Some Catholics choose charity over food

May 1st, 2015  |  Published in Community, Uncategorized

Issues: A changing notion of sacrifice

Chocolate covered strawberries.

A sweet treat some people give up for Lent. Photo: Natasha Payés.


Yellow-orange fluorescent lights illuminated St. Charles Borromeo School’s auditorium, the designated space for its Catholic parish food pantry. Rows of chairs took up most of the space, leaving enough room for rolling shelves and portable tables. About twelve middle-aged adults, most of them African Americans and Latinos, stood single-file with metal carts on the left-hand side of the auditorium while another group of six sat in yellow and blue plastic chairs nearby, waiting their turn to shop for food.

“First time here?” asked one of the pantry volunteers at the registration desk.

“Yes, it’s my first time,” said a light-skinned Latina woman.

“Okay, I’ll need to see your I.D.”

Although the line for food had shortened since the pantry opened at 9 a.m., volunteers remained busy two hours later handing out boxes of corn flakes and canned goods to those less fortunate.

Jamice Buford-Crawford, the lead organizer of St. Charles Borromeo Church’s weekly food pantry, said the number of volunteers fluctuated each week; sometimes she had as few as six volunteers and as many as 10. But this past Lenten season, Crawford said she saw as many as 15 people devote their Saturday mornings to the pantry.

“Volunteering time is hard. The penance is actually a little harder because people are giving up instead of hanging with friends or going out,” said Crawford, 56.

Traditionally, Catholics sacrifice a favorite food or abstain from eating meat at least once a week for 40 days during Lent. Although it is still customary to follow such dietary restrictions, groups like the food pantry have seen an increase in people who commit to a charitable work or another act that makes them feel closer to God, including attending daily Mass, in lieu of sacrificing a particular food.

Lent is the 40-day period preceding Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, a period that symbolizes Jesus’ time spent in the desert before he was crucified and reminds Catholics to recommit their lives to Christ. Those who observe Lent are expected to fast, repent, and abstain from whatever they decide to sacrifice—be it smoking, coffee, or alcohol, for example.

Reverend Gregory Chisholm, a priest at St. Charles Borromeo Church in West Harlem, is used to seeing adults give up something they like to eat or drink and children refrain from eating candy for Lent. “Fasting is hard to do, but whatever people decide to give up is something they figure it out with God,” said Chisholm.

Chisholm said that the leadership at St. Charles emphasized prayer and charitable works over abstaining from a particular food, in accordance with what Pope Francis outlined in his message for Lent this year. The Pope urged all Christians to overcome indifference to another by “praying in communion with the church on earth and in heaven” and “with acts of charity” and added: “Lent is a favorable time for showing this concern for others by small yet concrete signs of our belonging to the one human family.”

In response, some parishioners at St. Charles observed Lent by volunteering at the church’s food pantry, said Chisholm, evident in the uptick of volunteers Crawford had seen in the past month.

Crawford also internalized these suggestions and set aside a half hour every morning for prayer and reading the Bible. She also attended daily Mass and taught herself various chaplets—short prayers that are recited aloud when counting the beads on a rosary. She abstained from eating meat on Wednesdays and Fridays and ate one meal a day with snacks in between—her way of fasting. Crawford also tried giving up cigarettes, something she tries to do every Lenten season, but it didn’t work out. “I was good for awhile, but then I gave up. I’ll try again next year,” she said.

This year, Onita Estes-Hicks, another member of St. Charles Borromeo, decided not give up anything, but she chose to attend daily Mass every morning at 8:30. Estes-Hicks, a light-skinned African American woman with blonde hair, didn’t reveal her age, but said she was a senior citizen and a retired English literature professor who had taught at Columbia. She has never been married and has no children.

In previous years, Estes-Hicks had given up cocktails, gossip, and discretionary money, which she used to purchase clothes or theater tickets, but this time she wanted to do something different, something that would connect her to her deeply rooted Catholic family in New Orleans. “Knowing that I’m in Mass when my family is in Mass binds us together,” she said. With the exception of her mother, everyone in Estes-Hicks’ family was raised Catholic. “We always had to go to Sunday Mass. If we didn’t, we couldn’t do anything else that day,” she said.

Her father was devout; attending Mass was a part of his morning ritual. He was also one of the founders of their small Catholic parish, St. Monica, which merged with another parish after Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the original building.

Beyond connecting with her family in this way, going to church every morning helped Estes-Hicks gain a sense of composure, she said. She hoped to continue going to Mass, even when the Lenten season is over, just as her father had done.

Father Allan White, director of the Catholic Center at New York University and pastoral staff member at St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village, said that most of his parishioners had either given up a favorite food or committed to a charitable act for Lent. Only a handful of people had done both. “We don’t encourage drastic change as a response to Lent, otherwise people will have a hard time to following through,” said White. He added that people choose charitable works over abstention because “the sacrifice is directed outwards, it’s an act of generosity.” Although St. Joseph’s has plenty of volunteers to run its soup kitchen, 30 helpers on average and a waiting list of people who want to help, White said that the number of volunteer had risen there, as well, during Lent.

The point of observing Lent, according to Crawford, is to do something that encourages deep reflection and fosters spiritual growth. For her, she chooses acts that make her feel closer to God. “So I can try to be like Jesus,” she said.

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