Dedicated Community Servants Honored

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Tompkins Weekly 10-14-13

By Eric Clay

We know, perhaps too well, that we are a celebrated place to live and work.  One of the dangers of living here is to believe the hype.   More sober concerns cast a serious light on who we are.

The Multi-Faith World Awards, two given annually by Area Congregations Together and Shared Journeys, are a nod to our robust collective ego, while making a much more modest claim about what is needed and helpful here.  This is our world, and we are more diverse and in more difficulty than we often know.  This year’s recipients, Pat Brhel and Chuck Tompkins are two people who understand this dilemma.
We are a relatively isolated place of unparalleled cultural and religious diversity for our size, not to mention beauty.  We are also a thousand small communities, physically present, yet isolated, where we don’t really know one another across differences.  We are a place of severe economic inequality.  A third of our permanent workforce commutes into Tompkins County (over 20,000 people), mostly because they cannot afford to live here—New York State’s highest rate of daily in-commuting outside of the New York City area.

Each year, these Multi-Faith awards recognize two people from distinct backgrounds who work to build relationships locally across differences not usually spanned or not spanned well.  We recognize those who promote friendship, equality, and mutual accountability.  We recognize the efforts of individuals who strive to make this a place of resilient communities, strong in the face of crises, and flourishing in distinct, even contradictory ways.

To be effective in such settings, it often helps to have lived and formed deep relationships across some serious divides.  It also helps to be stubbornly persistent and humble; a paradoxical combination that is hard to fake and sometimes hard to read.  This is not a coveted award.  Yet the example of those who receive it is worth noting and emulating.

Pat Brhel leads the Caroline Food Pantry and Brooktondale Community Center. Yet she has not done this out of her own financial excess.  She subsists on a disability pension and often gives away much of her own resources to those in need.  She divides her time between helping her own children and helping the needy of the Caroline area, while often necessarily neglecting her own physical needs.

All of this she has done, and continues to do, despite a severe lack of personal mobility.  She walks with leg braces and two canes.  She has recently, finally, had knee replacement surgery.  She lives and works in constant pain, yet rarely complains.

She is the first to say yes to each new idea and opportunity that is developed in the area of feeding the hungry.  She has embraced “Chicken Projects” and “Inspirational Gardens” with grace, enthusiasm, and wisdom.  This ex-engineer (mechanical and electrical) has written grants, attended meetings, cajoled volunteers, managed the distribution process, led the ordering efforts, and nursed, upheld, and inspired this charitable organization.  She relates with enthusiasm and edginess both to those with substantial means and those with very little.

Over the past10 years, the Caroline Food Pantry has doubled the amount of food it distributes each month to each household, and has quadrupled the number of households it serves.  At the same time, the pantry started a garden to provide fresh vegetables to clients. Volunteers have enlarged the first garden and added two more.   The pantry distributes seeds and plants in the spring to those who are physically capable of growing a garden.

Currently one of the largest food pantries in one of the poorest areas of Tompkins County, its continued functioning and success is owed primarily to the leadership of this remarkable lady.

Chuck Tompkins is a quiet example to many local, Evangelical Christians and many more folks of one who serves others and simply tries to follow in the footsteps of Christ.  Chuck left congregational ministry nearly 9 years ago.  He tries to follow Jesus’ model of openness to others, to build relationships across groups that do not value each other and to work to meet basic human needs.

The first locally, and still one of very few persons to regularly cross boundaries between Evangelical and other local religious groups, he has led prayer services with longtime friend and colleague Rabbi Glass, and introduced local secular and religious leaders to The Rescue Mission from Syracuse.  The last effort led to the opening of a thrift store and later to the operation of a residence for homeless men.

As the Chair of Community Faith Partners, he mentors women and men from Evangelical, Charismatic, and Black church traditions as they serve people in jail or in need of life-skills or housing, and residents in need of home repair.  He is respected such that he is able to go with integrity where others might be questioned for compromising their Christian faith or their honest curiosity and love for others who are not like them.

In his 50s and 60s, without a salary, Chuck has come to make a living painting and repairing houses.  Like many grandparents these days, he is also raising one of his grandchildren at home.  He accepts what he cannot plan.  Chuck did not want this award.  And I can appreciate how he would not want to be singled out for excessive praise or unwelcome challenges.  Chuck befriends people in quiet ways.  Together they find something interesting to talk about or important to work on.

Chuck remembers a classmate in a Philadelphia High School whose family brought the court case that ended prayer in public schools.  Chuck regrets that back in the day he was not curious about this fellow and why his family would do that.  In those days, his life was a pursuit of answers.  These days it is an effort to live faithfully with the questions.

Area Congregations Together and Shared Journeys are delighted to present both Pat Brhel and Chuck Tompkins as Multi-Faith World Award winners and as signs of sustainable, Multi-faith services to others in Tompkins County.

The award embodies unity and diversity.  It consists of two parts.  On top, a hand-made pottery bowl symbolizes our basic need for food.  The bowl rests upon a wooden plate that is adorned with 37 symbols.  Each symbol represents what the world is and ought to be from a distinct religious, secular, cultural, scientific, or political point of view—some of which contradict each other.  A 38th blank space encourages the viewer to reflect upon any way of living that may be missing.  The plate is inscribed with the challenge:  “Share the Journey.  Live your own.  Honor all.”

Eric Clay is co-founder of Shared Journeys.


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