INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: A Ray of ‘New Hope’ for Black Elders

INVISIBLE IN NEW YORK: A Ray of ‘New Hope’ for Black Elders

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Photo: New Hope Family Worship Center in Brooklyn. (Google Earth)

Part 5. Read the complete series here. 

NEW YORK, N.Y.-- Brooklyn has 232 listings of pantries, soup kitchens, food shelves, food banks and other setups, more than any other borough in New York City, according to the food directory at the Food Pantries website. Pantries, this writer was told by several sources, play a vital role in helping residents of Brooklyn’s East New York and Brownsville neighborhoods survive.

On a Saturday morning visit to one of them at the New Hope Family Worship Center, the pantry resembled a modest retail supermarket –- sans checkout lanes with cashiers waiting for credit cards and cash for payment. There was a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in an area resembling the produce section of a modest retail food store.

Many who had queued up at the entrance to the food area brought carts and bags with them. Also, taking place at the same time was a large breakfast for a contingent of young basketball players. The guest lecture was a member of the New York Police Department’s community affairs office talking candidly about the dire consequences of youth joining gangs.

The church was founded by Rev. Dr. Anthony M. Graham, who has a master's in business administration from St. John's University and a doctor of ministry degree from Bakke Graduate University in Greenville, Texas.

A Sense of Empowerment

New Hope Family Worship Center is described as "one church in three locations," the Bronx, East New York and Staten Island. Among its several missions, which are called ministries, is the center’s social services programs for housing, jobs, immigration and other vital issues.

Graham described the New Hope's food market as "a deliberate effort we make to let the community know it is valued. They come in and they look at what is there and they take what they feel they need. We look at that as a sense of empowerment. Something we've been doing for quite a while and hope to continue. And the whole idea of giving them the opportunity to choose, I think, is a very powerful one so that we're not just giving them something in a bag.”

He added, “The sole purpose in what we do is to touch men and women with the love of Jesus. To let them know that there is a God who cares. And we feel as if we are an extension of his love to the community. That's our only motivation. We are here to be a blessing, we are blessed to be a blessing."

Asked about the needs of seniors, Graham explained that New Hope provides help both church members and non-parishioners as well.

"We find a need for fellowship, for relationship, a strong need for relationship. America worships the young and as people get older they are marginalized and cast aside," Graham said.

Commenting, ”I hope to marry our seniors with our youth," Graham continued, "I find that our seniors have experiences, whether it's secular, whether formal or informal education, they have it, of course, and they have lived so much longer and if we can help our young people to see the value that our seniors have, I think it will benefit them immensely. So, we're starting a mentoring program to connect our seniors and youth" he said.

How would that be done? "Our seniors are already coming to our building every day from 11 to 2, and we have a group that is coming daily and that number--we're probably just a little under 20--but that number will grow as the church continues to grow and people's schedules open up."

30% Have No Social Security

Graham estimated that about 30 percent of seniors at the church have no fixed source of income, such as Social Security or Supplemental Security Income.

How do they survive? He cited an example: "I had one dear lady say to me on a Saturday morning--and this really opened my eyes to the needs that exist in our community--she said to me, 'Pastor Graham, the only groceries I get for the week are the groceries that I get from this church. And she went on to explain that she is in this country illegally and she's a senior, has health issues, does not have to access to the privileges that so many take for granted. Of course, there is no Social Security -- she's here illegally."

"She came to visit and decided to stay. She' doesn't want to go back because she's been here so long, yet she really isn't prepared for life in America as an older woman. And so, who does she have? She has the church."

New Hope is opened seven days a week because it is "inundated with all types of situations" of people in need, he said. "The needs are so diverse and so many. As the senior pastor, I continue to hold an outside job so that I'm not a burden to the church. So, we are able to continue operating” while investing in the ministry and provide a paycheck to those who work there.

Graham observed that compared with elders in the Bronx and Staten Island, those in his ministry in East New York face “great poverty.” He stressed that in the inner city of East New York, “the poverty is more intense," although, he allowed, "there are problems in the Bronx also and other places also."

Exploitation Worsens Poverty

Exploitation is also a problem. "If they are skilled, they're getting a job where the employer will pay them below minimum wage," the reverend said. "And this whole poverty becomes a cyclical thing because there isn't really improvement as they continue. It's getting worse as they are getting older, and more needs are beginning to manifest in their body and their situations. And the resources are not there."

For the future, Graham said, "In the short term, we hope to access funding. In the long term, we're hoping to have housing for our seniors and housing for those coming out of prison."

He emphasized that many who have been incarcerated, often for years or decades, "are coming back into the community, and many times there are no programs available for them. We're hoping by God's grace to put something in place. If men are not meaningfully occupied there is a tendency for them to get into things that won't benefit them."

The church was considering purchasing one or two additional buildings. "Seniors are finding themselves in difficult situations and they are in needs of housing” and other basic issues, he said.

Gentrification Could Help, Except . . . 

Graham was asked what he saw on the horizon for East New York. "A lot of good things are beginning to happen. Gentrification is happening. So, there is an upgrading of housing" he said.

And, he added, “These streets are much safer than they were a few years ago. My hope is that more jobs will come into our community, more support systems and services will be in place so that those who have been marginalized for years can begin to feel that they, too, have access to the American Dream. I hope that development takes place. There'll be more churches like us. I hope that more not-for-profits will rise up."

Factors Graham hopes will attract more investment in the area include East New York’s “cheaper property and taxes less than they are in Manhattan and other upscale places. It's more feasible to buy homes here in this community," he said.

But he is also concerned that “as the upscale comes in, they push out the poor. Where do the poor go? A lot of properties are being redeveloped and sold. It's good not to have burnt-out buildings next to you or in front of you--but many times the poor are in those buildings, so where do they go. They then go to the shelters. And that's another experience."

What does he consider the strength of East New York? "I find that in spite of its poverty it’s a welcoming community. We have found it to be a safe place. We have never had a stickup, a robbery, never had anything like that. In spite of the challenges all around . . . I find it as a place that is open to new ideas and new initiatives and finally I think it's a good place to build. I'm always looking out for people who would be willing to partner and invest because this is a great place to be build."

This article is the fifth and last in a series Gregg Morris wrote for New York’s historic Amsterdam News with support by New America Media(NAM) and the Gerontological Society of America and sponsorship from the Silver Century Foundation. See the full “Invisible in New York” series on NAM’s Growing Older, Getting Poorer page.