By Leah Reddy
It’s 1pm on a Monday in October and the office at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is buzzing. Kym Roberts, who runs the church’s mail service, which provides a permanent mailing address to 350 people who lack stable housing, has stepped out for lunch.
Atticus Zavaletta, the parish administrator, has gone to the sanctuary to speak with a woman whose life is falling apart, and who is coming down off a high.
In their absence, Marianne Scharf, coordinator of the Robert Daniel Jones Refugee Shelter, which operates out of the church, is staffing the office. A phone rings: the Sukkah door has arrived. St. Mary’s is hosting an event for Sukkot in partnership with Harlem Havruta, a congregation of Jews of color. Scharf darts out to receive the package, dropped off on a street corner by a special Sukkah-delivery van.
Five-month-old Leah cries in the hallway. Her mother, Tara Patterson, grew up in the parish, and brought the baby to say hello to Roberts. Patterson perches on a chair, surrounded by fliers for the church thrift shop, 12-Step meetings, and the many programs held in St. Mary’s space. A bowl of NYC-branded condoms sits on an end table. The trash can has a bumper sticker exhorting visitors: Denounce Torture.
Denounce Torture. It might seem out of place until you realize that St. Mary’s runs the only shelter in all of New York City specifically for asylum-seekers and refugees. Denounce torture means something here.
St. Mary’s is tucked into a sliver of West Harlem known as Manhattanville, near the intersection of Old Broadway and West 126th Street. The church was founded in 1823 in what was then a “rural community with the promise of becoming a thriving village,” according to the parish history. By 1824, it was running a free school.
“I think it’s in our very founding that it was a place of service,” the Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke, Rector of St. Mary’s, said, citing the parish’s involvement over the past two centuries in everything from orphanages to rent strikes to protesting the shooting death of Mohamed Bah, a mentally ill man killed by the NYPD just blocks from the church.
“One of the things that makes us really happy is not counting so much how many people come on Sunday morning, but how many people do we engage during the whole week, including Sunday morning,” Foulke said. “It was almost 1,000 when they did the count five years ago.”
St. Mary’s reflects the economic inequality of the city. “There’s some more privileged folks who come and their intention is to place themselves in a community with folks who are struggling,” Foulke said. “And then there’s people who are coming who are really struggling, who find this a place of acceptance and support. And a place to express their leadership, which is not always what’s expected.”
Parishioner and food pantry volunteer Carmen Cabrera; Kym Roberts; the Rev. Dr. Mary Foulke
The Daniel Robert Jones Refugee Shelter began when Lysander Puccio, a parishioner, suggested the church host a temporary shelter during the winter months. Puccio, who worked in homeless outreach at the time, noticed that immigrants and refugees, either because of their legal status or limited English proficiency, were reluctant to use city shelters.
“People who are vulnerable in some way or another are often targeted in the city shelter system, so they just don’t want to go,” Puccio explained.
Tara Patterson and her daughter, Leah; Lysander Puccio
That first winter, a city agency ran an overnight-only shelter in the church’s undercroft. The congregation, initially reluctant, warmed to the idea of the shelter. In the spring, most guests moved on to different housing. But the immigrant guests, still vulnerable, felt they had no choice but to return to the streets.
It was then that Robert Daniel Jones, the church’s sexton, spoke up. “Robert was not very enthusiastic about the shelter in the first place,” Puccio said. “But when it came to our annual meeting and our six-months with the shelter was winding up, he’s like, 'What’s going to happen to the people,' he asked, 'the people that can’t move on?'"
Robert Daniel Jones
Jones died soon after. The parish, particularly Puccio, remained committed to running the shelter in space donated by the church, cobbling together funding and volunteers. In 2014, Sidney Kornegay, a former Episcopal Service Corps member, took over running the shelter. When she left in 2017, the shelter was fully-funded, partially by a grant from Trinity Church Wall Street. It can accommodate up to eight guests (all men, due to the undercroft’s open floor plan) for stays of six months to one year.
A shelter guest eats cereal in the parish kitchen
Arthur sits on St. Mary’s stoop at dusk, waiting for the evening’s shelter volunteer to arrive and open the doors. He peers at his smartphone screen and pulls up photos of his three children back home in Angola. He’s torn about his decision to leave his family, and frustrated by the financial circumstances in which he finds himself. Arthur ran a successful telecommunications business in Angola and traveled internationally for his work. He also helped Angola’s political opposition movement set up private communications networks. Arrested for his work with the opposition, he was imprisoned and tortured. He fled his country in fear for his life.
Arthur’s story is harrowing but not unique: there are 40,000 asylum-seekers in New York City alone. Legally, a refugee is someone located outside of the United States who was persecuted or fears persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. An asylum-seeker is someone inside the United States or at a port of entry who meets the definition of a refugee. Both definitions were formalized in the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, a response to the post-World War II refugee situation in Europe.
“People are seeking asylum in the United States and New York City from all over the world,” Scharf, the shelter’s director, said. “I think we’ve served 35 people in the last two years, and I think maybe we’ve had one repeat country. And people are coming for different reasons.”
