How to Help in a Pandemic: Ask Before You Donate 1,000 Pizzas
By Ginia Bellafante - The New York Times

April 10, 2020

When the coronavirus upended ordinary life in New York, John Merz, an Episcopal priest who looks like a band manager of mid-1990s vintage, determined that more people needed to be fed — not from the trough of spiritual aphorism but from professional kitchens. He had an infrastructure for this. During the past three years, the organization he helped start, North Brooklyn Angels, has deployed a 37-foot truck painted turquoise — the Angelmobile — to dispense meals in neighborhoods where so many have been marginalized by the steady onslaught of the prosperous.

As soon as the virus erupted, need began to escalate; the Angels had been serving 1,200 meals a week and they were quickly serving 1,800. At the same time, privation appeared in new contexts. Father Merz is the vicar of the Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, which is a couple of miles from the Woodhull Medical Center, one of the city’s most stressed public hospitals. Woodhull employs more than 2,300 people, and Father Merz and his partner in good works, Neil Sheehan, realized that eating would become a problem for the workers there.

The territory was familiar. Restaurants near the hospital were less accessible to workers on wild, unpredictable schedules. They were unlikely to be open at 3:30 in the morning, when you hadn’t eaten for 12 hours and were coming off an extended shift that seemed to begin sometime around Presidents' Day. When you got home or woke up, you would be too exhausted to prepare the tuna salad, the turkey sandwich, the jar-sauce pasta you would need to take to work later on. The hospital’s cafeteria, once the most reliable option, had closed completely.

I asked Angela Edwards, Woodhull’s chief of nursing, when that was, and with each day mimicking the last in terms of its epic length and chaos, she couldn’t remember, but she felt it as a setback.

The North Brooklyn Angels essentially rescued them. Although this was a different kind of catastrophe from Hurricane Sandy, Father Merz got his education in disaster relief after the storm hit eight years ago. Certain lessons were clearly applicable.

Working largely out of Midland Beach on Staten Island, Father Merz met a priest who was devastated by the wreckage, and he ate lunch with him everyday, talking to him until Father Merz and his team figured out what would really be useful. Eventually, they outfitted the school affiliated with the church as a lending library for tools.

From his time spearheading volunteer efforts then, he knew that crisis donation was both well intentioned and often highly indiscriminate. “The need to help is atavistic, and that’s wonderful,” he said. But without thoughtful coordination, there is redundancy and confusion.

“You see people donating pizza to hospitals over and over,” Father Merz remarked. “How much pizza does anybody really want? Who needs 3,000 granola bars?“Hospitals constantly dealing with triage don’t have the bandwidth to manage the random delivery of food at unscheduled hours. He and Mr. Sheehan devised a plan to circumvent this kind of inefficiency, to feed Woodhull’s staff and also try to address the pandemic’s secondary crisis, the explosion of unemployment within the city’s restaurant industry.

They went to Josh Cohen, owner of Jimmy’s Diner in Williamsburg — north Brooklyn is restaurant country — who had closed his place and boarded it up. He lent his kitchen. North Brooklyn Angels rehired the cooks and dishwashers that Mr. Cohen had to lay off when he was forced to shutter.

These workers prepare meals for Woodhull to be delivered three times a day. Mr. Cohen and Mr. Sheehan and a band of retired firefighters deliver them, each driver taking enough food to feed 100 people at a time. The operation began with 300 meals a day, this week, then almost immediately ratcheted up to 450 as military medical personnel arrived to assist the efforts at Woodhull. The plan is to keep scaling up from there; an Episcopal church on Long Island is working on replicating the model.

Josh Cohen, owner of Jimmy's Diner, grabs sandwiches to bring outside for Neil Sheehan, co-founder of North Brooklyn Angels. Mr. Sheehan and his partner, John Merz, bring meals to workers at Woodhull Hospital. Photo Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times
One of several trips from Jimmy's Diner to Woodhull Medical Center. Photo Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

In Sandy’s aftermath, Father Merz was among the organizers of some of the most prominent relief efforts, efforts drawing from strong networks and deep embeds in communities, of the kind later studied by the Department of Homeland Security for an understanding of how so much volunteer work succeeded where bureaucracy could not.

Some of what he saw immediately after the storm baffled him.

“We were doing Sandy stuff out of my church,'' he said. “One day, it’s 5 o’clock and I’m sitting here drinking a Pabst and I see someone reeling in a Ping-Pong table. A Ping-Pong table! I’m like, Do you really think anyone needs a Ping-Pong table, in the Rockaways? Now?”

That quote was actually punctuated by a liberal number of profanities. A son of prominent architects and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Father Merz nevertheless has a tendency to speak as if God has been hanging out with George Carlin and the Scriptures can be summarized using the seven words you can’t say on TV.

Father Merz dropping off meals with Angela Edwards, chief of nursing at Woodhull hospital. Photo Credit: Hilary Swift for The New York Times

The importance of tactical altruism animates him, and not everything he says is printable. But what he would advise anyone looking to do something right now is to ask the people who require help what they want, “rather than just barreling through with your need to help.”

The Angelmobile is a food truck with a mission broader than merely nourishing the hungry. All along, the intention has been to get people from different demographics to become familiar with one another — the banjo players and bond traders, the techies and church ladies and dishwashers who live close to one another but with so little contact.

One of the many cruelties of the virus is that it seems bent on undoing this kind of work. It demands that we retreat into the most familiar spaces in our lives, at a time when the segregation and disconnection brought on by social inequality was already one of our most dangerous pre-existing conditions.

An effort like the one playing out at Woodhull is unlikely to evolve in places where there is only a vague attention paid to the specific burdens and rhythms of working lives. Intimacy with our neighbors feels like the poison, but ultimately it is the only cure.