Community: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

December 30, 2018

In mid-December, I was one of several Cookie Collection elves packaging boxes of cookies at Hope Church to deliver to neighbors around the Island. Attached to each box of cookies was an invitation to the Hope Church Christmas service. Baking is extra special when you know the love and good cheer is going to be spread far and wide in your community. And I never knew so much pleasure and joy could be derived from tying bows of twine around pastry boxes.

 

As I stood there at the end of our production line, gazing at all these smiling faces who’d brought this rich array of sweets, gingerbread stars and chocolate drops and hand decorated sugar cookies in the shapes of Christmas trees and candy canes and more, I realized that I had come full circle; I had in fact been the lucky recipient of one such box last year, when a kind neighbor left them in front of my door with a pretty gold printed tag inviting me to a Christmas service.

 

Cookie Collection 'Elves' Pack Boxes to Deliver to Island Neighbors 

 

There was something so charming about this quaint little box of assorted homemade cookies. It felt like an outdated and incredibly authentic gesture which reminded me of those days in another life (never my life) where neighbors welcome new neighbors with a basket of food. This pastoral tradition usually reserved for small towns is unique in a setting like Roosevelt Island, a small town community nestled in the heart of the country’s most populated city. Certainly in Manhattan you can imagine a gesture like this being received with pure skepticism, the cookies ditched without being so much as sniffed or else checked for poison.

 

I have never been a religious person. In fact, Christianity bent me a little out of shape. I once owned a Bible for a literature class in college and I remember pouring over it with a yellow highlighter pen pointing out with outrage every time a female character seemed to be diminished.

 

I have carried stories around with me my whole life about my mother’s humiliation by her Catholic parents for breaking the rules. Rules that felt so repressive that I couldn’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t go out of their way to break them. Conceiving a child out of wedlock was a biggie in her world, and she never really recovered from that transgression even after marrying the father of her baby and having two more children with him.

 

The story of my parents’ union involves one of being shunned. Mom wasn’t allowed to wear white. Worse, she was forced to marry a man she hardly knew. Her father wouldn’t hear of her idea of giving the baby up for adoption. She wore a handsewn pink skirt suit for the occasion with pleats created strategically to hide her bump.

 

I never wanted much to do with a god that was so judgmental and frankly, abusive. In some ways it seemed my very birth was a sin – even though I came along after the nuptials were established – so how could I get around that?

 

That morning last year when I found the box of cookies outside my door, I was in a bad way. Not long prior I had trained for and run two half marathons, one in October and one in November, and I had nailed them. But I was also having a lot of strange and uncomfortable symptoms that I didn’t understand, and after the second half marathon my health began to spiral out of control.

 

In early December of last year I finally received a diagnosis and it wasn’t good. The diagnosis was not well understood or recognized by the medical community and therefore the path to recovery was also not clear.

 

I was afraid, worried about how I would manage and I was worried about the well-being of my then eight year old son.

 

 This year's Hope Church Cookie Box with invitation to their Christmas service

 

Something about those sweet cookies made me realize I could probably do with a little more god in my life. At the time I had been dating casually but realized just how casual those bonds were when I got sick. Before, my issues with Lyme Disease had never impacted my outward physical appearance. Now I was finally in the best physical shape I’d been in since my twenties, but I was having autoimmune issues that were impacting me cosmetically.  

 

I had squandered most of my youth in an unhealthy relationship and now I felt like I was too sick for anyone to find lovable.

If there was a god, it seemed, he or she was surely mocking me.

 

The day I wandered into Hope Church at the Good Shepherd Chapel, I felt dejected and

outcast and deeply alone. My diagnosis was mysterious and alarming and my recovery felt out of reach. At first I was afraid I was contagious and would give it to my family. I was afraid to hug my own son.

 

The community at Hope Church lifted me up when I was in a dark place. My son would go down to the children’s service and I would weep through the entire sermon, sure that the pastors Dan and Amanda Sadlier knew my innermost thoughts and fears and had written these words just for me. I never left the chapel without receiving numerous heartfelt hugs.

The Hope community enabled me to make many beautiful transformations in my life. I got out of a toxic job and began writing for the Main Street WIRE – something that has stretched and satisfied me on a deep level and drawn on talents that were being unused and unrecognized.

 

I started the Roosevelt Island Navigators with Nicholle and David Galarza, the Island’s first coed scouting group. Our troop went from being homeless to having some pretty sweet digs at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church.

 

 The author with her Navigators troop

 

At a time when I wanted to withdraw from the world, the Island called me out, and valued what I could bring. I’ve stepped into new positions of leadership. I remember how last March I stood in front of P.S. 217 leading a large group of families in the singing of Blowin’ in the Wind and Imagine as we protested gun violence.  In some ways I didn’t recognize that person who stood there on the sidewalk in her short blue hair. My community not only recognized me but loved me and sang with me.

My community and my reach and my sense of self worth have expanded in powerful ways since the day I first walked through the doors of Hope Church a year ago. A woman I didn’t know came up to me in Nisi a few weeks ago.  She was the mother of a local family visiting from Europe. She told me she would never forget that day when I led them all in the song, Imagine, in front of the school.  She told me I was her hero. I’m still letting that sink in.

 

I was not just the lucky recipient of cookies. I have received empathy, love, fierce intelligence, food, companionship and earnest prayers from a richly diverse community of men, women, and children who feel like family and help me to be my best self, connecting me to a life of purpose and value.  It’s not always easy, but maybe when things get tough we all need to lean in a little closer to our neighbors. For we are a community a caring neighbors here on Roosevelt Island.

 

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