Advocacy + Outreach · December 3, 2023

Serving the Most Vulnerable

In 2021, a young man named Zahid faced a dire situation.

In the face of the American military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Zahid needed to get his family, including his wife and young children, to safety. Zahid, a medical scientist and interpreter for the American and Afghani governments, would be in grave danger when the Taliban seized control of the nation.

So began an odyssey for Zahid and those closest to him. From their home country, his parents and siblings were brought to Uganda. His immediate family spent thirteen months in a refugee camp in the United Arab Emirates. Zahid, his wife, and their children eventually found their way to Austin, Texas. There, he connected with Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church.

Upon discovering that Zahid wanted to move to New York City for education and training in the medical field, Martha King, an ordained ruling elder at Westlake Hills, searched for Presbyterian churches who could help. Zahid needed a place that had worked with migrants, assisted people in finding housing, and extended compassion to those facing hard times.

In her search, King contacted Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church.

Experience with lending a hand

“Here in the city,” says the Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston, Senior Pastor of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, “we are one of the leading churches in terms of ministry to the homeless. It’s probably the largest single issue that the city of New York and that this church are trying to deal with.”

Hundreds of migrants arrive in New York City every day. Many lack access to affordable housing. To help address the city’s growing homeless population, in 2017, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church partnered with St. Patrick’s Cathedral and St. Thomas to form the Ecumenical Outreach Partnership (EOP).

“EOP is an outreach program to the local homeless community in and around Fifth Avenue,” says Christine Boyle, Director of Outreach and Missions at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. “We provide case management services, referrals, meals, and direct assistance to those in need.”

EOP’s outreach touches thousands of New York’s most vulnerable residents. In 2023 alone, EOP has held over 5,800 guest visits, each one a person seeking assistance and each interaction requiring time, skill, and empathy. EOP’s meal program, A Place at the Table, offers a hot lunch twice a week to homeless and hungry individuals outside of the church. 

“Over the past eighteen months, we have welcomed a high volume of migrants in need,” says Boyle, “and we continue to do so with open arms. From July, 2022 to September, 2023, for instance, we have worked with 144 migrants.”

Extending such assistance is a tradition at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. During every era in which refugees have sought to escape danger in their home countries, the church has stepped forward to sponsor individuals and families arriving in the United States. In the last fifty years, Fifth Avenue has helped resettle refugees from Lebanon, Cuba, Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Pakistan.

Holy work

After Martha King reached out with Zahid’s story, members of this church’s outreach staff spoke with Zahid. The outreach committee learned that Zahid hoped to study radiology, with plans to become a medical physicist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and cardiac ailments.

Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church used its experience, network, and support system to help Zahid and his family. Boyle coordinated with our resident social workers to help Zahid and his family transition to life in the United States and New York City. Black Johnston reached out to contacts in area universities where Zahid had applied for admission. The Fifth Avenue team helped arrange housing and the congregation extended direct financial support to Zahid. He is now in radiology school in New York, gainfully employed, and expecting a third child with his wife.

“There’s something about this sort of work that feels to me especially holy,” says Black Johnston. “I am grateful to everyone who has given of their time and their resources to make these things happen.”