It is said that the beauty of a city is in its people—the tapestry that wraps up all the different cultures, thoughts and beliefs into the resilient and courageous place it is. But cities are not always places with skyscrapers and busy streets. Some cities are much quieter with tree-lined streets, a smattering of barns and chock full of rich history—qualities that may work to disguise the underlying inequities and struggles that many of their citizens may be facing.
Interspersed amid the Victorian architecture and lush parks of New Jersey’s largest historic district is a poverty rate for more than 30 percent of the city’s population, most of whom are minority. The pandemic has only amplified this for those who are most vulnerable. Two churches taking on the challenge to feed the growing number of hungry people, particularly those who are Latino and Native American, are St. John UMC Fordville and First UMC of Bridgeton.
St. John UMC Fordville, which is Greater New Jersey Annual Conference’s only Native American church and is one of the city’s historic sites having been designated one in 2017, serves the large population of Native Americans that still live in the city. The church has been a beacon for feeding the hungry, but the pandemic has compelled them to take their effort many steps forward.
“Our pastor fully believes our church has been left here for 179 years to feed people who can’t feed themselves,” said Cynthia Mosely who is one of the ministry’s leaders.
But with the closing of another local food pantry and the impending end to unemployment bonuses in late July, the future looked uncertain. Amid the bleak forecast, hope was abundant in the church’s parking lot where tables are set up and boxes are packed. Every Wednesday the people of St. John, both young and old, prepare to welcome the approximately 240 families that now visit their food pantry.
Down the road from St. John is First UMC, led by Rev. Ricardo Ramos, who self-admittedly likes to look at difficult times as challenges instead of obstacles while he carries his Wesleyan toolkit of rules to do good, do no harm and stay in love with God.
“Our people handle the feeding. I take care of the hospitality,” said Ramos who starts around 6:30 two mornings a week to help set up. He makes a point of remembering each person’s name on the line that stretches out into an S shape for an entire block. The native of Puerto Rico speaks with the mostly Mexican group in their native language of Spanish, telling them that “what you are taking in the box will not last long but what you have in your heart will last forever.”
As the demand continues to grow, Ramos and the ministry now called “Manos y Corazones Juntos para la Esperanza,” continue to come up with innovative ways to meet the demand by working with the South Jersey Food Bank who sources their distribution.
Ramos, who brought bilingual services to his congregation, said last July when the food ministry began First UMC was serving about 30-40 families weekly. By the end of the summer, as many as 200 families were being fed each week.
Now one year later each family is receiving boxes of dairy and produce. At the end of July, the church also added chicken to the distribution.
excerpt from a story by Heather Mistretta, The Relay, Greater New Jersey Conference
This story represents how United Methodist local churches through their Annual Conferences are living as Vital Congregations. A vital congregation is the body of Christ making and engaging disciples for the transformation of the world. Vital congregations are shaped by and witnessed through four focus areas: calling and shaping principled Christian leaders; creating and sustaining new places for new people; ministries with poor people and communities; and abundant health for all.