At any given time, hundreds of volunteers will fan out across Broome County to serve the elderly, the disabled, the hungry, the sick and the imprisoned.
For some, the work is a witness to their Christian faith. For others, it’s a way to stay active and give back to the community.
They’re all part of the Broome County Council of Churches, which for the past 75 years has worked with other social service agencies to help and comfort the most vulnerable members of the community.
The motto is “connecting compassion with needs, and inspiring hope with dignity,” said the Rev. Joseph Sellepack, executive director for the past nine years. On a practical level, that means helping congregations connect their volunteer efforts with the larger needs of the community, and volunteers’ individual faith commitments, he added.
The 75th anniversary marks a milestone for the organization whose roots extend to 1939 with two Binghamton ministers from West Presbyterian Church and North Presbyterian Church began conversations on how their churches could better work together. Two years later, in the spring of 1941, 26 churches united in a cooperative effort to begin a hospital ministry.
Today, the council has about 150 member Protestant, Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations, plus an affiliation with three Jewish synagogues, an Islamic mosque and several nondenominational congregations that cooperate on interfaith efforts.
“In some ways, the council is the face of Christ in the community,” said Rev. Robert Peak, president of the 17-member board of directors. “Whether it’s supplying food or ministering in the jail and hospitals, it touches the community in so many different ways.”
Even as it marks its 75th anniversary, however, the council faces challenges common to all nonprofits, Peak said. They include a limited volunteer base, growing demands for services, population loss in the region and tight finances.
For example, CHOW (the Community Hunger Outreach Warehouse), one of the council’s flagship efforts, distributes 1.3 million pounds — more than 1 million meals — of emergency food assistance annually through a network of 34 food pantries and 34 soup kitchens. But even when combined with other programs, that meets less than half the need, said Jack Seman, a program manager with CHOW.
“We’re struggling to meet needs from both ends and doing it in an economically challenging environment,” Sellepack said.
As it does its work, the council emphasizes ecumenism and building bridges between different denominations, as well as other faiths.
Sellepack puts it this way: “We work to find common ground so people can work together to achieve works of mercy in the community.”
CHOW is arguably the most visible “work of mercy.” The program plays a major role in combating hunger in the community, Broome County Social Services Commissioner Arthur Johnson said. But it’s only part of the council’s work. Other efforts include:
- Faith in Action, which helps the elderly stay in their homes by providing transportation to medical services, grocery shopping, light housekeeping and friendly visits. More than 300 trained volunteers provide the service.
- Ramp It Up, which coordinates local youth groups to build wheelchair ramps for the disabled who are homebound. The project has built some 100 ramps since it started, Sellepack said.
- A hospital ministry that provides pastoral care to patients, family and staff at both United Health Services hospitals in Binghamton.
- The Rev. John Koopman, hospital chaplain, and volunteers who make between 1,200 and 1,300 visits a year.
- And a jail ministry that offers counseling, support and religious services to prisoners at the Broome County Correctional Facility. The ministry also coordinates the re-entry program when prisoners leave the jail. The Rev. Chris H. Mogenson and a cadre of volunteers provide the services.
Moreover, the council is on duty in times of emergency. When severe flooding hit the county in 2006 and 2011, the council was at the center of recovery efforts, Johnson said. Churches played “a critical role” in helping people clean and restore their homes, and providing food, supplies and clothing, he said. The council also helped bring in church groups from outside the community to help with the recovery efforts.
A sign of faith
Home base for the Council of Churches is 3 Otseningo St. in Binghamton, where a paid staff of 21 coordinates the council’s activities. But volunteers — 863 active volunteers at last count — provide much of the services.
One such volunteer is Debbie Thorpe, 66, who assesses the needs of elderly clients for the Faith in Action program and also drives clients to doctors’ appointments.
The Endwell woman is motivated by her religious faith. “I believe as a Christian, I’m called to serve my fellow man. It’s what Jesus asked us to do,” she emphasized.
At the same time, the retired geriatric social worker is aware of the problems faced by older adults who want to stay in their homes. “One of them is isolation,” she said. “When you lose your ability to drive, you can lose contact with the community. You start to lose your independence and self-esteem.”
While it requires a time commitment, volunteering is not a chore for her.
“I really like to learn so much history from people. Everybody’s got a story to tell, and it’s really cool to hear these stories,” she said.
Fellow volunteer Gene Banick, 77, explains his commitment this way: “I’m no preacher. I’m no ‘holier than thou’ person. But I do believe we should try to give something to the community.”
He thinks that while most Broome residents have only a hazy knowledge of the Council of Churches, they know about its programs.
“I’m a person who likes to stand back and look at results,” the semi-retired accountant said. He thinks the council’s programs get these results.
Sitting in his Otseningo Street office, Sellepack said he is well aware of historical and doctrinal disputes that can divide denominations. The council purposely stays away from these divisions, he said. It also purposely stays away from taking positions on hot-button social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.
This all-inclusive attitude doesn’t please everyone, Sellepack acknowledged. Some conservative churches have asked to be disassociated from the council because of its ecumenical approach and decision not to take stands on social issues.
But the organization plans no change in its focus. “I know enough about these deep philosophical divisions. We don’t need to deal with them. What we’re going to do here is build wheelchair ramps and feed people. I’ll leave all the other drama and controversy to those above my pay grade,” Sellepack said.
Moving into the future
As it moves into the future, the Council of Churches is not a stagnant organization. Programs evolve and chance. CHOW, for instance, has increased its emphasis on distributing fresh fruits and vegetables. It has set a goal of having one-third of its food supply be fresh produce by 2019.
Another new initiative is a program to train low-income participants as forklift operators, warehouse workers and commercial drivers. While the program has started small with five workers, the goal is to ultimately train 12 people every three months.
Sellepack called it a “tough love” approach. “We’re teaching skill sets so people can go out and get jobs, get out of poverty and not need our services,” added CHOW Director Mike Leahey.
“It’s definitely a second chance. I kind of feel like I’ve started over,” said Haley Eisole, 34, one of the first participants.
The Binghamton woman has battled opiate addiction and had volunteered at CHOW as part of her treatment program at Fairview Recovery Services. When she started, she knew nothing about CHOW or the Council of Churches. Now, she said, “It’s changed my perspective on how I look at life.”
Council officials know they are operating in challenging times. Financial support from the community support has always been there, but the need is increasing, said Peak, a board member for seven years. The board is discussing new approaches to raise the council’s profile in the community and build support.
One publicity event will be a 75th anniversary celebration on Nov. 13. It will begin with an ecumenical service at First Congregational Church in Binghamton, followed by a march to the Double Tree by Hilton for a reception.
“The theme will be building bridges,” Sellepack said. “We will give thanks for the bridges we have built and look forward to building bridges into the future.”
About the Broome County Council of Churches
The council was founded in 1941 and predates the National Council of Churches. It is autonomous from the national group.
It’s budget for 2016 is $1,025,897: 39 percent of the budget is supported by individual donations; 54 percent is supported by other contributions from businesses, churches, organizations, grants, etc.; 7 percent is supported by investment income and sale of unrestricted assets if needed.
Charity Navigator gives the council a rating of three out of four stars for sound fiscal management, and commitment to accountability and transparency.
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