On a bitterly cold Wednesday evening in January, the Coney Island Gospel Assembly was packed, its handsome dark wooden pews filled not with Pentecostal worshippers, but local residents hoping for help. They’d come to the largest church in Coney Island to hear representatives from the American Red Cross, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Small Business Administration (SBA) and other agencies discuss the programs that could help them recover from superstorm Sandy.
The church’s pastor, Constance SanFilippo-Hulla, opened the evening with a prayer.
“Take care of every agency, I pray in the name of Jesus, that is represented here,” Sister Connie said. “And all of the people, God, of this community — we need you. And we ask all of these things in Jesus’s name. Amen.”
“Amen,” the crowd affirmed.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who had organized the town hall meeting, took the mic and turned to SanFilippo-Hulla.
“Thank you, for being, really, a beacon amidst all the turmoil here, Sister Connie,” he said, “as we deal with the aftermath of this significant storm.”
Rep. Jeffries’ appreciation has since extended to the Capitol. Last week, he was one of nine co-sponsors of a bill in Congress that would allow houses of worship to receive federal aid to repair their damage from Sandy and future natural disasters. It passed the House overwhelmingly, 354 to 72.
Its beneficiaries would include the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, which served as a critical hub for neighborhood relief and recovery in the weeks and months following the storm. Even as its basement marinated in water nearly to the ceiling, and the red-brick structure went without electricity, the church’s elevated sanctuary sat largely unharmed and quickly filled with emergency supplies — canned food, diapers, bottled water, batteries.
Medical staff worked out of the choir risers until volunteer doctors and medics from the People’s Relief moved to a trailer sent by a pastor in Joplin, Missouri. Legal teams and the Red Cross soon set up camp just outside the church, too .
In all, SanFilippo-Hulla says, the church incurred more than $1.5 million worth of damage. But as a house of worship, it is not eligible for disaster aid from FEMA.
Religious organizations may qualify for low-interest loans of up to $2 million from the SBA, but no house of worship has received such a loan since Sandy. Only four even applied for the loans: two withdrew their applications, one was declined and the other is still being processed, an SBA spokesperson said.
SanFilippo-Hulla, 64, has been a part of the Coney Island Gospel Assembly since her father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, founded it 55 years ago.
“When my father died, he was written about as an ‘apostle to the poor’ in the paper,” SanFilippo-Hulla said, recalling him as “a friend, really, to people in the community.” With no training other than a lifetime spent in the church, SanFilippo-Hulla then took over as head pastor.
SanFilippo-Hulla, who favors black dresses and a pair of brown-and-white cowboy boots, said the church had served as a relief hub well before Sandy struck. Economic hardship is a constant in Coney Island, where the median household income is less than $30,000 a year.
“We feed people all the time, if it’s a crisis or not,” SanFilippo-Hulla said of her church. “We help people with their rent, with their bills. We’ve always done it. This is just a bigger scale now.”
Over the years the church had hosted a variety of social services within its walls, including a homeless shelter, summer activities for children, a truancy reduction program and a food distribution service run by Operation Blessing, the Rev. Pat Robertson’s nonprofit. She has counseled families through addictions, illnesses and interventions, and more gang-related deaths than she can count.
SanFilippo-Hulla said she is used to seeing government money go the other side of Coney Island, where the boardwalk and amusement rides draw tourists to the shore. She’s not counting on FEMA’s help to repair her church’s destroyed basement, which before the storm was host to youth groups, Sunday school, the assistant pastor’s office and a kitchen that fed the homeless on Saturdays. Secular groups held meetings here, too.
Instead of getting resources, the Gospel Assembly has mostly been giving – turning over its sanctuary, parking lot, and front curb to relief organizations.
“The Red Cross wants to partner with a hub within a central location in a community,” said Michael de Vulpillieres, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross. He called SanFilippo-Hulla “an integral part” of Coney Island. Her position in the community, along with the church’s central location at West 28th St. and Neptune Ave., allowed the Red Cross to reach more people, de Vulpillieres said.
At the peak of Sandy recovery, SanFilippo-Hulla estimates, her church was serving up to 3,000 people per day.
“We had to open the front doors and have people come up with their shopping carts,” she recalled. The line often went around the block.
