Homeless people often bed down on the steps of New York City churches at night, as their only place of refuge. But at West Park Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, they not only find a place to rest through the night, but are given the hope of getting off the streets for good. Thanks to the work of West Park Presbyterian Church’s Reverend Bob Brashear, 80 percent of the people who have slept on these steps have found housing.
West Park Presbyterian is a massive edifice on the corner of 86st street and Amsterdam Avenue with an impressive history. Finished in 1885, it is considered one of the best examples of a Romanesque Revival style religious structure in New York City. The pastor of this church for the past 20 years, Rev. Brashear’s history is just as impressive. He grew up in Pittsburgh during the time of steelmaking, attended college in Ohio in the time of the Vietnam War and graduated from Yale Divinity School. He has worked as a Chaplain at the University of Bridgeport, spent 10 years in Oklahoma as an Associate Pastor, and was the director of an Interfaith Ministry in Pittsburgh. He also teaches a class on theologies of liberation at the Newark School of Theology.
In the community, Reverend Bob wears several hats. He serves as an advisor to the Halbreich Foundation, is on the national board of Presbyterian Health, Education and Welfare Association, chair of Interfaith Assembly on Housing and Homelessness, is part the Sweat Coalition, and helped to found Westside Congregations for Peace and Justice and Upper Westsiders for Food Justice.
When asked where he gets his motivation from, Reverend Bob responded, “Everything I do is an expression of my call, my call to the ministry, and in being faithful to that perceived call.”
Though West Park Presbyterian is located in what Reverend Bob refers to as “one of the most secular zip codes in America,” the church’s commitment to social justice has never wavered. On choosing which issues to address in the community, Reverend Bob believes they must be definable, measurable, and achievable. Picking the right time for intervention is also very important. The church demonstrated this perfectly when they hosted protestors from Occupy Wall Street. After 9/11, Reverend Bob responded to the needs of his community by hiring a social worker to help people heal. After Hurricane Sandy, the church created emergency gifts and became a collection point for other Presbyterian churches in Manhattan.
Reverend Bob’s motto is respond by what comes to you and this manifested when the church came together to work on food justice. They had members live on food stamps for a month and then had them come together with members of other congregation to reflect on what the experience was like.
When asked what he liked about the Interfaith Center and its work, Reverend Bob replied that ICNY “helps bring faith to the center of response and helps bring about transformation to the world.” In his work and the example he sets for his community, Reverend Bob also brings about transformation to the world, inspiring each of us to do what we can for people in need.