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'Little church with big heart' catches Yankees’ pitch

Woodycrest United Methodist Church, in the Highbridge section of the Bronx, is directly across the street from Nelson Playground, where the congregation conducts a weekly “children’s church” in warm weather. The church also has been distributing food from its neighbor, Yankee Stadium, after some of this year’s home games.
UMNS photos by John C. Goodwin.

By Linda Bloom*
Oct. 9, 2009 | NEW YORK (UMNS)

Church members help the Rev. Denise Pickett lead the 10 a.m. Sunday service.

It is a story as old as the Gospel parable of the rich man’s banquet and as new as the $1.5 billion sports palace where the New York Yankees are making another run at the World Series.

Through a partnership with a small United Methodist church and an antipoverty think tank, the latest incarnation of Yankee Stadium -- complete with 51 luxury suites, $2,500 box seats, a members-only restaurant, martini bar and a concierge to assist with theater tickets or restaurant reservations -- also is catering to the hungry.

The uneaten hot dogs, hamburgers, sushi and other food from game days are being packaged up and sent for immediate distribution to neighborhood feeding centers, such as one six blocks away at 166th Street near Woodycrest Avenue.

Kenny Wood, a former drug addict, is a regular volunteer for church ministries.

There, in a quiet residential setting amid squat, brick apartment buildings and older homes of modest means, members of Woodycrest United Methodist Church are the servants posting fliers and making calls to bring all to the feast provided by the Yankees.

Neither will eradicate the poverty that exists in the southwest Bronx. Not the church, which can fit 180 worshippers in the pews of a sanctuary built in 1913. Nor the ball club, which often has more than 50,000 fans on game day.

But together, these two institutions – the “little church with the big heart,” as one member calls it, and an iconic American sports franchise – are taking a small step to reach out to one another and narrow the gap between the economic haves and have-nots in their neighborhood.

In the glory days of October, as the Yankees pursue their 40th American League pennant and 27th World Series championship, Woodycrest United Methodist has its own dreams: expanding its ministries with a community center, senior citizen housing, day care.

A half-dozen blocks away from the glare of the baseball playoffs, a light of hope is shining a little brighter in the Bronx.

History intertwined

Woodycrest’s appearance in the Highbridge section of the Bronx -- named for a steel arch bridge that still spans the Harlem River -- preceded the Yankees by 14 years. Elizabeth Worrell Jones made a deathbed request of her husband, Joseph Harris Jones: Establish a Methodist church and Sunday school. He complied.

Nearly a decade after Woodycrest dedicated its church building, a crowd of 74,200 watched Babe Ruth hit a three-run homer against the Boston Red Sox on April 18, 1923, at what became commonly known as “the house that Ruth built.”

For years, both the church and the stadium reflected the mostly Irish and Eastern European middle-class neighborhood around it. In the late 1950s, the first ethnic minority groups began to move into the area. Within a decade, Woodycrest was a predominantly black congregation.

When Frankie Hailey moved from Liberty, S.C., to Highbridge as a new bride in 1969, her aunt instructed her to join Woodycrest church. “That’s where you are needed,” she told her.

Hailey, now 66, quickly became a regular, taking on the role of organist a couple of years later. Back then, the “well-kept” neighborhood included a thriving shopping district on Ogden Avenue with two supermarkets, a children’s store, furniture store and a number of other businesses. “We had just about everything in this neighborhood at one time,” she recalls.

But the 1970s were a difficult time for the city and the Bronx – a time when the phrase “the Bronx is burning” was apt in both a literal and metaphorical sense. After the two-day citywide blackout in July 1977 – when both looters and fires destroyed businesses – many stores never reopened, Hailey says, and some people left the area.

The Yankees began recapturing their glory days in the 1990s, guided by Joe Torre, the new coach, and players like Andy Pettitte and Derek Jeter.

In 2002, the Rev. Denise Pickett was assigned to Woodycrest by the United Methodist New York Annual (regional) Conference.

The Yankees won four more championships. Pickett started a Bread Basket program to feed the poor.

Reaching out

The oldest of six girls, Pickett, 53, was devoted to her grandmother, Ruby Gantt, and her grandmother was devoted to Metropolitan Community United Methodist Church at 126th Street and Madison Avenue in Harlem. The entire family would travel from Brooklyn most Sundays to worship there.

Her mentor at Metropolitan was the Rev. William James, the pastor for 30-odd years, whom she described as “very much a community-minded person” with a concern for all God’s people. “That’s what I learned from him, how to take care of the poor and reach out to the homeless,” she recalls.

Pickett, a high school athlete, also had another mentor: William Spann, head of the physical education department at Shore University in Raleigh, N.C. “He would say if you could use what you are given, you could go anywhere,” she says.

Organist Frankie Hailey, a member of Woodycrest for 40 years, plays while Winston Merrick, a member of the worship team, sings.

That advice first took her to the New York City school system, where she spent 22 years in adaptive physical education, working with mentally and physically challenged students.

But she also remained active in her church, particularly working with youth, and that led to a career change. She embarked on a path to ministry, culminating in a master of divinity degree at Drew University.

