By Mary Grace Puszka
Diocese of Long Island
Babylon Village on Long Island, New York, is widely known to be a safe and friendly neighborhood and beautiful place to live. Babylon is on the south coast of Suffolk County, making it a popular summer destination, but the downtown area is busy year-round, with fine restaurants, a historic theatre and well-used bike paths. Christ Episcopal Church has been nestled among the now multi-storied homes and quaint parks since the 1930s.
What might surprise the average visitor is that Nourish Babylon—a weekly community feeding ministry—has been serving roughly 50-60 restaurant-quality meals to hungry locals every Monday night since its founding in 2015.
The ministry has become much more than a meal. This 60-volunteer-strong organization now maintains an organic community garden; collects and disseminates clothing, outerwear, and toiletries to guests; connects guests with a mobile shower facility; employs a part-time social worker to assess wholistic needs; and maintains strong connections with numerous civic, business, non-profit, and philanthropic partners.
The now-flourishing ministry was met with serious resistance upon its founding. Many members of the affluent community surrounding Christ Church attended a zoning board appeal meeting in protest once they were informed of the plan to feed hungry residents in their neighborhood. They cited limited parking, traffic congestion, increased criminality, and vulnerable property values as their chief concerns. Advocates for the new ministry spoke strongly about the need to recognize and support vulnerable neighbors.
The church never needed the approval of local government to launch the ministry, due to its rights grounded in religious freedom, but the publicity gained from this high profile and public debate garnered support for Nourish Babylon from the start. Diane Gaidon, who has been the coordinator of Nourish Babylon since its founding, attributes a portion of its consistent financial and volunteer support to the media attained during the launch.
Since the initial publicity, the Nourish Babylon team has made it a priority to be widely recognized in the community, as this became essential to ensuring that the ministry fulfills local needs, attracts volunteers, and is financially sustainable. Developing relationships with local media, churches, and community groups has been critical. Additionally, making successes and challenges known within the parish, on their website, and by publishing reports and marketing materials has been another vital means of raising awareness and resources.
Six months into serving weekly meals, complaints from the community virtually ceased. Because the church did not have adequate parking for an influx of volunteers and guests each Monday night, Nourish Babylon established a parking system around their desire to be good neighbors.
The system reserved nearby parking for people with disabilities and asked anyone who could walk to park on nearby streets. A behavior covenant was established to ensure that all guests would be treated with dignity while also prohibiting the use of drugs or alcohol during Monday meals.
In retrospect, Gaidon said that the insight the team gathered from that initial consultation and debate within the community was quite valuable to their ministry. Community members had a platform to air their concerns, and volunteers were able to build solutions without compromising their service. It was vital for the team to approach their work by listening closely to people’s concerns and responding accordingly. This method of listening to challenges and implementing concrete solutions is now a fundamental element of the work at Nourish Babylon.
Nourish Babylon expanded in unique ways in response to the stated desires and needs of guests. In 2016, while the ministry was still predominantly only serving meals, Monday dinners became a time for volunteers to connect with guests. Evening prayer before meals was one of the earliest requests that has now become a normal part of the Monday night routine.
Access to showers was another challenge, and Nourish Babylon partnered with Hands Across Long Island to provide a mobile shower so that guests could wash up in preparation for their restaurant-style meal. Through the years, a few members of the Nourish Babylon community have died, and their funerals and memorial services were held in Christ Church. This simple honoring of life—denied to so many people without resources or family to care for them—is a testament to the spiritual nourishment Nourish Babylon provides.
Creating a caring, comfortable, and dignified experience for their guests is an essential part of Nourish Babylon’s vision. As the ministry endured and adapted, it was clear that realizing this vision was going to require more than a single meal each week. Nourish Babylon expanded in many ways that volunteers may not have expected when they first launched a feeding ministry.
Student volunteers coordinated a sandwich-to-go program so that guests could bring home a sandwich after Monday’s dinner. They hired a social worker to assess the needs of guests and refer them to local organizations for services. The church collects gently used coats and outerwear to distribute on Monday nights.
Nourish Babylon expanded in this way because the team listened to the needs of their guests and responded in practical ways. While not every ministry can meet every need, building a network of organizations and professionals that can meet diverse needs was vital to Nourish Babylon’s vision of upholding the dignity of all people they serve.
“Affordable housing remains the hardest nut for us to crack,” Gaidon said. When many of the Monday night guests made it clear that they were unhoused, Nourish Babylon turned to their partner, Jean Kelly, of the Mary Brennan Inn and their Center for Transformational Change. The model used by the Center for Transformational Change is identifying a few individuals who are the most likely to be able to find and afford housing with limited additional support and following these selected individuals in their journey from homelessness to housing. Nourish Babylon accompanies them in every step of their process: identifying employment opportunities, drafting resumes, getting government-issued identification, paying for public transportation, and more.
This accompaniment program is the latest Nourish Babylon service. Before its initiation, the team consulted partner organizations to learn about best practices, raised funds, budgeted for the number of individuals they would accompany, and had their part-time social worker complete a needs assessment of potential candidates. With such a time-consuming and potentially life-changing initiative, it was necessary to ensure that a ministry had the connections and resources needed to carry out the program.
Just as the ministry changes in response to the needs of the community, inevitably, so do the volunteers. Gaidon has been coordinating the activities of Nourish Babylon for seven years, and she reflects that the work has certainly not been without challenges.
“It’s difficult for me to identify obvious ‘successes’ because the people we serve never seem to catch a break. So many people seem to be dealing with insurmountable challenges. We do what we can to support them, and that has led to us hiring a social worker and starting this housing accompaniment program, but there is always more need.”
Two clear lessons Gaidon has learned from her leadership of Nourish Babylon is to trust in the people she serves and to trust in God’s abundance. Many of the guests who come to Monday dinners have become accustomed to not being treated with dignity. In particular, those suffering with addiction are denied many social services, and Gaidon had to decide how Nourish Babylon would respond to this group.
“Is it reasonable for us to ask people addicted to alcohol to show up to Monday dinners sober? No, it’s probably not. But we can ask them to elevate their behavior to be in community with us. We have a strict no drug or alcohol use policy during dinner, but we also won’t deny people a meal because of their addiction. This is part of upholding their dignity,” she said.
Gaidon also learned that trusting in God’s abundance allows her to press forward through many challenges. “I used to become stressed over seemingly minor inconveniences—such as a few volunteers not showing up to Monday dinners. But somehow, God always provides. Always persevere. When I get a phone call about a problem, very often, the next phone call is a solution. It’s made me laugh and feel grateful. It reminds me that God is stewarding our work.”
This story was originally published on Mar. 22, 2022 by the Diocese of Long Island and Episcopal Church Women. The article was awarded an Honorable Mention at the Episcopal Communicators 2023 Polly Bond Awards.Follow us on social media