"If these programs didn't exist, Episcopal Charities wouldn't exist."
On May 12th, Episcopal Charities welcomed Rev. Kevin W. VanHook, II as Executive Director. As he settles into the role, we asked The Rev. Frank Alagna, rector of Holy Cross/Santa Cruz, Kingston, and the director of Ulster Immigrant Defense Network (UIDN), to speak with Kevin about his mission. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Rev. Frank Alagna: One of the first questions that came to mind as I was thinking about this, Kevin, was: You have a very impressive resume. What drew you to the position of Executive Director at Episcopal Charities?
Rev. Kevin W. VanHook, II: I’ve been asked this a few times since I arrived at EC. One of the things that stood out to me during [the interview process] was the impact Episcopal Charities has throughout the Diocese of New York. It’s unique in the sense that you’re dealing with such a diversity of needs, whether they’re urban or rural. EC helps fund over 100 programs throughout the diocese of ten different counties and here’s what really interested me – the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated problems that were already there, and we have an amazing opportunity to really make a difference. And though, at times, it feels like we’re on the other side of this [global crisis], there are families that will be impacted by this for the next several years. EC is in a unique position to make a difference in the lives of so many different folks. So that’s what attracted me to EC.
FA: Thank you, thank you very much. What do you see as EC’s strengths?
KVH: I want to answer this in the context of the philanthropic landscape. One of our biggest strengths at EC is our distribution model. There are parishes throughout the diocese – and you all at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz are the perfect model of this – you all are on the ground; you know the various needs that are impacting your communities. And you know those better than anyone else. You’re there, you’re embedded in the community. Your parishioners are involved in those issues. And so, we have the opportunity to respond directly to the needs of different folks, because, through our partnerships with our program directors, we get a peek into what the real needs are, exactly, and that’s an advantage that some other organizations might not have.
FA: Okay, that’s one half of the picture. What do you see as EC’s greatest challenges now?
KVH: I think that it’s hard to eradicate different issues – whether it be poverty, homelessness, hunger – if we’re not addressing the root causes that answer the questions of “why” and “how”those issues exist in the first place. We have to be willing to ask ourselves some challenging questions: “Why and how did someone end up in the lines, needing food? Why and how did someone end up needing assistance with some of the shelter programs we have?” One of the things we haven’t done much of throughout our 25 years of existence, although we’ve done a lot – I’d love to see us do more in terms of advocacy. And I think that’s something we have to think critically about, about how we choose to engage, especially in the sense of: what is our mandate as an organization, what are called to do, how are we called to serve? So that’s one of the things I’d love to get us into.
FA: Dom Helder Camara said, “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, and when I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist.” Episcopal Charities, by definition, is a charitable organization. It depends on the free will offerings of good people, and they feel better about themselves because they engage in a work of charity. And I understand that. But our same funding source, these good people, are part of a system that is responsible. Some may be key players in that, without being aware they’re key players. And others of us live our lives being supported by it in a way that others are not supported by it. So when you talk about advocacy, dealing with the systemic causes that put people in situations where they need charity, it seems to me that immediately becomes a difficult place. So how do you see EC addressing this with donors who are actively and passively participating in the very systems that create the problems we are providing charity to?
KVH: Those are always tough and difficult conversations to have, but I think they’re necessary conversations. We are Episcopal Charities, but we are Episcopal Charities of the Diocese of New York. So I’ve been trying to, for lack of a better word, eavesdrop on what priests are saying on Sunday mornings – what are the conversations they’re having with their congregations? I think I’ve picked on some key threads, that no matter what role you play within this complex, most parishes are consistent in their messaging, going all the way down to Staten Island and all the way up to Ulster County.
FA: And what are you hearing said? I know my pulpit! [Laughs]. But what are you hearing [from other pulpits]?
KVH: I love that it’s evident that everyone is preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Two issues keep coming up – not just within the diocese, but throughout New York across denominations, even across religions, is that there’s a huge need for affordable housing and addressing issues of homelessness, and also mental health.
FA: That’s definitely true in our community [in Kingston.] The housing crisis is very real, and for the population we’re serving, once this [eviction] moratorium ends, it’s going to become even more desperate. Rents are so high – I don’t really know what we’re going to do. One of the things you are obviously charged with doing is raising funds. I know Episcopal Charities has a significant fundraising effort. What do you sense is a way of increasing fundraising and developing that in a way so more resources will be available for the greater need that is emerging?
