Bronx Pastor Feeds the Hungry

Posted on 08. Dec, 2009 by in Uncategorized

By Emily Lavin

It’s been six years since Pastor John Udo-Okon slept in on a Saturday morning.

Instead, every Saturday, Udo-Okon wakes up at 3 a.m. He parks his two vans on East 163rd Street in the Longwood neighborhood of the Bronx, around the corner from his church, Word of Life Christian Fellowship International. The vans reserve street space for the church’s weekly food pantry.

This Saturday, there are about 20 people waiting outside the church at 8 a.m.– fewer than usual, says Udo-Okon, because the morning has been rainy and cold. The food pantry is first-come, first-served. Often the line forms as early as 5 a.m., five hours before the church starts giving away food. They wait and watch as Udo-Okon and a group of volunteers organize the donations on folding tables next to the sidewalk.

“We see those faces outside, and we know that hunger is real, that it’s a problem in our community,” Udo-Okon said. “These are our neighbors, and they are depending on a program like ours.”

Twice a week, the church gives away fresh vegetables, bread and other nutritious dinner staples to hundreds of South Bronx residents who can’t afford to buy everything they need on their own.

“This is our passion. Our passion is to eliminate hunger,” Udo-Okon said. “Instead of families having to depend on fast food, people come here, they get food and they go home and prepare meals for their family.”

Udo-Okon and his wife Felicia, who is also a pastor at Word of Life, moved their ministry to the South Bronx in 2000. They were driving home from service one day when they saw a well-dressed man digging through a garbage can on a street corner.

“We stopped, and I gave him five dollars, but I realized what he needed was help,” Udo-Okon said. “My eyes were opened to the issue of hunger in the community, to the fact that people that look like me are hungry and eating out of garbage cans.”

The Udo-Okons started bringing food from their own house to give away at their church, but it wasn’t enough. So they started to collect donations from food banks, grocery stores and restaurants around the city. Now, Udo-Okon estimates, the church feeds about 1,000 people each month.

“The number of people that come to our pantry has only increased since we started,” Udo-Okon said. “Especially now, because of the economic crisis, we’re starting to see a lot of people who have lost their jobs or had their income drastically reduced.”

Udo-Okon unlocks the door that leads to the church’s basement. The room is filled with boxes and bags of food, stacked almost to the ceiling. Twelve volunteers have arrived to help set up. Udo-Okon starts grabbing boxes off of pallets, and the volunteers form an assembly line. They pass the boxes one at time from the basement, up the stairs and outside.

“Oh, it’s a workout like you wouldn’t believe,” says Felicia Udo-Okon, laughing and holding out her arm. “If you feel my shoulder, you’ll see. I have muscles like a man.”

It takes the crew about two hours to clear out dozens of boxes of bananas, onions, vegetables, pasta, peanut butter, bottled water and other necessities.

Just before 10 a.m., Udo-Okon steps outside and checks the amount of food that they’ve put out. The rain has let up, and the line of people now stretches down the street about half a block, and then around the corner.

“I think we’re good,” he says, looking around. “We’re good for the day. Another day.”

The hard part of the morning is over, but the work is far from finished, he says, as he unpeels a banana. It’s his first meal of the day.

“I’m not a breakfast person,” Udo-Okon said. “Breakfast just slows me down. Stopping to have a meal in the morning allows your body to rest, and it just takes up too much time.”

The Udo-Okons and their volunteers will be busy giving food away until the line ends around 6 p.m. And they’ll give away food after that to anyone who knocks on the door while they are eating dinner, cleaning up or preparing for tomorrow morning’s church service.

Udo-Okon gathers the group of volunteers for a prayer outside the basement doorway.

“We thank you Lord for this day,” Udo-Okon begins, as the volunteers all join hands. “We thank you for the provisions you’ve made, for us to share with the community. We thank you for our volunteers, Lord. And we pray for strength…”

As the prayer circle breaks, the volunteers walk toward the folding tables.

“I love doing this, giving out food,” said Francis Garcia, 34, a volunteer who lives a couple blocks away from the church. “This is the only church doing this right here in this neighborhood.”

She looked over at Udo-Okon.

“You make me want to shout right now. I feel so good,” Garcia said. “No one should ever be hungry in New York City—and especially not in this community, with Pastor John.”

Udo-Okon laughs and shakes his head.

“We’ll get there,” Udo-Okon said, as he watched the line of people begin to move from table to table. “Little by little, day by day.”

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