New Jersey Episcopalians still countering Sandy’s wrath

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Dec 11, 2012

Jane Forno, a volunteer from Westfield, New Jersey, and Bob Dispoto, one of the “Basement Boys” for St. Gregory’s Pantry at St. Mary’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey, recently spent the day sorting food donations. ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg

[Episcopal News Service] While Hurricane Sandy dealt a devastating blow to homes, businesses and church buildings six weeks ago on the night of Oct. 29, Episcopal Church congregations along the New Jersey Shore have been determined since the first hours after the storm to care for their communities and help them rebuild.

They are doing so, in many cases, with help from congregations farther west in the diocese where the damage from Sandy was less severe. And many churches are working in their communities through already-established or new, post-Sandy ecumenical ties.

In Point Pleasant Beach, for instance, the Roman Catholic parish became a center for clothing distribution when its priest suggested to the Rev. C. John Thompson-Quartey, rector of St. Mary’s by the Sea Episcopal Church, that division of duties. St. Mary’s is already known in the community for the St. Gregory’s Pantry, which operates out of the church. Point Pleasant Presbyterian has become the coordination point for work teams coming into town to help with long-term recovery.

A statue of Jesus appears to be keeping watch over donated food in the boiler room of St. Mary’s by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. ENS photo/Mary Frances Schjonberg

“Each church finds [itself] doing something unique and different that they didn’t anticipate prior,” said Thompson-Quartey, who said he told a recent meeting of the local ministerium that “sometimes God throws us a curve ball and creates opportunities for ministry in the midst of that.”All ministerium members agreed, he said, that “they displayed skills they didn’t think they had. One person said, ‘I’m now an expert on mold. If you ever want to talk about mold and drying, I’m your guy.’”

“St. Mary’s turned out to be the feeding place,” Thompson-Quartey said. “We feed people.”

Since Sandy, the congregations and the Diocese of New Jersey to which they belong have been  “creating linkages, making connections, that’s our job and that’s what we’re attempting to do by the grace that God gives us,” Bishop George Councell said in a recent video message.

The stories of those links and connections are almost as numerous as the 154 congregations that make up the diocese. The diocese has 17 official resource centers, shown here, as well as any number of other churches where community residents came to donate or to get help. Stories of some of that ministry are here.

And in some instances, the congregation’s ministry has changed in the six weeks since Sandy hit. Now at Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River, a township of about 91,000 people that lost 20 percent of its taxable base in the storm, there is a Sunday afternoon support group for any adult who needs a place for “reflecting and processing the emotional and/or spiritual feelings you’ve experienced in the weeks since Sandy struck.”

The township encompasses both mainland areas and parts of the Barnegat Peninsula that acts as a barrier island between the Atlantic and Barnegat Bay. In the days immediately after the storm struck, the needs were basic.

“First of all, let us know you are OK. We are praying for you and need to know you are alive,” the parish asked its members Nov. 2 on its Facebook page. “Secondly, are you displaced? Water in your home? Car submerged? Belongings destroyed? Hungry? Cold?” The posting urged members to get in touch with Christ Church’s rector, the Rev. Joan Pettit Mason.

Among Toms River residents’ first tasks after the hurricane was mucking out their flooded or destroyed homes, and Christ Church became a place for the donation and distribution of cleaning supplies. On Nov. 7 Pettit Mason again turned to Facebook, posting a plea for a truck or trucks to collect 1,000 free “mold-out” bucket kits from the Bronx and bring them about 85 miles south to the church.

When Phyllis Jones, Diocese of New Jersey’s chief financial officer and a member of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Bridgewater, learned of the truck plea, she said she turned to fellow parishioner Chuck Inman who works as the fulfillment manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ retail operation. She knew he had access to trucks and suspected he’d be inspired by the need. He was, she said, and managed to get all 1,000 kits to Christ Church where a bucket brigade of parishioners, Boy Scouts and other volunteers unloaded them all into the church.

It was a good example, Jones said, of how churches are often the places that step in, “picking up the things that fall through the cracks of the major recovery efforts.”

For many churches on the Jersey Shore and even farther inland, ministry began in an unplanned way: out of a desire not to have perishable food go to waste after Sandy’s fury knocked out power for what turned out to be weeks in some cases. St. Mary’s in Point Pleasant Beach and St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Keansburg are but two examples. A video report on St. Mark’s efforts is here.

The morning after the storm in Point Pleasant, Thompson-Quartey was surveying the church and rectory for damage (it was minimal) when he saw people carrying food to the nearby Fire Department to feed first responders. When he asked if they might need more, Thompson-Quartey said he got a hearty “Yes.”

