Introducing Rev. Kevin W. VanHook, II, the New Executive Director of Episcopal Charities
An interview by the Rev. Frank Alagna.
“If these programs didn’t exist, Episcopal Charities wouldn’t exist.”
On May 12th, Episcopal Charities welcomed Rev. Kevin W. VanHook, II as its new 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, but you can read the full version at ec-ny.org/post/enyinterview.
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 résumé. 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: 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 we 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.