Those seeking asylum in the United States must file Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, within one year of arrival in the country. Asylum-seekers cannot have participated in the persecution of others, committed serious non-political crimes, present any danger to the United States, or be able to settle safely in another country. While waiting for their cases to be adjudicated, asylum-seekers are ineligible for federal or state benefits. Asylum cases can take years to resolve, and just under fifty percent of petitions for asylum were granted in recent years.
Asylum-seekers rarely walk off a plane at JFK and request asylum. Ali, a guest at the shelter, fled first from Ghana to Peru, because the nations have an open visa agreement. From Peru, he walked, a journey of over 5,000 miles, to the Texas border, crossing through Colombia, Panamá, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and México, which is even more impressive since Ali speaks no Spanish. He was in immigration detention for nine months before his asylum request was granted. He arrived at the shelter after stays with two other organizations, both of which offer short-term housing.
Although such housing is important, it doesn’t provide asylum-seeker the time or stability they need to thrive in their new home. The Robert Daniel Jones Refugee Shelter is a long-term shelter, offering guests more than a bed.
Scharf, the shelter director, and William Brown, the part-time caseworker, find the guests the services they need: legal assistance, language classes, dentistry, employment counseling. Asylum-seekers are often survivors of physical and psychological trauma. Scharf and Brown help guests arrange surgery to repair injuries inflicted by torturers, and connect with support groups or the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture. The goal of the shelter is to prepare guests to move forward with their lives in the United States.
“When they leave, we try to ensure that they’re leaving with the ability to transition to a self-sufficient life,” Scharf said. “That includes a steady stream of income or a steady enough stream of income, suitable housing, and access to other services.”
Shelter guests prepare for the night
The shelter has challenging physical limitations. “We are a church basement where beds are kept in a boiler room,” Scharf said. The shelter operates out of a multi-purpose room below St. Mary’s sanctuary that also hosts the parish’s food pantry, medical and dental clinics, movie nights, and 12-step meetings. Food for the Saturday morning homeless outreach program is prepared there.
"So much is being done here with so little,” Scharf said. “But at the same time, I can’t imagine a community that would be more supportive and have better resources for the shelter guests, and I think that’s why it’s still here.”
The shelter is staffed overnight by a volunteer. Nyree Shelp, one of the shelter’s 41 volunteers, is a recipient of The Mission Continues Fellowship, a service and professional development program for military veterans.
“The shelter in the evening is pretty relaxed,” Shelp, who works full time and is finishing a Masters in social work, said. “The guys kind of have a routine. They set up their beds and every night they all sleep in the same area. Arthur tends to cook if he has extra money. He goes to the grocery store, buys things like avocado, rice and he’ll try to cook a meal for people.”
Nyree Shelp, a shelter volunteer, prepares her bed for the night.
Early in the morning, guests roll fold-up beds and personal effects into the boiler room and head out into an unfamiliar city, hoping to fill their hours. Most are unable to work, and have little cash available for food. (Work authorization is granted to asylum-seekers one year after their petition is filed.) In the meantime, guests volunteer in the St. Mary’s Thrift Shop and receive a small stipend.
Paul, an asylum-seeker from Uganda, landed in New York City with the phone number for a pastor in Boston, who directed him to St. Mary’s. Like many of the shelter guests, Paul is a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I was afraid to tell them about my story because I didn’t know how they would react,” Paul, a trained social worker, said. “Maybe they would just say, 'No, we can’t help such people.' Back home they don’t help LGBT communities, that’s an outcast. So, then they told me, also the priest here, she’s a member of the LGBT, so I was like, 'Whoa, that’s kind of interesting,' because I didn’t know that they could be so open) about the issue, and accepting.”
Paul has formed ties to the St. Mary’s community, and even sings in the parish choir. “Most of the things I did here, they’ve been my first time,” Paul said. “I didn’t know how my voice was sounding but they were keeping on telling me, 'Oh, it’s good. It’s good. You have to go.' They got me the gown and everything.”
Paul credits his experience as a volunteer in the church's food pantry with giving him a sense of what St. Mary's provides to its neighbors, even beyond the basic need for food.
“The church has the food pantry. I think it helps a lot in the community,” he said. “The first time I volunteered with the food pantry I thought people are going to just come in, make a line, blah, blah, get food, go. But then people really interacted like family. They knew personal names like, 'Hey, Linda, Lisa, you’re next in the line.' No calling them numbers like number four. Many of them interacted themselves with personal names, which showed me that they have a family bond. No, we’re family, we’re friends.
Passing the peace on Sunday morning
“I’ve worked in refugee and immigrant services for a long time, and when I hear the faith-based perspective, the parable of welcoming the stranger is often used,” Scharf said.
“I’ve seen that interpreted in different ways. But I’ve never really seen it interpreted like it’s being [interpreted] here. It’s like welcoming of the stranger and letting the stranger sleep in your home and feeding the stranger, and being with that stranger for six to 12 months and all of a sudden, that stranger is no longer a stranger. And the asylum seekers that are here, the refugees that are here, they become family really, really, really quickly. And they’re kind of absorbed into this environment of faith. And I think that that’s really cool.”