Seeking God’s Justice at The Bowery Mission in New York City

September 2, 2020

Leya Petrovani Miller ’14, major gift officer at The Bowery Mission in New York City, shared how coronavirus has impacted programs and services to people experiencing homelessness.

380x380 Alumna Leya Petrovani Miller The Bowery Mission has been serving people in New York City for more than 140 years. The ministry has seen the city and New Yorkers through a myriad of crises since the early 1870s—from the 1918 flu pandemic to Hurricane Sandy to 9/11—and most recently, the global outbreak of COVID-19.

With five campuses across the city of New York plus a retreat center and summer camp in Pennsylvania, the Bowery Mission provides meals, emergency shelter, residential programs, and life-transforming services to men and women in need. As a major gift officer at the Bowery Mission, Leya Petrovani Miller ’14 noted that the organization has not missed a day of service—not even when cases peaked in April.

"We’ve been there through it all, and I’ve been so impressed to watch my colleagues who serve on the front lines pivot and adapt quickly to a totally different reality," Petrovani Miller said. "We knew that, perhaps now more than ever, it was crucial that we keep our doors open, no matter what. We saw a wave of people experiencing new unemployment due to the pandemic and many who were food insecure or homeless for the first time. We began to see lots of new faces seeking meals and shelter."

Petrovani Miller noted that the pandemic required them to rethink the delivery of all programs and services. One of the organization's top priorities is a highly personal, welcoming approach—a value they call "Radical Hospitality." But how do you provide that safely in a time of social distancing?

"Everyone's journey to homelessness is so different, but no matter who you are, the experience is one of deep isolation—total estrangement from any forms of support," she said. "In some cases, this can be just as life-threatening as the virus, because your body and mind can spiral and deeper and deeper into crisis with no intervention in sight. So, at the Mission, we prioritize radical hospitality. Everyone who walks through our doors is greeted with a smile by someone who wants to know them by name and build a trusting relationship."

Today, the same frontline staff who provide hospitality have become public health educators—implementing health screenings and new safety protocols. For example: instead of providing indoor showers and bathroom facilities, the Bowery Mission provides showers in a van in front of their buildings during the week with help from their partner, Showers of Blessings. They also have porta-potties outside and have set up outdoor handwashing stations.

Participants and staff involved with the Bowery Mission’s Residential Program for adults adapted by introducing new health and safety protocols, equipping staff and clients with supplies and PPE, and shifting a lot of in-person programming to virtual programming. Teachers and volunteers continued to provide virtual classes, one-on-one counseling, and group care. They perform daily health screenings, and for anyone exhibiting symptoms they have isolation rooms available.

About 80 new people have joined the Mission’s residential recovery programs since the onset of the pandemic, and they recently celebrated the graduation of another 50 people who finished the Bowery Mission’s Residential Program over the course of the last year.

"Those 50 people have found sustainable employment, housing, and are living a fully independent life," she said. "That is amazing! It’s amazing that 50 people--in the midst of everything happening in our country and in New York City—have still managed to take the next step for themselves. That’s a blessing. That’s a joyful thing to celebrate."

Petrovani Miller has been encouraged by "a real outpouring of support" financially and in encouragement and prayer from both current and new donors. One powerful example of donors’ generosity was around the time of the $1,200 federal stimulus checks in the spring of 2020. Her team began to see a lot of gifts come in that were $1,200. As she reached out to people and asked what inspired their gift, on several occasions, the answer was: "I received a stimulus check and, sure, I could have used it, but I know someone else needed it more."

At Wheaton, she noted that she received practical training for her current work in the development sector as part of the Phonathon team, which broke a "fear paradigm" she held—that fundraising was trying to coerce people into doing something.

"I realized through awesome training from Brendan Anderson and Wheaton’s really wonderful Phonathon program that when done well, fundraising is relational and restorative. It’s expressing a need and connecting people to something they already care about. I have a unique opportunity to join donors in their mission to pursue justice,” she said.

She was also prepared for her current career through her participation in the Human Needs and Global Resources program at Wheaton.

"My time in classes and particularly on my internship in Ecuador really cemented my personal calling to pursue social justice," she said. "There are so many things in life that should be human rights that aren’t: food, shelter, safety from war. I believe that I am made to be a part of bringing human restoration, and my hope is that this pandemic serves as an awakening and a reckoning for us all to realize that we live in a very unjust world. We live in an unjust country, and it’s our responsibility as Christians to seek God’s justice."

Though the future looks bleak with a financial recession looming and economic and financial hardships becoming the norm for many nationwide, she noted that reaching out to friends living alone right now, volunteering in places that are providing essential services if you're healthy, and giving sacrificially are all ways for us to emulate Christ during this challenging time.

"One thing that helps put things in perspective for me is that this is not the first global tragedy that our world has experienced, and this is not a surprise to God," she said. "As I look at the Jesus of scripture, he is an example of radically sacrificial hospitality and love. I think particularly in the midst of this mindset of social distancing, and perhaps isolating from others, we have an opportunity to respond. My hope is that, even if the darkest days are still ahead of us, now is an opportunity for us as believers to show the world what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus in the midst of uncertainty and hardship. We have an opportunity and responsibility to walk alongside and to be the hands and feet of Jesus to our neighbors and our community who are perhaps less fortunate and more at risk than we are."—Allison Althoff Steinke ’11