She worked 18-hour days in in November, regularly fielding calls on her BlackBerry in the middle of the night from distressed community members. SanFilippo-Hulla said the vast majority of people who came to the Coney Island Gospel Assembly for help after Sandy were not members of her church..
“It was like the United Nations,” she said of the crowds that turned up. “A lot of them didn’t even speak English. Every group you can imagine, even people from Bangladesh and Arabic-speaking people.”
She said the church is happy to help anyone who comes through its doors, regardless of nationality or religious affiliation.
“We see everyone as a human being,” she said. “There is no denomination.”
SanFilippo-Hulla herself, however, is decidedly evangelical. She says her church preaches “the real gospel.” When she delivers sermons, her voice often rises to a shout. At a recent service, she spoke from the pulpit of “the sin of homosexuality.” Later in the service, she grew emotional.
“I want Coney Island to know Jesus,” she said through tears.
Most visitors won’t hear SanFilippo-Hulla’s sermons. She estimates the Gospel Assembly has about 100 faithful congregants; only 30 or so came to the service one Sunday earlier this month.
Yet nearly four months after the storm, the church hands out 600 hot meals per day financed by the Red Cross. A cavernous white 70-by-90-foot tent stands in the church parking lot, its interior stacked high with boxes of supplies and lit with a string of Christmas lights. A nearby generator on loan from the city hums loudly.
SanFilippo-Hulla contends that in the months since Sandy battered Coney Island, the Coney Island Gospel Assembly has not only offered disaster relief, it’s helped her community more quickly than the government has.
“Houses of worship, if they’re doing the right thing, are the places where people are already grafted into,” she said. “They’re not the government agencies where no one knows who you are, where you have a number, not a name, where you have to wait for days and weeks.”
Coming up with the funds to repair the church’s basement, as well as the damaged roof and wiring, is daunting. It’s a struggle just to pay the $900 a week to keep the supply tent in the parking lot and the $1,900-a-month rented forklift to move the supplies.
Yet SanFilippo-Hulla didn’t apply to the SBA for a loan. “There’s no way to pay a loan back. We barely make it as is,” she said, noting that though her husband works as a marine engineer for a living, she and her staff are volunteers.
To pay the bills, the church has relied on weekly offerings at Sunday services and outside donations. In November, representatives from Mercury One, the nonprofit founded by Glenn Beck, presented the church with two checks totaling $125,000 to help repair and rebuild. The church also received $75,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation in December for repair of the building’s destroyed electrical wiring.
If the House bill also passes the Senate, where it has support from Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-NY), SanFilippo-Hulla said the Coney Island Gospel Assembly would apply for aid.
“It would make a difference,” she said. “Even if it was $5,000 it would make a difference.”
As for the separation between church and state?
“I’m for that actually,” she said. “But when it comes to a natural disaster, I think all of those walls come down… We all have to link arms and get the job done, because it does take everyone working together.”
This, essentially, is the argument the bill’s political supporters have made.
In a letter to two of the bill’s sponsors, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn wrote: “Recovery from a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy isn’t a matter of state sponsoring religion. It’s a matter of helping those in need after one of the worst natural disasters our country has ever seen.”
Representative Christopher Smith (R-NJ), the bill’s lead sponsor, said in the debate over the bill on the House floor that he believes FEMA’s policy “is patently unfair, unjustified, and discriminatory and may even suggest hostility to religion.”
Opponents of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Hindu American Foundation, argue that it violates the U.S. Constitution.
“The Supreme Court has said that [taxpayer] funds for buildings used for religious purposes are unconstitutional,” said Dena Sher, Legislative Counsel for the ACLU. ““We see that as an important religious liberty protection that needs to be maintained.”
FEMA lawyers objected to the bill in a memorandum, calling it an “enormous departure” from current law. A spokesperson for FEMA told The New York World that the agency could not comment on pending legislation.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), whose district includes Coney Island, said he was deeply troubled that the bill had been rushed to the floor and given only 40 minutes to debate on the House floor.
“One would think that we were naming a post office rather than passing legislation with significant constitutional implications that could alter the relationship between government and religion,” he said.
The very force that makes the Coney Island Gospel Assembly ineligible for federal aid is precisely what keeps its pastor from getting discouraged.
“I believe in this,” SanFilippo-Hulla said, gesturing to the dog-eared open Bible on her desk. “The word of God. And I believe that this is God’s church and these are God’s people. I’m just working for God.”