St. Jude’s Episcopal Church, in Wantagh, is an unassuming campus in an unassuming neighborhood. Weekday visitors might encounter common church activities, such as baby showers and mothers’ groups. And the cherubic 45-year-old Rev. Christopher Hofer appears perfectly cast for his role as rector of a suburban Long Island parish.
Dig a little deeper, however, and the parish and its priest are revealed as Christians fully committed to spreading their gospel through a range of social programs in a community that is remarkable for its diversity.
Hofer has been the rector of St. Jude for nearly 15 years, having come to the parish from Cleveland. He sees his church as embodying its motto as a “welcoming community,” and has a passion for serving those whom society considers outcasts. “We need to affirm the individual,” Hofer said.
“For really white Wantagh, we have a surprisingly diverse community,” he added. “We have single parents, gay parents, transgender parishioners — all the people God made. And ‘God didn’t make no junk,’” he concluded, echoing the famous Ethel Waters phrase.
The church has grown threefold under his leadership, and an average of 180 people attend Sunday services in the simple, white, east-facing building. “It’s less during the summer,” he acknowledged somewhat ruefully.
St. Jude also sponsors a ministry for single mothers at St. Michael’s and All Angels in Seaford, where, twice a week, single parents can receive a range of services, including food and clothing.
The parish reaches out
Nearly three years ago, Hofer contacted the Episcopal bishop of Garden City, the Rt. Rev. Lawrence Provenzano, to ask about the possibility of establishing a mission church in then-leaderless St. Michael’s. “We had been asked at our annual diocesan convention to write about how our individual parishes were ‘being the church’ in our communities,” Hofer recalled. “Our diocese has a big focus on being missional — instead of insisting people come to us, we go out to them.”
Hofer knew that St. Michael’s was without a priest, a situation that affects many smaller parishes that can’t afford full-time clergy. “I asked the bishop to appoint me as vicar of St. Michael’s,” he said, “with the intention of St. Jude developing a mission.” The bishop agreed, and the result is the St. Jude Mission Center at St. Michael’s and All Angels, and its Mother and Child Ministry.
The center, which currently serves 25 to 30 families a week, was cited last spring as the Long Island Press’s Best Not for Profit Organization in the Bethpage Best of Long Island competition.
“When we started, we asked ourselves, who are the most vulnerable?” Hofer said. “The answer came immediately: babies.” So he started researching poverty and homelessness on the South Shore, and discovered that no one was caring specifically for mothers with infants or small children.
“Poor moms often have to choose,” he said. “Do they pay rent or buy food? Do they pay for their transportation to work or buy medicine?”
Somewhat surprisingly for a community that appears prosperous, “There’s pretty extreme poverty in Seaford,” Hofer said. “But it’s hidden.”
About 85 percent of the mission’s guests are Latino in an area that is more than 90 percent non-Hispanic Caucasian. This suggests that some guests must travel from other towns for the center’s services, Hofer said. But they may also work in lower-paying service jobs, as fast-food workers, home health aides and housecleaners.
The Mother and Child Ministry provides essentials to parents in need; the Heaven’s Harvest pantry provides food; and the PB&J Brigade makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Wednesday nights for women’s shelter and ministry guests.
Hofer hopes to see the mission continue to grow. It is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and relies on donations for the services it delivers. He wants to begin serving hot meals on Wednesdays as early as next spring through the St. Michael’s Meals ministry. Hot meals have become something of a tradition in the Episcopal Church, with a number of parishes offering sit-down dinners, complete with china and silverware. But, Hofer said, “We found out that nobody was serving a meal on Wednesdays.”
The ministry, he said, was blessed to be able to provide a range of items to help guests make it from paycheck to paycheck. And he said he has had to learn what they really need. For example, “We learned to ask for sanitary pads instead of tampons, because our guests don’t like tampons.”
The church cooperates with nearby St. Frances de Chantal Catholic Church for pantry needs outside its target population, so that it can concentrate on serving mothers — and fathers — with children. At the same time, St. Michael’s is a fully functioning parish, with regular Sunday masses and the other services common to modern churches. It has four AA meetings a week, for example.
“We also refer families to Catholic Charities for a lot of social services,” Hofer said. “We can’t do it all on our own.”
He is assisted at the mission by Program Director Barbara Thompson and in the ministry by St. Jude’s curate, the Rev. Martine Barnett. St. Jude’s has two masses and an evening service each Sunday, as well as a mass on Wednesday.
The mission at St. Michael’s is open on Thursdays from 4 to 8 p.m., and on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. The PB&J Brigade serves sandwiches on Wednesdays from 4 to 8 p.m. St. Michael’s and all Angels is located at 2197 Jackson Ave. in Seaford. For more information, call (516) 900-1919, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.stjudemissioncenter.org.