Hospitality for the homeless

04 Apr 2017 | 05:14

By Genia Gould
The Rev. Beverly Dempsey, Senior Pastor and Executive Director at The Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House on East 74th Street, is, as she describes it, “creating a space for the neighborhood to thrive.”

The church was first established by a Czech immigrant community in 1888. Consistent with its theological foundation as a justice-minded congregation, the church focused its mission to outreach for the homeless, one hundred years later.

Since Dempsey was installed in September 2014, the church has continued to embrace the homeless and deeply impoverished people of New York City, expanding its mission to the breadth of human vulnerabilities. Now, with a small membership and staff, the Urban Outreach Center of Jan Hus

Presbyterian Church is serving as many as 27,000 individuals a year.

As a “premier, one-stop social services operation,” says Pastor Beverly, The Urban Outreach Center at Jan Hus provides weekly meeting rooms for 65 12-Step recovery groups, offers pantry food distribution five days a week, a hot meal on Tuesday evenings, counseling, referrals for SNAP benefits and housing, and other services aimed at the “worth and dignity of their guests.” Equally important, they provide a mailing address for a few hundred people who otherwise wouldn’t have a place to receive a social security check, medical or employment mail, or maybe even a Christmas card. “That’s vitally important certain times of the year, it can be the only connection they have to know that a family member or old friend cares.”

Dempsey encourages her team to practice “just hospitality.” The pastor explains the concept as a way of relating with individuals who live at the margins of society: “It’s when people reach across socially constructed boundaries to engage true relationships with those she might otherwise not meet through an ordinary course of life.”

One of the biggest surprises to the pastor when she arrived was that there was only one facility on the entire Upper East Side for the hundreds of local homeless individuals to shower. “Can you imagine that?” says Dempsey. “If you’re freezing in the winter, or sweaty and hot in the summer, there’s essentially no place to get clean. Thanks to our supporters, we were able to build-out our pre-existing locker room to create a spacious facility for homeless men and women to take a shower, shave, and brush their teeth. A hot shower is transformative for our friends, just as it is for you and me.”

She also saw a benefit in creating three separate clothing distribution rooms so that men, women and children could have their particular needs met. Last fall, with the support of a benefactor, her team created a resource center “so people don’t just walk in and wonder what help is available for them. Now, they can access a whole room that has neatly organized bins of categorized information about anything our deeply impoverished guests might need.”

In 2016, the pastor implemented their “Neighborhood Harvest: A Roof Garden” made possible by a seed grant from the United Way that also hosts the only two beehives on a religious institution in all five boroughs.

“Isn’t that something? It’s so foundational to the Abraham tradition of the land of milk and honey,” the pastor says. “John ate honey, everybody ate honey in the Bible.”

More recently, Dempsey encouraged one of her employees — a formerly homeless military veteran — to launch Veterans Connect: a monthly program for homeless veterans “to gain a greater sense of community, along with insights and resources to gain stability and a path forward for their lives.”

While Pastor Beverly is working to maximize and optimize the programs of the Urban Outreach Center, she has also been strengthening the worship community of the church. Beginning with a base of 10 members when she arrived, the church now has three separate “faith-formation experiences at three different times throughout the week so that more people of the neighborhood have an opportunity for spiritual development.” There are now nearly 100 people worshipping or benefiting from the experiences each week.

The church building has become a boon to the neighboring community, renting the recently renovated gymnasium for various physical education and fitness programs, the sanctuary for gallery exhibitions, readings, concerts and for production crews doing local filming.

Dempsey is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, The Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and Goucher College. She is now completing her Doctorate in Ministry from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Prior to her ministry, Reverend Dempsey was in consumer packaged goods marketing, strategic planning and banking. She lives in New Jersey with her husband Joe and the youngest two of the family’s five children.