September 24 2019

Historic Flushing church tried sacking community food pantry

By Steve Vago

Feed thy neighbor?

Not so much for a Flushing church that tried to kick out a community food pantry. Volunteers with La Jornada, a community food pantry funded by City Harvest, are back in operation — only after they presented St. George’s Episcopal Church with over a thousand signatures.

“Why is it they want to shut down something that is doing good for people?” asked Bobby Nathan, a community activist and volunteer with the pantry. “It’s actually doing the work of God.”

Earlier in the month, the church — which houses the pantry — booted them out, leaving hundreds of low-income Queens residents looking for food elsewhere. With the help of MinKwon Center for Community Action, a Flushing-based advocacy organization, Councilmember Peter Koo  and Assemblyman Ron Kim, La Jornada presented the church with a petition urging leadership to reconsider closure. 

Under community pressure, the church gave in. Pedro Rodriguez, who started the pantry ten years ago, however, said their fate is still uncertain.

A city landmark, St. George’s has operated for over 300 years. The church’s leadership cited safety concerns — a letterbox and gate were vandalized and a room was broken into this summer — and a lack of legally binding agreement for the food bank’s discontinuation. But the real reason may be a new rector and a handful of vestry members, volunteers said. In July, the church appointed Father Paul Xie as rector. “There is no contract with the church and they use electricity, the hall and the downstairs basement,” said Xie. “We don’t know what they talked about with the former rector.” The church is reviewing the pantry’s future, according to Xie.

Volunteers said church leadership believes this is social justice work, not a necessity for the community. “They call this politics,” said Nathan. “That’s what one of them told me.”

If La Jornada shuts down, many fear it will have a devastating impact on the community — especially on the elderly. Flushing’s predominantly Asian neighborhood has approximately 30 percent of senior citizens living below the poverty line, according to city data.

“This will severely impact the availability of emergency food for hundreds of low-income seniors and families in and around our community,” said Koo.

Low-income residents line up around the church every Saturday morning for five years, waiting for volunteers to fill their shopping carts with cereal, beans and various vegetables. The food lasts a week for Queens resident Patricia Nixon, who leaves her apartment at 6 a.m. Nixon is unsure how residents will attain food if La Jornada shutters.

“If they close it, some days the kids won’t have snacks for school,” Nixon said.

For now, Rodriguez operates day by day. “The price of food is going up. The price of rent is going up,” said Rodriguez. “Everything is going up — and that’s why we are here.”