As you may know, this week holds special significance for three major world religions: It’s Holy Week, in which the Christian tradition commemorates Jesus’ death and celebrates his resurrection three days later. Good Friday also marks the start of the Jewish festival of Passover, and the “third Abrahamic faith, Isalm, is also in the midst of Ramadan, making an unusual treble of the three great monotheistic religions celebrating major festivals on the same day,” notes one London journalist.
Whatever your belief system, similarities can be found in festivals that mark each tradition: We lean into tenants of freedom, love, and liberation. We pray, reflect and gather together. And we eat, with wild abandon.
What other commonalities mark the three Abrahamic traditions?
Just as many of us are privileged to fill our shopping baskets with the foods our families prefer, we also think of our neighbors who do not have the privilege to load up on chocolate eggs, unleavened bread or the traditional foods of an Iftar meal for the end of a long day of fasting.
This, of course, is not limited to the Kensington neighborhood alone, but reaches every point on the map. We cannot forget our neighbors in Ukraine and Afghanistan, in Central America and Haiti, whose migrant pathways do not always end in a meal at the end of the day.
But as we often say, we are not without hope.
And so, we cling to a prayer for all of us – a prayer of freedom, love and liberation.
To the One who is Life:
Although we call you by many names,
we see that in all of these faces and spaces,
You are freedom.
You are love.
You are liberation.
For our neighbors three doors down
and to those who are three thousand miles across the world,
we ask that you grant peace to those who are plagued by war.
We beg for love to reign,
both individually and collectively.
And we plead for liberation,
that the chains of oppression would cease.
Bringer of Life, this is who you are.
Guide us in the way.
What prayer do you pray today?
As we mentioned on our social media channels this last week, we hold the tension of the both/and on a regular basis. Is it ever the same for you?
Our neighborhood is a place of beauty, that much is true, but it can also be a place of terror.
In an essay by Dr. Bill McKinney, Executive Director of the NKCDC (New Kensington Community Development Corporation), the Philadelphia Inquirer reported “last year that 57 blocks in Philadelphia saw ten or more shootings over the past decade. Twenty-five of those were in Kensington. That Rocky block of Tusculum had fifteen shootings last year. Six ended in death.”
Make no mistake: the “Rocky block” Dr. McKinney speaks of really is the place where Rocky lived when he courted Adrian and cared for his turtle in the legendary 1976 movie.
And for us and our neighbors, it’s also the place we call home. We can’t not be unaware of its realities.
What does that look like in the place you call home?
According to a 2019 study, the Kensington neighborhood came in last out of 46 Philadelphia neighborhoods, when it came to various health factors and health outcomes. Additionally, as our friends over at the NKCDC recently reminded us, “men living in Kensington can expect to die 18 years earlier than men living six El stop away in Center City.”
But we are not without hope.
Just as the spring seedlings remind us of the literal food our neighbors will soon be able to receive through our Food Choice Pantry (and eventually through expansion efforts of our offices and grocery space), we’re grateful of the leadership of individuals and organizations who truly believe that Kensington can thrive.
The NKCDC makes clear the following two-fold advice: “Plan for equity, not equality” and “Work collaboratively to advance the community’s solutions.” Together, with our neighbors, with other organizations, and with those who love Kensington as its own, we believe that goodness is already here: we can work together for the common good.
Our heroes are already here, already among us, already waiting to spring into action.
Do you believe the same of your neighborhood, wherever it is that you call home?
The scene is often the same: Fast-food joints dot every corner. Corner stores boast an abundance of “just add water” meals, junk food, alcoholic beverages and soda pop. With nary a piece of fruit or vegetable in sight, poor, urban areas like our own often lack viable food options.
If you don’t have access to a car and rely instead on public transportation, then you’re also bound by the resources that are right in front of you. Even if you want to go across town and visit the fancy grocery store that carries 18 different types of lettuce, you can’t, because you may be limited to the neighborhood you call home.