One of the leaders of the pantry managed to call him despite the power outages to tell him to “let the food go to anyone who can use it.” Thompson-Quartey said two men came with a large truck and worked by flashlight in the basement unloading thawing food from the pantry’s five freezers for use at the Fire Department and at the shelter at the borough high school.

Meanwhile, neighbors and local businesses began bringing donations to the church. The parish’s pre-Sandy plan to begin a Thursday night weekly community meal called “Mary’s Table” on Nov. 1 was somewhat in question. Until, that is, Laurie Clayton, the leader of the first meal’s team, called to say that it was three days after the storm and some people had not had a hot meal since.

When Thompson-Quartey noted the lack of electricity, Clayton said she replied, “They’re either going to be sitting at home in the dark or sitting here in the dark with company.”

The team began cooking while it was still light, firing up the kitchen’s gas stove. Clayton’s husband ran an inverter from his car so that they could hang some work lights in the kitchen for when it got dark. Mike Mercuio, a local real estate agent who trained in the Army as a cook, was the chef. Jersey Mike’s sub shop brought over salad and rolls when they heard St. Mary’s was serving and Joe Leone’s, a local caterer, brought 15 trays of pastas, according to Thompson-Quartey.

Clayton worried that some people might not know about the meal that first night. “We realized that we needed to get food to people where they were,” she said.

She rounded up some volunteer drivers and the team filled take-out containers that had been bought as part of the weekly meal’s supplies.

“We told our drivers to go east of the railroad tracks, go to the lakes, go to the ocean,” she said. “We knew people there were cold and wet.”

About 100 people came to eat and between 300-400 meals were delivered at the height of what turned out to be a daily meal for the next month.

And food for the meals just kept appearing. After the first three or four nights, Clayton said she and the others realized that pasta and sauce were wearing thin, and they wished aloud for some meat. Minutes later, a refrigerated truck from a Salem County in southwest New Jersey, showed up, its driver asking if they could use any ham, roast beef or ground meat.

The need for a daily meal began to decline about a month after Sandy and Mary’s Table is now being set once a week at St. Mary’s. Clayton wants to continue to publicize the meal to folks still living in local motels and the ones still living in the homes, perhaps on the upper floors after Sandy demolished the interior of their ground floors.

Meanwhile, the pantry (a separate organization to which the parish gives space) returned to its regular schedule of being open for two hours every weekday after a month of being open seven days a week until 5 p.m. Sue Dietz, one of the pantry’s four directors, said she has been overwhelmed by “the volunteers, the need, the generosity, the devastation, the heartbreak.”

People knew to come to St. Gregory’s after the storm, Dietz said, and they did, and they needed everything: food, cleaning supplies, toiletries, blankets. And others knew that the pantry would need those things. “An avalanche” of donations rolled into the church and the pantry, Thompson-Quartey said.

Dietz said some of the donations had to be turned down. For instance, she refused donations of used bedding. “Their hearts were in the right place,” she said of the donors, but the pantry operators were worried about health concerns and thought that “because you’re displaced doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to have something new.”

It was one of the many lessons they have learned, Dietz said. “You have to learn as you go; you had to think on your feet and sometimes you have to change your mind,” she said.

The pantry and the church also gave supplies to other churches and organizations. And they are now turning away donations until their inventory is depleted. That inventory is stored all over the building as well as in donated space off-site.

The leadership for these sorts of ministry at St. Mary’s came from the congregation, said Thompson-Quartey. “When I found myself trying to lead from the front, I got sick,” said the rector, who spent two days in the hospital being treated for high blood pressure he did not know he had.

When he returned, he said, Clayton told him what they need from him was “your approval of things we think need to happen and we’ll do it.”

Diocesan CFO Jones said she has been moved by these kinds of stories of ministry as she has traveled around the diocese since Sandy and helped connect resources to needs. Time and again, she said, she has been given “a whole new perspective of what ‘in it for the long term’ really means.”

Jones said that Episcopal Relief & Development and Church Insurance have both helped the diocese and its congregations meet immediate needs and plan for the long haul that faces the diocese and the state. “I can’t say enough about them,” she said. Members of Episcopal Relief & Development’s U.S. Disaster Program and Partners in Response team have come to the diocese more than once since Sandy.

She suggested that local Episcopal congregations “can probably play a unique kind of role” in the long-term recovery effort by offering people all types of support and organizing advocacy efforts for hard-hit communities. Jones sees that role as suited to the congregation because the churches are rooted in those communities and will be there long after the immediate crisis is over and the media have turned elsewhere.

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.