At St. Stephen’s Church in Boston, the sanctuary has been transformed into a staging area for the bags of groceries and other supplies that the church has been providing to families in need every single week since the summer. Each Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, these supplies are distributed to roughly 120 families through this mutual aid program of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs (SSYP) that they're calling "B-LOVE."
St. Stephen’s established a Pandemic Relief Fund and raised around $450,000 since March 2020, and through B-LOVE has been able to distribute around $370,000 in direct financial help to the 300 families in its community, not counting the thousands of bags of groceries, paper goods, books, frozen chicken, fresh carrots, art supplies, laundry detergent and more. Families have been able to get items that were hard or impossible to get at different points during the pandemic, such as hand sanitizer and tissues, as well as masks.
According to the Rev. Tim Crellin, the vicar of St. Stephen’s and executive director of SSYP, they were able to raise the money from a variety of sources, including foundation partners, three grants from the City of Boston and individual donors from Episcopal Church partners and others who heard about the relief fund.
“I think people really appreciated the fact that the money was coming in and 100 percent of it was going out to people that really needed it,” Crellin said in a recent interview. “It’s all going right back out, and because we have the relationships with the families, we were able to make sure that was happening, so [we have] just tons of gratitude for everybody that’s helped, supported us and helped with the groceries too.
"We don’t usually have a food pantry--we usually are working to support young people to get a good education and go onto college--but the need was so great and so clear, and we were in a position to meet it so, thankfully, with a lot of support, we were able to pivot and do something we don’t typically do, because of the need,” Crellin said.
Pre-pandemic, St. Stephen’s had already been working with the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill to provide bags of groceries to families in need through their FUEL program, and when schools closed last March due to COVID-19, they increased their distribution to try and help with the increased demand caused by the pandemic and the loss of so many jobs.
“One of our values is being responsive,” the Rev. Liz Steinhauser, who serves as director of youth programs at St. Stephen's, said in a recent interview. “I think we have what some people would call an iterative process, even before now, where we’re sort of constantly evaluating our work, but also listening to young people, listening to families and doing that in formal and informal ways.”
According to Steinhauser, when the pandemic began in March of 2020, it took only a few weeks for about 75 percent of the families who participated in St. Stephen’s Youth Programs to have at least one person in their family lose a job due to the pandemic. This number climbed to 90 percent--where it stayed for six months--and rests at a staggering 75 percent today.
“I’m not giving a new idea here,” Steinhauser said. “But clearly, the pandemic [and] the racial reckoning that we are still in the midst of out of the summer has made more clear to white people what was already clear to people of color, which is that there is systemic and enormous inequity in healthcare, in employment, in economics, in public education.”
When last summer rolled around, it became clear that SSYP's summer B-SAFE programming could not happen in the same way it usually does, so they worked with Episcopal parish partners to provide safe programming at two of the usual sites and then, at two others, a weekly distribution of groceries and activities for kids in church parking lots--the start of the B-LOVE program.
A combination of families who had participated in B-SAFE in the past and people nearby in the communities who also needed help took advantage of these weekly distributions over the summer, with Steinhauser noting that at one site, even the staff of a nearby supermarket were walking across the street on their lunch breaks to avail themselves of the help being offered.
St. Anne's in-the-Fields Church in Lincoln has been a longtime partner of SSYP and is one of the many Episcopal congregations committed to helping these communities, now through the B-LOVE program. Maria Rose is a member of St. Anne's in-the-Fields who serves as one of the coordinators for B-LOVE outreach, and, in an interview, recognized the work they are doing with B-LOVE as not only a food security issue, but also a racial justice issue.
“Our church, a lot of our parishioners are hungry for feeling useful in a time when you’re isolated and there’s very little social interactions,” Rose said. “Quite a number of people are hungry for it and there’s a lot of energy around racial justice in our church too, and this dovetails to that.”
“I just feel like if more people acted out of a place of abundance--even if you don’t feel like you have abundance--that we could make a greater difference in the world,” Rose continued. “Instead of acting out of a place of scarcity, but out of a place of abundance, it would create more compassion in the world.”