I mean, what would you do?
There’s certainly merit in leaning into the people, businesses and resources that are our immediate community, but for many of our Kensington neighbors, and for the 38 million people, including 12 million children, in the U.S. who experience food insecurity, people are limited by no choice of their own.
According to one writer, “food-insecure families report facing challenges purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables, including high costs relative to their household budgets. Lack of time and resources for meal preparation also contribute to food insecurity, along with racial segregation and poverty.”
Additionally, many of our friends are limited by policies that affect food availability and scarcity. Feeding America likewise reports that “low-income families are affected by multiple, overlapping issues like lack of affordable housing, social isolation, economic/social disadvantage resulting from structural racism, chronic or acute health problems, high medical costs, and low wages.”
As you well know by now, we are so grateful that we’re able to meet the immediate needs of our neighbors through our Food Choice Pantry. It’s also been nothing short of a delight to begin to grow our own fruits and vegetables, all of which will go directly back to the Kensington neighborhood.
Even if we live in what many call a food desert, no longer will our neighbors have to drive across town for access to the fresh fruits and vegetables they deserve: instead they’ll be able to get these items when they schedule a 15-minute shopping trip inside The Simple Way store.
If you’d like to further support our gardening efforts (and, ultimately, our neighbors in Kensington), would you consider fulfilling an item from the Garden Wish List?
Together, we can do small things with great joy!
Poverty is a vicious cycle.
In our neighborhood, 9.3% of Kensington residents are unemployed – this in comparison to Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, with overall unemployment rates of 7.5% and 4.5% respectively. It’s easy to imagine how those who are experiencing joblessness would also find themselves living at poverty level.
But what of those individuals and families whose full-time jobs are still not enough to pay all the bills at the end of the month? How is it that more than a quarter of our neighbors in the city we call home continue to live at poverty level?
In truth, 25.9% of Philadelphia residents live in poverty. With an unemployment rate of 7.5%, that means that 18.4% of our neighbors experience poverty because they work jobs without livable wages.
Take another set of numbers, this time around minimum-wage pay:
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. That means that a full-time minimum wage worker earns $15,080 a year. Thankfully, 29 states, including Pennsylvania, have their own minimum wages. In our state, minimum wage is $12 (and will be going up to $15 by this summer); as such, one of our neighbors working a full-time minimum wage job instead earns $23,400 a year.
But median rents increased by 54% in our neighborhood this last year, to $1,350 a month. No longer does the 30% rule apply when housing is nearly 70% of one’s overall income.
It’s easy to then see how or why a person has to work multiple minimum wage jobs just to try and pay the bills. It’s easy to see how one of our neighbors might have to pick and choose which bills get paid, or how a working parent getting paid poverty-level wages would struggle when 30% of their income goes to child care.
It’s easy to see how poverty can become such a vicious cycle.
According to a report from the Coalition on Human Needs, “low wage workers are in jobs that are insecure and make it virtually impossible for them to invest in education or training, or to buy a car, to get a better job. In addition, studies have found that low-wages have particularly harmful effects on families, children, and workers’ health, which, in turn, are additional barriers to workers getting better jobs.”
But as Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis reminds us, the poor are God’s people, just as the poor remain the center of God’s concern. We cannot “ignore that Jesus was a leader of a revolutionary movement of the poor who, rather than mitigating the unfortunate inevitability of poverty, called for a movement to transform heaven and earth.”
Might it be the same in each of our neighborhoods, as we work toward transformation for and with our neighbors.
Perhaps then this vicious cycle will start to cease.
Many of us don’t know what it means to be hungry.
We don’t have to think twice about stocking our pantries, ordering online grocery delivery, or even indulging in the occasional take-out meal once or twice a week. We plan out our dinners, one or two weeks ahead of time. We host freezer meal parties and stock the extra freezer in the garage with extra meals for those times when we’re “just too tired to cook.”
What does food security mean to you?
