When Rev. Edgar Gutierrez-Duarte arrived in Chelsea in 2007, there was a small closet with a few rows of non-perishable food items in the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church that Father Edgar’s predecessor had left behind and had sometimes handed out to the hungry.
It had been an act of service that was small, but meaningful.
Shortly after discovering that closet, Father Edgar (which he often called locally), 61, was asked by the Church Vestry (Board) what was the biggest need in the community.
It took but a short time for Father Edgar to look at the little closet and realize that it needed to be grown into a full-blown Food Pantry.
“We wanted to have a measure of success in our worship, but we also wanted to make an impact on the community,” he recalled during a recent interview. “I was told we could do English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. That was very important, along with addressing issues of immigration. All that sounded fine but I felt there was a something more – something larger. As the recession got deeper and deeper in 2007, there were more and more people coming for help with food. It was then that I decided that need was to officially start a Food Pantry.”
That Pantry started with the St. Luke’s Church community fully on board, serving about 10 families.
Soon, 10 turned to 20 and that gave way to hundreds.
“I had to move the Pantry out of the closet and into a small room,” he said. “I was spending about $4,000 a year out of our budget to buy food. I had no idea about Food Pantries and didn’t even know I could get help from the Greater Boston Food Bank. We got help and now we serve around 800 people a month, or 250 families. The community has really come to depend on it, and it’s a service the church is called to do.”
That calling also gave way to a weekly soup kitchen at St. Luke’s operated under a five-church partnership, and also a Thrift Shop made up of donations from wealthier churches that those in need can access.
Those acts of service have just shown their fruits in an expansion of St. Luke’s – located on Washington Avenue – in order to handle the crowds that have come to rely upon the church. The $1 million renovation project has added more space for refrigerators, expanded the soup kitchen and made new classrooms and office spaces. A few weeks ago, the bishop visited to give the blessing and affirmation on the new addition.
It was a ceremony that almost never happened.
Father Edgar said the church leadership had approached him a few years ago and said that his congregation was thriving, but his building was crumbling. At one point, he said it was suggested that they sell the property and move to another location.
“I told them we might as well close the church,” he said. “We were not going to find a suitable place because our strength was the location. We would lose so many people if we were to move. The bishop paused after listening to that. Then he said to me, ‘What would you do with $1 million?’ I had to catch my breath. I told him, ‘I need to think about that.’”
It didn’t take much thinking. Soon, the plans were in place, and after a few stops and starts within the process, the project has now been completed. It’s another high mark for Father Edgar and the folks at St. Luke’s.
Father Edgar, himself, took a unique path to Chelsea, he said.
He was born in Colombia and didn’t move to the United States until he was in his 20s, in the 1980s, settling in New Jersey with his family. After working his way up through various jobs, he continued an education that he had begun in Colombia and graduated with a psychology degree. After a move to San Francisco, he returned to New York City and was working as a social worker serving patients with AIDS. While getting his Master’s Degree in social work from Rutgers University, he got acquainted with the Episcopal Church and converted in 1993.
“I had always felt called to the priesthood in Colombia, but when I was an adolescent I gave up on the idea,” he said. “When I was in the states in New Jersey, I discovered the Episcopal Church in 1993. A year after that, I got the call. It was intense; I struggled with it for awhile. In 2000, I was approached to go to the Seminary. I stopped working and began my studies.”
During a snowstorm, Father Edgar was ordained at a church in Patterson, NJ, in 2003. He served there before coming to Chelsea and discovering the community that he so loves now.
“Patterson is a city where the sense of desperation is more acute,” he said. “It is similar to Chelsea, but more dangerous and more violent. There are great people there, but there was not this great sense of community. What I found when I got to Chelsea is that despite all our differences, it is like a small town here. Those in the trenches, we really care about Chelsea…This sense that we’re all working together is very great in Chelsea.”
Father Edgar said he hopes to continue to build more cooperation between the churches in Chelsea, which is one thing he sees that can improve. He said such cooperation in the faith-based community here will be essential in the coming few years to address issues like immigration, but more importantly, to address the forces of gentrification that have come with the ‘New Chelsea.’
“We can’t deny this is happening; it is the big question mark in the community,” he said. “The big question marks that come with gentrification is are we going to lose this small town feel and become city dwellers who work in Boston and only come home at night. If so, will those people conduct their spiritual life elsewhere. Also, is this new, highly educated crowd very spiritual or not? Those who remain, how many will be able to stay when rents double or triple? Those will be major issues for Chelsea. My hope is all the transitions will lead to a greater sense of the Spirit and of God’s presence in Chelsea. Quite frankly, I’m excited about the possibilities there are here.”
He said that as new people arrive, people who may be looking for a new church or looking for God in general, that perhaps the acts of service at St. Luke’s will draw them into the church and the community.
“That will probably be our next question; in all these things we do, is God present?” he asked. “So many people are looking for something more. There is more of a sense of God in the shelters and soup kitchens often times than in the temples or churches or places of worship where people go to get away from the struggles of the world…This is why we put so much emphasis on service.”
And for those that know him and find him at St. Luke’s, he said one can call him by any name – as so many have grown fond of doing since he came in 2007.
“In the Episcopal church, we carry the official title of vicar,” he said. “When I was in Patterson, everyone wanted to call me Reverend Edgar. When I came up here, where there is a strong Roman Catholic presence, they all started calling me Father Edgar. That’s fine if they’d like, but for my friends, I just say to call me Edgar.”
Edgar it is.