When Zac Martin and his family moved to New York City from Canada 13 years ago, he “had the sense that this is where we were supposed to be.”
Now a pastor at Recovery House of Worship in Brooklyn, he is bringing that sense of belonging to the church’s congregation and neighborhood during the holidays, a need greater this year than ever before because of the pandemic.
Martin has worked at the non-denominational Christian church for two years. The Brooklyn branch is one of eight affiliated churches across the country, from New York to California, and is located in Boerum Hill just a block from Downtown Brooklyn. It serves 150 congregants, many in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction.
Along with working there, Martin is organizing the sixth annual Helping Hands Toy Store for families in need during the holidays with his community-building nonprofit for youth, Trellis. The church is hosting the event for a second year after it started at Park Slope Christian Tabernacle.
On Dec. 20, families may stop by and search through toys donated by local businesses and from an Amazon wish list. The church will set up a room to look like a toy store where each family can choose one toy per child, browsing as if shopping at a retail store. The family will then go into a separate room to wrap the gift and pose for a Polaroid photo to commemorate the experience.
Over 200 kids have already signed up to receive a gift as of Dec. 16. Trellis gave away almost 500 toys in 2019, an increase of 100 toys from the year prior.
Martin said the toy store concept was inspired by the book “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor … and Yourself,” by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett, which encourages readers to re-examine poverty as a lack of both material things and ordinary experiences.
“What we try to do in everything we’re doing is to remind these folks that they have dignity and that we love them and care about them,” said Martin.
Dr. Caroline Gelman, a social work professor at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work, said these acts of normalcy were also essential for children.
“There is an expectation in our society that for Christmas, you are going to get a gift, and you’re going to have a certain kind of meal,” she said. “They see on the media, and they hear from friends in school that this is what it’s supposed to be. Children want to fit in.”
This toy drive follows Recovery House of Worship’s record-breaking turnout for its Community Curbside Thanksgiving, a reimagination of its Thanksgiving sit-down dinner from previous years. Volunteers prepared and packaged food donated by individuals and organizations, then distributed it to a line of nearly 400 people outside the church on Thanksgiving Day.
“We are serving people who are on hard times,” said Genevieve Smith, a volunteer who has previously experienced homelessness. “ I remember being on the other side of that line.”
Martin and the church expected only 200 guests this year and ran out of turkey. Then a friend Smith brought to the event purchased rotisserie chickens to serve everyone who remained, making the event feel “like being with family, like being home,” Smith said.
Although 150 familiar faces came for dinner, Martin says many people attended for the first time. Recovery House of Worship made sure to serve everyone who came for help, as it has done for the entire pandemic.
“We actually never closed our doors because a good number of folks who we serve through our food distribution are congregants,” he said. He cited the church’s support for groups like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.
“They come to our church,” he said, “and sort of the adage in the NA and AA world is, when meetings close, people die.”