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Flushing church short on holiday meals for elderly

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For the past eight years, the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer has delivered up to 100 meals on Christmas and Mother's Day with the help of Citymeals-on-Wheels, a nonprofit organization funded by private citizens and partnered with the city Department for the Aging.

Each year Citymeals advanced a good portion of the $5.50 the church spent on each holiday meal. About three years ago, the charity began withholding some of the meal funding until it received the names and signatures of each meal recipient, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Ernst Pfug.

The rift between the church at 157-16 65th Ave. and the charity formed this past summer, when the church had trouble obtaining all 70 signatures within the requested 30 days of the Mother's Day meal delivery.

Citymeals received 34 signatures from the church on Aug. 22 and gave credit for 50 signatures, but asked the church to pay $55 to compensate for the 20 meals that remained undocumented.

Citymeals Executive Director Marsha Stein said the signature requirement was established under the guidance of the Department for the Aging, which requires some evidence that the money spent on meals goes to those who need them. As a result, each community organization must sign a contract with Citymeals, agreeing to provide the signatures.

Pfug said the church had two problems with the signature requirement: First, volunteers who delivered the meals sometimes forgot to ask for a signature, and second, many seniors did not want to sign for their meals after being instructed by their families not to sign for anything for fear that a con-artist might take advantage of them.

In response to Pfug's concerns, Stein said Citymeals sponsors more than 60,000 holiday meals, delivered by 75 community-based organizations, and this is the first time in its 19-year-history that they have had a problem collecting signatures.

"Many of our elderly are visually impaired, and my assumption is that someone takes their hand and places it on the page," Stein said, adding that 36,000 signatures are collected from senior centers in New York City every day.

Pfug was too embarrassed to ask his congregations for the $55, so he sent a personal check to Citymeals with a letter explaining his problems with the system.

"If you have a clear conscious cashing it, go ahead," Pfug wrote. The check was cashed and Pfug chose not to renew his contract with Citymeals.

"We are trying to do a deed of mercy," Pfug said. "I told the woman, [Citymeals Program Services and Community Affairs Director Andrea Kopel] that it is not like we are selling sandwiches on the street. We are happy to take meals to people."

This Christmas the church is collecting money to run its own meal delivery program, but without the help of Citymeals, Pfug expects only 20 to 25 meals will be delivered, compared to last year's 100.

"I feel better about the way we are doing it this year," Pfug said.

But Stein said she is perplexed by Pfug's decision. "We do hope he will change his mind and come back with us," Stein said.

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