By Ellen Hollcroft
The opportunities for ministry in Glen Cove, New York, were undeniable. The question was, could a small church do anything to help with such profound problems? Local newspaper articles told the story.
• “He apparently drank himself into a stupor that night, the coldest of the season. Passed out from the alcohol, he fell into the creek. His companions pulled him out, sat him up and wrapped him in their blankets. At dawn, they found him still in that position. The police said he had frozen to death” (New York Times, 26 January 1997).
• “The City of Glen Cove has seen an influx of Central and South American newcomers . . . most of the newcomers, documented and undocumented, are men fleeing poverty and/or political persecution in their native countries” (Glen Cove Record-Pilot, 29 June 2001).
• “Day laborers gathered in Glen Cove seeking work, but the city passed an ordinance preventing the gathering of five or more ‘aliens’ to discourage Glen Cove from becoming a Mecca for the employment of illegal aliens” ( Newsday, 26 October 1989).
• The state of New York decided to provide group housing for the mentally ill in Glen Cove. The mayor suggested the state was picking on Glen Cove (Newsday, 18 November 1987).
Would it be possible for a small church on the north shore of Long Island to help a community with so many needs? The Glen Cove Christian Church has helped and continues to impact people affected by situations like these. How can a small church (the congregation began with 30 people) have such a sweeping impact? GCCC, under the leadership of Jim Phegley, uses a model of impact through collaborative effort.
FIRST, A CHURCH PLANT
Phegley’s collaborative efforts began in 1985 when he came to Glen Cove to plant a Spanish-speaking church for “Go Ye” Chapel Mission (now Orchard Group Inc). To connect with the Hispanic community, he collaborated with La Fuerza Unida, a fledgling social services organization, to provide after-school programs for Spanish-speaking children.
In 1987 the English-speaking congregation at GCCC asked Phegley to be their minister. The Spanish-speaking church grew and became independent, but Phegley’s work with La Fuerza continued.
In the early 1990s day laborers gathered on streets throughout Glen Cove seeking work. Groups of 50-100 men would gather on street corners to negotiate with potential employers. Citizens of Glen Cove started to complain about loss of business, public urination, and traffic issues caused by the men.
In response to these concerns, the city issued an ordinance prohibiting the assembly of five or more “aliens.” La Fuerza and Phegley stepped forward to protect the rights of the day laborers.
NEXT, A CENTER
Eventually, an agreement was reached to create an alternate site for employers to connect with day workers. GCCC collaborated with La Fuerza and other community groups to form the Glen Cove Opportunity Center—a place where day laborers can meet with employers and find work.
Day laborers come to the center, fill out an application, and receive a photo identification card. The arrangement provides protection to the workers against any employer who would refuse to pay after the day’s work was done. If a worker is not employed on a given day, he can receive English classes and other training. The church also worked to provide breakfast, Thanksgiving meals, and Christmas gifts for laborers and their children.
In the mid-’90s, Jose Santos Fuentes, a day laborer from El Salvador, came to Glen Cove seeking work. But work was scarce and the number of day laborers outnumbered the jobs. On the coldest winter night, Fuentes died of exposure to the elements, drunk, in a ditch.
The winter after Fuentes’s death, Glen Cove Christian Church collaborated with other churches to form the North Shore Sheltering Program. More than 130 volunteers provide hot food, personal supplies, medical care, and shelter to approximately 20 men during the winter months. Nearly a quarter of those volunteers are from GCCC.
The program is also part of the church’s missions budget, and approximately 25 of the 155 participants in the program’s annual fund-raiser are from GCCC.
According to Phegley, it is all part of the church’s mission: “Glen Cove Christian Church is dedicated to presenting the fact that God cares for all people. We desire to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the community we serve.”
The community served by the church includes a group home. The Melillo Center provides outpatient mental health and chemical dependence services and a variety of residential services for individuals and families with psychiatric disabilities. In 2004, Phegley began the Melillo Center Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. The interdisciplinary team delivers services to Melillo Center patients Monday through Friday and anytime an emergency arises. This collaboration brought to light the impoverished conditions in which many of the ACT recipients live.
Only 12 percent of ACT recipients are employed or work in volunteer positions. The majority survive on Social Security income. In 2006, GCCC collaborated with the ACT team to create a food pantry exclusively for ACT recipients. Food is collected each Sunday and is delivered by the ACT team. The pantry provides enough food to meet the nutritional needs of the recipients, Congregants also provide Christmas presents such as scarves, sweats, towels, etc., for recipients. It is often the only gift they receive.
Collaborative efforts with La Fuerza Unida brought about the Glen Cove Opportunity Center. Collaboration with other churches provides the homeless with shelter through the North Shore Sheltering Program. Collaboration with the Melillo Center established the ACT team, and collaboration between GCCC and the ACT team provides recipients with food.
The spiritual needs of the community are also being met through the church’s outreach. In the past 20 years, the church has grown from 30 attendees to an average of 150, more than 80 percent of whom participate in one or more of the church’s collaborative efforts in the community.
Says Phegley, “I attribute a good part of our growth to the impact we’ve had on the community in two ways: primarily people see our ministry and visit the church, but others, who don’t know of our work, come in and find it appealing that we’re so active in the community.”
Through collaboration with churches and organizations in the community, Glen Cove Christian Church is fulfilling its mission to present God’s love for all people and to meet the spiritual and physical needs of the community it serves.
Ellen Hollcroft is a member of Glen Cove (New York) Christian Church and serves on the board of La Fuerza Unida.