In 258 A.D., a young Roman deacon named Lawrence was entrusted by his superiors with the honor of managing the early Church’s then-modest material wealth. These were treacherous times for the faithful. It was a period of great persecution of Christians in Rome, and Lawrence’s new position was as dangerous as it was honorable. Yet Lawrence rose to the call, and when soon after his promotion a Roman prefect summoned Lawrence on behalf of the imperial treasury, he rose again.
The purpose of this second call was for the Roman prefect to demand Lawrence turn over the Church’s wealth to the state. Lawrence responded by asking for three days to gather the riches. Granted tenuous permission, he worked for those three days to distribute what wealth the Church had to the indigent. When Lawrence returned three days later, he presented the sick, the orphaned, the lonely, the crippled, and the suffering to the official as “the wealth of the Church.” Legend has it that Lawrence quipped to his administrator, “the Church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”
As punishment, he was quite literally grilled to death, announcing to his tormentors to flip him when he had become thoroughly cooked on one side. (St. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks and the poor.)
Today in New York City, centuries after St. Lawrence’s martyrdom and miles south of the great North American river named for him, a team of faithful laity are putting their lives and livelihoods on the line in the same spirit of the early Christian martyr: charity for the needy, even in times of great uncertainty for all.
Not Just a Meal, A Journey
New York City Relief is a mobile outreach program geared toward providing the city’s growing homeless population with the tools they need not merely to survive, but to forge a new path for themselves into a more optimal way of life. Every Wednesday through Saturday, the team at NYC Relief drive their service bus to one of their long-established service points throughout the city. Out of the bus, they provide food, hygiene kits, and socks for their guests. For the first few hours of the visit, guests (many of whom are consistent visitors) have community with familiar faces while enjoying a hot, nutritious meal.
As food distribution wraps up, the unusual aspect of NYC Relief’s service begins: fellowship. The organization offers counseling services to guests, connecting them to shelter and employment partners, mental health services, and social resources that so many will use to take responsibility for their lives and get back on their feet. Volunteers pray with guests.
At the core, NYC Relief sees that the root of homelessness is a loss of community. The organization’s abiding sense of the importance of community, motivated by faith, allows them to provide for thousands of people in need every week not just physically, but spiritually and socially.
I spoke with Nicholas Di Iorio, NYC Relief’s community engagement officer, on Friday. “We are the mortar that flows through the bricks of these different networks,” he said of the organization’s critical role in the community. “We know who the right contacts are.”
“Through NYC Relief, our guests and friends are not just getting food or a meal. They’re getting a journey to walk on,” Di Iorio explained. “It’s the beginning of a relationship, and we expect to walk alongside them on their journey. No one is denied or rejected because of a past life of mistakes they’ve made, even and especially if they’re not Christian. We provide these services free of charge, no questions asked, and we expect and often see over time that they begin to change their life.”
The Homeless Will Suffer Disproportionately
As coronavirus exacerbates the problem of homelessness in many American urban centers nationwide, NYC Relief is feeling the pressure of institutional failure acutely. On an average outreach day, NYC Relief will serve about 200 guests. Di Iorio mentioned that on Thursday, NYC Relief saw this number quadruple to nearly 800 guests.
There are a couple of reasons for the spike in needy persons. For one, the city has locked down. Stores and restaurants where the homeless might usually eat, use the restroom, or wash are shuttered. Many public shelters have stopped taking new residents so as to limit the spread of infection. Then there are the volunteer services that have scaled-down. Di Iorio predicts that layoffs as a result of COVID-19-induced economic downturn will continue to put several more people out on the street, despite limitations on evictions.
Just as coronavirus may exacerbate homelessness, homelessness has the potential to drastically worsen the spread and intensity of the illness.
For coronavirus to enter the homeless community would be an unmitigated disaster for all. Lack of hygiene and inability to quarantine will magnify coronavirus among the homeless as well as anyone walking the streets of New York. Homeless people disproportionately will suffer due to many of the existing health issues that contribute to their homelessness in the first place.
Uniquely among services for the homeless, NYC Relief remains fully engaged amid the crisis. Of course, the team has adjusted their practices to mitigate the spread of infection. In order to minimize exposure while maximizing care, gloves, face masks, and practices such as bleach cleaning all surfaces every 30 minutes are in place at every outreach. “We have already made the decision to continue serving,” Di Iorio adds, “and we will, but in order to provide adequate food and medical supplies to our friends, we need help.”
“We Cannot Afford to Lose Our Humanity”
NYC Relief relies on both financial and in-kind donations in order to do their work. Information on how to donate can be found here, and more information about the organization, its purpose, practice, and success stories can be found here. Di Iorio was recently interviewed by Raymond Arroyo at EWTN; that interview can be found here.
Asked about the threat of coronavirus, Di Iorio said, “As a society, we need to find a balance between social distancing and social responsibility. The crisis cannot be an excuse to completely isolate physically while also isolating emotionally and spiritually from the most vulnerable. The one thing we cannot afford to lose is our humanity.”
Despite ever-encroaching state power and discrimination, St. Lawrence’s heart was illuminated by a courageous, unflappable, active love of those less fortunate. His story resonates especially strongly in times like these—times which will inevitably show us who we are. Are we a people who shrink in fear, turning a blind eye to the poor and excluded? Or are we capable of generosity even in times of precarious means for ourselves? As a patriot, I prefer to believe the latter.