“Our mission has transformed over the past few years,” explains Rev. Gary Grimes, Pastor of the Chicopee church. “It still is a group of people from the community that have gathered in the love of God and love of community, but we've now changed to help the people in the community in the spirit of Tzedakah.”
The My Jewish Learning website explains that although the word is often translated as “charity,” tzedakah is not equivalent to charity. Rather, its root means “justice." The first principle of tzedakah is that one is obligated to provide the poor person with all that he or she needs, including food, clothing, and household articles.
“In the Hebrew Scriptures, the terms justice (mishpat) and righteousness (tzedakah) are not identical, but it is extremely difficult to ascertain an exact difference in meaning between them,” explained David Cleaver-Bartholomew, SNEUCC Director of Stewardship. “They often appear in tandem as in Ps. 89.14 where they are the foundation of Yahweh’s throne. They are also characteristics of Yahweh. Tzedakah implies benevolence, kindness, generosity, compassion. For the early rabbis, to practice tzedakah was to perform an act of justice.”
“We believe that caring for the poor is truly an act of justice commanded by God and is a duty, not just a display of love and charity,” said Grimes. “God has called us to feed the hungry, serve all who are in need, and instill compassion in those who we touch in the spirit of tzedakah. Our hope for a better future here, where God’s Kingdom is lived out on earth, is carried out through these actions of social justice by our community.”
The Chicopee church focused on providing food for the community through three different programs. “Breaking Bread with the Community” is their meal program offering dinners on the first and third Sundays, “Regina's Pantry” is obviously their food pantry program, and “Loaves and Fishes” is an outdoor program where they meet the homeless on the streets in Western Massachusetts providing them with food, support, and other items.
The numbers, as well as the demographics, of the recipients have changed due to the pandemic, the economic situation, and the changing needs of the community. For example, during the height of the pandemic, more younger families took advantage of the meals program because as businesses closed and jobs were lost, parents were sometimes unable to provide for their families. More recently, though, more elders are participating in the food pantry because they have fixed incomes and may not be able to keep up with the rising food prices.
Within the past two years, the church has seen participation rise from serving about 90 families through the pantry and 80 to 100 meals to 100 to 125 families at the pantry and 130 to 175 meals. They stayed open throughout the pandemic by operating as a curbside pick-up only program for both meals and pantry. In addition, they are also one of the only pantries in the area that offers sundries like toilet paper, paper towels, and personal hygiene items.
“Since all of one’s possessions are but a loan from the Creator of the Universe, to Whom belong the earth and all that is in it (Ps. 24.1), persons doing acts of tzedakah ̶ as First Congregational Church of Chicopee is doing ̶ are securing a more equitable, a more just, distribution of God’s gifts to humankind,” said Cleaver-Bartholomew. “They are also living more deeply into the image of God and following in God’s ways, which is our duty, as tzedakah is a Divine attribute.”
Grimes explains that they do not like to call attention to themselves for their food ministry works and they give because they are serving God, not out of charity, but because that is what God calls them to do. But he is using this article and a video they published to try and discern how to grow their ministries and serve more meals per month.
Rev. Terry Yasuko Ogawa, Area Conference Minister for the Northwest Region of the SNEUCC, said: This small church with its part-time pastor is making a huge difference in their community.”
Note: You can see the Chicopee church video here or below.
Marlene Gasdia-Cochrane writes news articles for the SNEUCC website. She is also the editor of the Starting With Scripture newsletter. Contact her if: Your church has a great story to tell about an innovative ministry. You have a prayer request to ...