Holy Apostles on the corner of 28th St and Ninth Ave is the second largest soup kitchen in the nation—but what struck me as I entered the church to begin my volunteering shift, was the warmth of the individual people present. Even though the soup kitchen serves over 1,000 people every day, no one gets lost in the crowd. Inside the sanctuary (Yes, every meal is served in the church sanctuary) I saw volunteers greeting one another, donning hats and aprons, and setting about the tasks of preparing for that day’s lunch service. Some of them had been coming to Holy Apostles for as long as fifteen years. They knew the guests personally and they had watched the soup kitchen change over time.
A sense of community was palpable inside the church, amidst the flurry of dishes set out and tables wiped down. In one corner, nine employees from Calvin Klein were learning the ropes from a seasoned volunteer leader as part of Holy Apostles’ group volunteering program, which facilitates corporate and school service opportunities. Meanwhile, I got a crash course, then started my assignment for the day: keeping tables clean and stocked with condiments and beverages as guests began to arrive.
Each activity is done with precision and care, creating a warm atmosphere for those present. Some of the men and women arrived carrying heavy bags with their belongings crammed inside, and designated volunteers watched their possessions for them while they ate. Other guests who appeared to be on their lunch breaks from work chatted with volunteers about their current employment situations. Still others took advantage of the free chiropractor whose table was set up in the corner, and the free counseling services held in a private space just outside the sanctuary. After lunch, ESL classes and a writers’ workshop take place in a newly renovated area upstairs. It was clear that throughout the day, every inch of God’s house is being used for something productive and compassionate.
At Holy Apostles, the policy is that once all the guests have been served and the space has been cleaned, volunteers can also partake in the meal. I filled a plate with Spanish rice and beans, broccoli, carrots, and an apple, then I sat down in a seat which had—over the last two hours—been occupied by six or eight different men and women. Joining me was the Rev. Glenn Chalmers, rector at Holy Apostles and overseer of the Soup Kitchen’s $2.5 million operation. It’s quite a job, but he has experience leading other social service agencies in a faith-based context so it suits him well. While he is present most days during lunch and knows many guests by name, his primary focus is on development and leadership, ensuring that the Soup Kitchen can keep its lights on and its outreach growing.
Recently, he has opened up the church space for important community meetings about pressing issues, as well as political press conferences when the message is relevant to Holy Apostles. His vision is for Holy Apostles to be “a bridge builder between different groups in Chelsea.” Within the parish, there are also bridges to be built: among congregants and soup kitchen guests. Happily, over the last few years, Father Glenn has seen an increase in the number of guests who attend services and the number of church members who volunteer at the soup kitchen.
Holy Apostles is a church that lives out the gospel every day by serving God’s children directly inside God’s house. It takes hundreds of committed people to make this possible, and they do with hearts full of love.