But as we’ve been exploring over the last couple of weeks, hunger is real to many of our neighbors, both locally and globally. Food security is not always a reality.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 800 million people live with food insecurity worldwide. They lack “physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This equates to nearly one in nine people on our planet. In developing countries, the numbers are even higher, where an estimated 13.5 percent of the population experiences malnutrition and undernourishment.
We talked about it on a local level in last week’s blog post, when we were reminded that a full-time, minimum-wage job still often doesn’t allow for many of our neighbors to pay for rent and utilities and put food on the table. Those who experience food insecurity are forced to make daily, weekly and monthly decisions about where and how to use their money, notes Chuck Haren, program director at Plenty International.
“They have a myriad of costs to deal with. How do you choose?” Haren stated in a podcast interview.
Sometimes choice is the greatest privilege of all.
And when our local and global neighbors are the direct recipients of unjust systems that benefit some but not all, parents have to choose between putting nutrient-dense food on the table and keeping the heater on in below-freezing weather. Families have to choose between paying the rent and skipping a meal.
But if we belong to each other, then we belong to one another in suffering and in joy, in plenty and in want, in every hour of every day.
As the late Desmond Tutu eloquently said, “If we could recognize our common humanity, that we do belong together, that our destinies are bound up in one another’s, that we can be free only together, that we can be human only together, then a glorious world world come into being where all of us lived harmoniously together as members of one family, the human family.”
And isn’t this what we want? Isn’t this who we are?
We invite you to journey with us as we continue to explore these questions, as we seek to do small things with great love, together.
As you may have seen on social media last week, in 2021, 7,741 adults, 1,604 seniors, and 5,171 children were served through our food distribution efforts. In total, we shared 279,390 pounds of food with our neighbors.
The reality is that our neighborhood is not without its challenges. Crime is real. Housing insecurity, including lack of affordable housing, is real. Unemployment numbers are high, due to fewer accessible jobs. There is a lack of quality education. Our neighbors are struggling, because inequitable, oppressive systems of racism and classism affect every area of their lives. Compared to the rest of Philadelphia, our neighbors in Kensington are more “likely to lack public or private health insurance, smoke, have skipped a meal, and have hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, or mental health diagnoses.” Local public health officials have noted that we serve one of the poorest areas in one of the poorest cities.
Our community is vulnerable to a number of injustices, but as a small organization, we desire to support our neighbors by helping to build a neighborhood where everyone belongs and thrives. We yearn to be community to and with one another.
We celebrate, garden and work together to make our neighborhood beautiful. We collaborate locally and we listen to the needs of our neighbors so that we can move one another toward security.
The Simple Way is not a monolith, nor is our neighborhood a monolith. We are honored to have a story that inspires others to act – a story that equips neighbors around the world to be active in their own neighborhoods.
How has our story sparked a desire for you to follow Jesus every day, both with your body and in your neighborhood?
For our neighborhood, one of the most pressing needs is food. We experience food security when we can always get the food we need to feed ourselves and our families. But take, for example, one of the families from our neighborhood: a full-time, minimum-wage job still does not provide enough to pay for rent and utilities, and put food on the table. Oftentimes, when people are making decisions about what to skip, food is the first thing stricken off the list. Shelter is a necessity. Gas and electricity in the winter is essential. This is the reality of food insecurity.
Just as our neighbors needed a place to be welcomed in, with love, and be given the space and time to choose the kinds of foods they like to eat, they need the security of not having to make the tough decision of choosing between food and shelter. Knowing you can get staples from our food pantry also means being able to successfully allocate your money to other pressing needs, like rent and utilities, transportation, and medical bills.
Our neighbors deserve this security. Just as many of us take for granted the food that is easily ours for the taking, Kensington residents deserve to choose and prepare the kinds of meals their families actuallywant to eat.
Although our Food Choice Pantry serves this tangible need, we are quickly outgrowing our space. We can’t wait to renovate our office space in order to expand our Food Choice Pantry offerings and hours.