Another one of SSYP’s Episcopal parish partners is Trinity Church in Concord, and when Steinhauser highlighted the continuing community need as guest preacher via Zoom, the congregation resolved to increase its support through the B-LOVE program, said David Weiss, who serves on the vestry at Trinity Church.
“Given the age of COVID, we have to look at how we can best do our outreach,” Weiss said in an interview. “I think for a lot of parishioners who are very careful and cautious--and rightly so--this gives them the ability to be involved, to feel like they can cast their bread upon water and have it come back to them is its own blessing of itself.”
All Saints Parish in Brookline has been a partner of St. Stephen’s Youth Programs since the program's inception, and with the need caused by the pandemic so great, members of the congregation who had never really been involved with the summer B-SAFE program have now become regular contributors to the monthly donation of groceries for B-LOVE.
“The fear we had that the parish might burn out on this ministry has proved completely unfounded,” said Eileen Sweeney of All Saints Parish, in an e-mail. “People have really been awakened to the need and have responded with incredible generosity. I always feel every month that it is like the children's story ‘Stone Soup’ or a new version of the miracle of the loaves and fishes--as somehow what we are able to offer has multiplied.”
In a phone call with a group of parents and guardians who have participated in the B-LOVE distribution, Celis Suazo explained how St. Stephen’s has helped her get her family of seven through this past year with not only food and supplies, but also the social and emotional support provided by workshops and classes, including English classes, Zumba classes, technology classes and accessible information about the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The members of my family, we are seven, including four kids, my grandparents and myself, and I’m a single mother, and because of the pandemic, I’m not working, so this has been really helpful for me.” Suazo said. "I want to thank St. Stephen’s for all the help that they’ve been providing not just me, but all of the families in the community.”
The B-LOVE program is a mutual aid program, meaning that the people who are handing out materials are staff and parents from the same community of people who are receiving support. Many parents and guardians of children who have been in SSYP are now getting much-needed food and supplies for their families, as well as helping to coordinate the distribution and delivery of these desperately needed supplies.
Yrmaris Matias is one of these parents helping with the program and volunteers to deliver goods and supplies to those who are unable to come to the Friday distributions.
“Being part of St. Stephen’s and working with them and helping all of the families, it fills me with joy,” Matias said in the phone call. “I’m so grateful because they advocate a lot for education for the families who are English learners so I’m very blessed to be able to help all of the families and to have St. Stephen’s in my life and in my family’s life.”
“One of the things that you have to never give up is hope.” Matias said. “There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, you have to just reach for it. You have to speak up, because if you need help, you need to talk, you need to talk to somebody. We have to speak up, we have to choose to use our voices so that we will be heard.”
--Bridget K. Wood
For more information about St. Stephen's Youth Programs, please visit www.ssypboston.org.
B-LOVE 2020-2021 Episcopal Parish Partners Include:
St. Paul’s Church, Bedford
St. John’s Church, Beverly Farms
Christ Church (Old North), Boston
Church of St. Augustine and St. Martin, Boston
Emmanuel Church, Boston
St. Stephen’s Church, Boston
Trinity Church, Boston
All Saints Parish, Brookline
St. Paul’s Church, Brookline
St. Mark’s Church, Burlington
Christ Church, Cambridge
Trinity Church, Canton
All Saints' Church, Chelmsford
Church of the Redeemer, Chestnut Hill
St. Stephen’s Church, Cohasset
Trinity Church, Concord
St. Paul’s Church, Dedham
St. Dunstan’s Church, Dover
St. John's Church, Gloucester
Parish of St. John the Evangelist, Hingham
St. Anne’s in-the-Fields Church, Lincoln
Church of the Holy Spirit, Mattapan
St. Michael’s Church, Milton
St. Paul’s Church, Natick
Christ Church, Needham
Grace Church, Newton
St. John's Church, Newton
Trinity Church, Newton Centre
St. Mary’s Church, Newton Lower Falls
Grace Church, Norwood
Church of the Good Shepherd, Reading
St. John's Church, Sharon
Trinity Church, Stoughton
St. Elizabeth’s Church, Sudbury
Parish of the Good Shepherd, Waban
St. Andrew’s Church, Wellesley
St. Peter’s Church, Weston
Emmanuel Church, West Roxbury
St. John’s Church, Westwood
Parish of the Epiphany, Winchester