KVH: One of the things I’ve prioritized – which is how you and I met initially – is getting out to see some of the programs we support and getting to know people, hear the stories. And it helps me get a better sense of the programs we support at EC and how some of the programs view that support. For example, it’s a great opportunity to be on the ground and ask questions like: “How would the people at UIDN describe us? How can we better support them?” And I’ve heard so many compelling stories about the work we do and the difference we are making for program directors, giving assistance in more ways than just giving money – in addition to funding, giving emotional support, professional development with Sustainability Institutes, things like that. But we have to get out and tell that story. Part of my role is to be a storyteller – highlighting the work our amazing staff is doing, but also highlighting the work our programs are doing, because we’re really here for those programs. If these programs didn’t exist -- Episcopal Charities wouldn’t exist.
FA: Yeah, I think storytelling is really important. And you have ways of doing that that will obviously make a big difference in the support that we receive from the community. We at UIDN have been very grateful for the financial support that EC has provided from our inception. And we’ve been able to expand that support from other funding agencies. We have a volunteer network that comes from across faith communities and beyond the faith community. I’m just impressed by the response that has come from every sector of our community, and the tearing down of walls and the building of bridges.
FA: I didn’t anticipate that. It’s a gift – people getting to know each other and getting to interact with each other who may have never interacted with each other, they get to interact and respect each other. And we have also been able to work with other organizations as organizational partners. We work very closely with Catholic Charities in our recent initiative to bring a family up from the border. So Catholic Charities in Tucson is partnering with us in the work to bring a mother and her two children up to Kingston. So my question to you is: how do you see Episcopal Charities establishing broader working relationships with other similar organizations?
KVH: That’s a critical question. One of the things you mentioned is – and it was so profound, so I want to go back to it – was working across and beyond faith communities. I love that. I might have to borrow that. [Laughs.] I loved the exercise we did when I visited UIDN – when we went around the table and asked each of the volunteers there: “what brought you to this work?” It was so interesting going around that table to hear the diverse perspectives that brought UIDN volunteers to that particular table. I think the work EC does is very similar. For example, we help fund the Interfaith Food Pantry up in Mount Kisco, but I think there are opportunities for that work throughout the diocese. Even outside the Diocese of New York, across the religious landscape, everyone’s talking about the same things, in this moment: homelessness and mental health. So, I think there are opportunities to collaborate with other folks. My work prior to coming to Episcopal Charities was running Social Justice Ministries at The Riverside Church. We built a lot of those coalitions there, and those are friendships I still have and would love to bring to EC. I see my role as not only being a storyteller, but to help EC make friends, for lack of better words, and help build those relationships up. I think it’s important to be able to reach out and tell the EC story, so folks are aware: Hey, EC’s already doing some of these things around this issue. Or – EC’s priorities are very similar to ours, how can we collaborate? So I think that’s going to be a key piece in our growth. There’s an old African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I think we have a long way to go to eradicate some of the issues we’re currently fighting. One of the things I often say is: Episcopal Charities is 25 years old right now. But I think that if we are feeding the same number of folks, or the same people 25 years from now, I think we will have failed in our jobs. I want us to put ourselves out of business in the sense of: if there’s no hunger, there are no folks to feed. If there’s no poverty, there’s no homelessness, so there are no shelters. I think we are a far way away from that, so we have to go together. We definitely need partnerships.
FA: In my limited experience, there will always be things that separate us, and that’s okay. But if we can identify those things that we already share a heart for, and keep that as the focus of our association, then the problems are few, and they can be managed or handled.
FA: In Kingston, we have a very active interfaith council that includes Unitarians, the Islamic community, the Jewish community, various Christian communities, and we keep our focus on issues that relate to our humanity. We are together. And we share that passion, though we have differences. I think it’s important to look for ways to identify the oneness that already exists among us, and to build on that. And focus on that. And be about that. And there’ll be little argument at the table.
KVH: Absolutely, I completely agree. One of my favorite projects, apart from Episcopal Charities, of course – I’m an ordained Baptist minister. So whenever I wear that hat, I sit on the steering committee for an interfaith group called Faith Communities for Just Reentry, which is actually housed out of Trinity Wall Street. There’s a broad coalition of folks doing a lot of critical thinking and advocacy work around how we treat human beings as they’re leaving Rikers Island. We’ve been able to accomplish so much while working across faiths and it’s undeniable that we can be powerful when we decide to work together. So, I see a lot of the potential of that interfaith connectedness and collaboration in addressing the issues critical to our time. My goal is to get Episcopal Charities involved in some of that critical work.
FA: Well, I want to say: I wish you well. I appreciate the energy and enthusiasm you bring to this job. I would hope that we can morph in such a way so there’s justice, and we don’t need charity.
KVH: And I’m excited about engaging in that work with you all up at Holy Cross/Santa Cruz, as well as throughout the diocese. I think that’s a great challenge we have, but we’re all in this together, and so I’m looking forward to getting to know as many of the program leaders, as well as many of the parishes throughout the diocese. So thank you so much for your time.
FA: Thank you!