people that need to be fed at the cot shelter each night. Cathedral in the Night serves 80 people on Sunday nights from church groups and now four church are adding in Friday lunches Sandwiches and Common Ground is making sandwiches for about 20 people twice a month. And Jenna Sellars coordinates our monthly team, and Pauline Bassett coordinates over 30 meal teams, and Sharon Moulton is an overnight volunteer.
One in ten people in Northampton are food-insecure, meaning that they only will get enough food and nutrition with some form of help each month. People are kept from hunger because of all the collecting, driving, baking, sorting, sandwich making and gardening. But just barely.
Find out about volunteers who help stop hunger. (How many bring food to the pantry, serve at cot shelter, meals on wheels volunteer, MANNA or another soup kitchen, Cathedral or Common Ground.) Everyone who volunteers for a food program in some way. Other volunteers – Red Cross, Cancer Connection, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Center for New Americans,
Now back to my volunteer job, which the last three years has been figuring out how to spend about $100,000 to 10 of the agencies that help people eat, learn to read, become citizens, get GEDs, and pay for heating bills,etc. I would like to give them two or three hundred thousand dollars. It’s a tough choice, but this year I may not have to make any choices, because Congress might just cut Community Development block grants. I’m giving you a heads up here, so you can clear your calendars to increase your volunteer hours and dig a little deeper in your charitable giving to replace that $100,000, and more likely 10 times that due to all the other budget cuts looming in Congress.
Would it be too partisan of me to ask you to write a member of Congress and tell them why this is a bad idea, because the safety net in this community, and people you know and care about will be short-changed and overworked. I don’t think its partisan. I serve on the Friends of the Homeless Board, and I’m sure some of them are Republicans, and I don’t ask and I don’t care. In fact, I know the President of the Board of one of these agencies wrote a pro-Trump letter to the editor, and this person has worked for 31 years to fight hunger in Northampton. A Federal Government-Local partnership of volunteers and non-profits to enhance community lead decision making to improve our communities should be a no-brainer that is about as non-partisan and you can get.
Here is what I suggest. Write letters and talk to people about your volunteer work. Share how many hours you volunteer and why, take the Be the Change moment public, and remind everyone that the common good matters. Do letters make a difference? When you bring food to the cot shelter, or items for Syrian Refugees, or $20 for One Great Hour of Sharing, are you making a difference? Of course you are! It takes all of us to build the web that holds us together.