Administering to the spiritual and physical needs in Highbridge was ideal for the mission-minded New Yorker.

“Denise has a huge heart for reaching out to people who live on the margins,” says the Rev. James “K” Karpen, a fellow pastor who has known Pickett since the late 1980s, when they worked in camping ministries together. “She has a real gift when it comes to creating community in tough situations.  Not everyone can do that.”

Bread of Life

Woodycrest’s Bread Basket program, created about five years ago, offers a free hot meal and assorted take-home goodies each Wednesday noon. “The whole concept around this ministry is we’re not just offering bread for the physical body, we’re offering the bread of life,” Pickett explains.

For the 100 or so people who form the line that extends along the outside entrance to the church’s basement social hall, the weekly meal is not just a free lunch. It’s about gathering with others in the community, about sharing a blessing.

Kenny Wood, 56, a church member and Bread Basket volunteer who lives in the nearby Highbridge Houses, credits Pickett and Woodycrest with helping him get his life back on track and becoming a role model for his grandchildren. “People look at me now and they know I’m affiliated with something positive.”

For too many years, that feeling of belonging eluded him. “I grew up in a time when I fell victim to drugs,” he explains. “I wanted to fit in and I got lost. My life just plummeted down so bad.”

The Rev. Denise Pickett stands in front of Woodycrest, which she has led since 2002.

A neighborhood resident, off and on, since he was 17, Wood sometimes would sit in Nelson Playground nearby and listen to the sweet singing emanating from the church across the street. But he wasn’t ready to participate until one day, about five or six years ago. He was “fresh from treatment” for his drug addiction and encountered Pickett in front of the church. She invited him inside.

“When I finally made it through the door, God did something,” says the retired sanitation worker, tears coming to his eyes at the memory. “He made a change in my life.”

The donated food Bread Basket depends on is usually hauled to the church in Wood’s van or the trunk of Pickett’s car.

Pickett did not have to look far for a role model for her team approach to ministry. The former Yankee manager who stayed calm amid owner George Steinbrenner’s tirades was close by.

“Joe Torre, for me, was the man, was the coach of all coaches, such a gentleman,” she says. “If you follow his style a little bit, he’s someone you want to emulate.”

Yankee power

If there was a temptation to join critics who see the new stadium as a temple of excess that displaced local parkland, Woodycrest leaders have chosen instead to be thankful for the team’s outreach to the community.

On select days after home games, the congregation sets up tables outside the church to distribute the abundant leftovers from concession stands, usually right around the dinner hour.

Wood, who assists with the distribution, is glad to see the Yankees giving back to their own neighborhood. “It shows they do care,” he says.

Church members Bertha Burke, Frankie Hailey and Jennifer Charlmers help distribute unused food from a Yankees home game. A UMNS photo by Reed Galin.

The partnership is facilitated by Rock and Wrap it Up, an organization started in 1990 by Syd Mandelbaum, who asked rock bands to donate leftover prepared food from concerts to local charities. The concept has since spread to 31 sports teams, including eight in the New York metropolitan area.

The pastor has nothing but praise for its organizers and the generosity of the sports teams. “We’ve had many more pickups than were scheduled because we’re so close (to Yankee Stadium),” she adds.

Being able to share this food has helped the church fulfill the commandment of Jesus to “feed my sheep,” a scriptural message that Pickett takes “very seriously,” according to Hailey.

A Yankees fan back in the late 1970s when Reggie Jackson was playing, she considers the food the team donates after home games to be “a blessing.” Up to 80 people have been served at a time. One woman tearfully told Hailey that she hadn’t been sure how she was going to feed her family that day “but you have given me my dinner.”

People who can’t afford tickets to the game still get excited about a hot dog or hamburger in a container bearing the Yankee logo, Hailey reports. “It’s been very, very rewarding. I have to respect the Yankees for that.”

Living the spirit

Yankee Stadium is empty on the morning of Oct. 4, but Woodycrest United Methodist Church is filled with the “spirit of the living God.” An illuminated cross hangs above the altar, where loaves of breads, representing different cultures, spill across the table to signify World Communion Sunday.

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A half hour before the service begins, several members gather in a side aisle between the rows of polished wooden pews. Woods, dressed in a suit with a cross stud earring in one earlobe, offers an impromptu prayer. “We want to do the best that we can do for you, Lord, as we reach out to others,” he says. “Times are hard … but knowing that you are with us makes it so much easier.”

Woodycrest’s congregation reflects the neighborhood. Its 142 members include African-Americans and natives of the Caribbean and Ghana and about half show up for the 10 a.m. service each Sunday. They arrive in suits, dresses and high heels as Hailey, on the piano, and Paget Benjamin, the drummer, draw them to worship.

Bertha Burke, who volunteers as one of the two cooks for the Bread Basket lunch, leads the six-member worship team that joins Pickett at the altar. Her voice soars as she responsively calls the congregation to the “sweet Holy Spirit.”

While others across the nation tuned in, church members haven’t been able to watch the first two games of the playoff battle between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins.

Shortly after the first pitch on Oct. 7, Pickett and her congregation began a three-night revival.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org


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