Planting the seeds of hope in a parish community
From Brooklyn to Central America to Spain and locations in between, Fr. Astor Rodriguez, CM, has lived, ministered, and studied in myriad places as a Vincentian. Brooklyn, though, is home, and where he often finds himself returning to serve.
“As a pastor or just a priest serving in [Bedford–Stuyvesant], Brooklyn, you realize that the greatest treasure we have is our people,” Fr. Astor says. “They are so caring and supportive. And they truly help mold you as you minister to them, as you are ministered by them.”
St. John the Baptist, a diverse, multi-lingual parish in a low-income neighborhood where Fr. Astor is pastor, is seeing the signs of gentrification, which threatens to dislocate its longtime residents. “We try to respond as best as we can. St. John the Baptist has always been a Vincentian parish. The Vincentian charism has been ingrained in the community.”
Outreach remains integral to the parish’s identity. “If you have things for people and you are community based, people respond,” says Fr. Astor. “We have a lot of needy people in the neighborhood, and the challenge of providing for them continues to grow. People don’t venture out of their neighborhoods unless they have to, so we try to offer outreach programs that will supply them with food and clothing.
Some of these donation-based social service ministries at St. John the Baptist Parish include the Parish Thrift Shop, managed Ms. Beatrice Estwick. She is assisted by a team of dedicated workers who volunteer their time to help provide clothes to anyone in need. These volunteers also staff the Emergency Food Pantry which is open on Tuesdays. During the pandemic, the parish served 300 people daily. Although the pace has slowed down a bit, the community is now experiencing a surge of immigrants coming in from Venezuela.
These two programs are costly to support and during the pandemic, public assistance was at an all-time low. “I had to get creative. I went online and said, “Hi, I’m Fr. Astor from St. John’s, I just want to tell you about our needs and how you can help us.” The neighbors responded and so did local construction crews. “They would see the lines of people in need of help in front of the church and the crews would tell their bosses who responded with donations,” says Fr. Astor. “I think when you make the need known, people respond.”
Both outreach programs are no cost to those in need. “If people come to our door, no one leaves without food or clothing,” said Fr. Astor, “It’s the Vincentian way.”
For the time being, the economic hardships and challenges of running an inner city parish remain. But being a Vincentian Priest working in that neighborhood is exactly where Fr. Astor wants to be.
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