We hope to repair the basement to create a cleaner and more robust food storage area. We want to clean out years of old, collected items; we want to stop up holes and fix broken concrete; we want to widen our doors to help with flow and access issues. As a hundred-year old property, designed for a family and as a cobbler’s workshop, evolving into a growing food pantry is no easy feat!
It’s time for us to bring change and make repairs to fill the space with who we are now. We trust this is a small thing we can do with great love.
What small thing with great love can you do for you and for the neighborhood you call home?
As you may have read in our newsletter earlier this week, as followers of Jesus, we feel called to practice hospitality. At The Simple Way, we’ve gone as far as to include Radical Hospitality as one of our core values.
Hospitality is defined as taking care of your guests and anticipating their needs, and radical means going to the extreme. So, we want to take care of and anticipate the needs of our neighbors in the most thorough way we can.
We see and are inspired by examples of this kind of hospitality in the Hebrew Bible: when manna fell from heaven, the Israelites gathered a specific amount of food each day, enough to feed themselves and their neighbors.
And in the Gospels, when Jesus spent a long day healing the sick, the crowd of 5000 started to get hungry. It didn’t matter that the disciples could only find five loaves and two fishes: Jesus took the food, blessed it, and created more than enough food to go around.
Sit with those stories for a second: What does it tell us about how God intends for us to live? What might this look like in your own neighborhood?
All of us get to do good by not forgetting to share with others.
Perhaps, all of us are also compelled to practice hospitality, even if our practices sometimes look different from one another. At The Simple Way, extending hospitality has meant listening to and looking for the needs of our neighbors, and using what we have access to and sharing it. This is what led to the development of our Food Choice Pantry and other support services we have today.
This week, we practiced hospitality through inviting over 100 neighbors to choose food from our pantry to help feed their families. We offered kind words and encouragement as we interacted with one another. We reminded each other that we belong to each other and that we thrive together.
We have been so encouraged, to say the least. What began with feeding people around the table, handing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches under the El, and handing out bags of food, has now evolved into a choice pantry where people can choose the food they want to use to feed their families.
We also just started planting seeds, so we can nourish the community with food born from the soil of our neighborhood. We’ve begun stocking additional items, like diapers, soap, and toilet paper, because inequitable access to food often means inequitable access to other necessary goods.
Again, take a second to pause and reflect: how has listening to and looking for the needs of those around you changed your neighborhood for the better? How has it changed you?
Whatever your story, each one of these extraordinary acts of ordinary love means making sure people have what they need in order to live in a dignifying way.
This happens through hospitality and it happens through space. This happens as we seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and love our neighbors, one tangible, simple act at a time.
What say you?
It’s been just over one month since we opened a Food Choice Pantry day just for Seniors! Due to the pandemic, we’ve only been able to welcome a few neighbors into the food choice pantry at a time. This limit has meant people sometimes have to wait. Over the summer, we couldn’t bear to see our elders out in the sweltering sun.
“I would look at these seniors and think, ‘that could be my mom, my father, or a relative,’ and I wouldn’t want them out there in the heat,” explained Maria Nieves, our Emergency Services coordinator. She quickly began gathering names from senior neighbors who would be interested in coming to a Seniors-only day early in the morning and by appointment. Soon, she had dozens of names on the list.
We’ve been welcoming about 33 Seniors every week since we started,” Maria says. When they come, she makes sure to chat with them, hear how they’re doing. “I make sure to call everyone by their first name and hear how they’re doing. They really love that. You know a lot of seniors are appreciative of someone to talk to and connect with.”
Many of the elders who come to the day live with family and work busily helping to take care of the family. Most of them play a caregiving role for their household — cooking, cleaning, watching children, and doling out advice. Coming to the food choice pantry and getting to select fresh food for their families brings smiles and relief for many.
