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Helping others harder than ever yet Church on the Rock persists

Casey Pritchard
Staff writer
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Posted 3/10/23

Since its inception in 1989, the Church on the Rock has found it hard to help everyone in need but is doing everything it can, despite the difficulties, says Pastor Jeff Leahey.

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Helping others harder than ever yet Church on the Rock persists


ONEIDA —  Since its inception in 1989, the Church on the Rock has found it hard to help everyone in need but is doing everything it can, despite the difficulties, says Pastor Jeff Leahey.

“There have been times we’ve ran out of food for lunches,” the pastor said. “The biggest need we have right now is [stocking] the soup kitchen.”

Before COVID-19, Leahey said Church on the Rock was doing dinner once a month, but during the pandemic the church began delivering dinners to those in need. “We were delivering upwards to a couple hundred dinners all through the city,” Leahey said. “And when we came back from COVID, there was such a big need for meals that we started doing lunches three times a week. And you can imagine how much you need in the ways of food.”

Between 40 to 70 people come in for Church on the Rock’s soup kitchen three times a week — at its busiest, that’s around 210 people every seven days. With inflation, Leahey said, it’s been hard to stretch every dollar enough to meet the demand.

“It’s crazy,” Leahey said. “People are feeling it everywhere. The community is still being generous, both individuals and groups, like the Oneida Elks Lodge, The Oneida United Way, the Gorman Foundation, and so many others. Our community is incredibly gracious — there’s just a huge need that’s increasing.”


Homelessness continues to be a huge problem in Madison County, and it takes many different shapes. “It looks different here,” the pastor said. “Homelessness can be people moving from couch to couch until things warm up, and then they find safe places they can be together. But it’s still there.”

The county doesn’t have a homeless shelter, and while other areas like Utica and Syracuse do, there’s a reluctance or other barriers that stops them from getting services. “They don’t want to go to Syracuse, Utica, or Rome because they don’t have any support and [they’re afraid] of things like crime and drug addiction in the area, so they’re not comfortable,” Leahey said.

“I was working with one person, a Vietnam veteran, and we were talking before winter hit,” the pastor continued. “He was living out in the woods and was going to for as long as he could because he didn’t want to move to the city. He was afraid of it.”

Community helping community

Financial, food, and clothing donations are always welcome, the pastor said, but “...volunteers are at the top of the list.”

“Volunteers are huge,” he said. “When people come in, they’re discouraged and depressed. But having volunteers who can help them and encourage them and make them smile? It’s huge.”

Church on the Rock is also thankful to organizations like the Oneida Elks Lodge, who donated to them when they needed it the most. “We were looking at our food budget for the next year for the soup kitchen and we were hoping this one grant would come through and it didn’t,” the pastor said. “But the Elks came through and funded it. Local Oneida folks are really generous.”

The list who help is long and includes the likes of Liberty Resources, Community Action Partnership of Madison County, Catholic Charities, and others, Leahey said.

“This community is very supportive and they’re becoming more aware of what we’re doing,” Wendy Candeloro, the Church on the Rock Community Center coordinator said. “We even have several stores that give us clothing, shoes, and boots to hand out. Before that, I remember tracing cardboard for people to put in their boots — and I can picture his face right now. It was the most difficult thing I had ever saw. He didn’t have boots in the middle of winter. But now, we can offer so much.”

Future plans

The Church on the Rock is looking to secure around $3,000 to purchase its turkeys for its annual holiday efforts. And changes are coming to its building on Madison Street. With so many people coming in the door, Leahey said, the community center and church are in need of an upgrade.

“Our Church is full on Sunday mornings and on Sundays, there’s sometimes around 120 people jammed in that little room. We want to have space so we can have a safe environment,” he said. “We just want to love people the way God loves us,” the pastor added. “He’s been there for us, always provided for us, and taken care of us. And we want to be there for people like He is for us.”

“It’s an honor to be here for people. I grew up on Seneca Street and here I am, 51 years old and serving the community I grew up in.”


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