“The vegetables and fruits make them happiest,” Maria says, noting that many of those fruits and vegetables come from The Simple Way’s own garden. She also knows that beyond the food available, the most important part of the experience is choice. “We’re the only food pantry in our zip code who let you come in and choose your own groceries,” Maria explains, “most places you come in and they hand you a box of food. Even though we’re smaller than some of the other places nearby, we offer an amazing variety. It gives the residents a lot of choices.”
The fresh food cares for neighborhood health, as does the social connection that the Seniors’ day offers. “When the Seniors come to our office, they chat with each other. I always work to make them laugh,” Maria says. “It’s good for their health.”
Maria, and the rest of our staff, don’t take our neighbors’ good health for granted. Covid-19 has been tough on the community. Just recently, Maria learned that one of her Seniors passed away due to Covid-19. The challenges have only made Maria more determined to make sure Seniors smile and laugh when they come.
“Sometimes they tell me I don’t act my age,” she says, “but I just say good, I’m not supposed to. We only have one life and we have to live it. We don’t know how much time we have left, so we may as well joke and have fun with each other while we can.”
The Seniors’ day at our Food Choice Pantry is just one way we’re building community connection and fighting food insecurity. Support from people like you has kept us going strong and working hard to love our neighbors in ways big and small. Thank you!
I’m a people-oriented person. I’ve always loved being a part of a community and building long-lasting relationships. I love hearing stories from other people and what they’ve been through. My philosophy in life is that everyone has a story to share, and each story is significant, no matter the size. This is a bit of my story.
I’m from Philadelphia, especially North Philadelphia. I’ve been here for 21 years of my life, and for most of that time I was just down the block from The Simple Way. I always saw their building on Westmoreland, but for a long time, I didn’t know it was them.
It wasn’t until I did a summer internship program with Esperanza Health Center that I ran into one of The Simple Way board members, Lara Lahr. She met me during one of my lunch periods while I was working as a translator. She came up to me. She said she knew who I was. She said she knew that I attending Eastern as a freshman. Then, she told me that I’d be a great candidate for The Simple Way Scholars program. They could offer support with tuition and books and my career pursuits while I was studying. Soon, she introduced me to everyone on the board.
What she didn’t know at the time was that even though I had finished my freshman year, I wasn’t going to be able to return. I had too much debt for my tuition for them to allow me to return. Many people may not realize that if that happens, financial aid won’t clear you to matriculate. My family’s back was against the wall. When I got accepted into The Simple Way Scholars, it was truly an answer to prayer.
Being at Eastern was such a gift with that background in mind, and then it got even better. I had connections with people who would ask me about my aspirations, my dreams.
My major was in journalism, my passion. The whole time I was at Eastern, I knew I was doing it for more than myself. I wanted other people in Kensington to know about my experience and to feel inspired. “If he did it down the block,” I imagine the families thinking, “then anyone is able to have this kind of outcome in their life.”
I graduated in 2019. Life has been amazing after college. I worked as an editor for a medical examiner until Esperanza Health Center reached out to me one day. They wanted a communications coordinator. I’ve been relaunching and rebranding their newsletters and being a face to the patients and staff. I like to hear what’s on everyone’s mind. Just recently, I received an offer to continue pursuing journalism for USA Today network.
It’s been an amazing journey, and I have promised myself that I will never forget where I came from. My community has such a strong bond. Neighbors care about what’s going on in your life in Kensington. They aren’t selfish. Even though we sometimes face violence and dark times, I always feel a connection and I know that my neighbors will have my back.
At the end of the day, I consider myself an ordinary person. My story shouldn’t be something that’s shocking or considered odd. We should be able to see beautiful stories like mine every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s the story of a young person who couldn’t finish high school or someone who had a bumpy road in their college career. Every person has beautiful parts to their story and we need to listen for that. That’s one of the things I so appreciate about The Simple Way. People there have a heart to meet people’s needs, yes, but they also give affection and connection. They offer people a place to talk or an embrace when a person is at their breaking point. That’s what the community is supposed to do. That’s what neighbors do.