Churches respond in many ways to help storm-battered communities

The Rev. John Mennell, rector, and the Rev. Diana Wilcox, deacon, open the doors of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair, New Jersey, and welcome people seeking support, whether Wi-Fi, coffee, phone charging or prayer. Photo/A.J. DeWalt

[Episcopal News Service] “Ship ahoy!,” shouted a costumed boy racing up the stairs while trick-or-treating in the parish hall at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey.

Halloween arrived on All Souls Day, Nov. 2, this year for Morristown youngsters when the church hosted children for trick-or-treating on its campus after the holiday was postponed in New Jersey due to dangerous conditions caused by Hurricane Sandy, which roared through the region and caused widespread power outages with downed trees and wires in the Morristown area.

The unusual October storm claimed more than 100 lives across nine states; caused severe flooding in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, leaving the region without electricity, and in some cases water, and crippling the region’s transportation infrastructure. Long lines have formed at gas stations throughout the region where fuel is scarce. And the economic damage caused by Sandy is estimated between $50 and $60 billion.

The Halloween celebration was a small part of a large outreach effort to storm victims in the area at the Morristown church, one of many churches responding to the need throughout the affected East Coast region.

Members of the St. Peter’s Episcopal Church youth group help serve dinner to the community in Morristown, New Jersey, on Nov. 4. The church has been serving three meals a day to those left without heat and electricity by Hurricane Sandy. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

St. Peter’s efforts started when the town asked the church Nov. 1 to serve as an official warming and recharging station. The church put out a sign, and Rector Janet Broderick and Assistant Rector Melissa Hall started spreading the word while delivering coffee and snacks to people waiting in long lines for gasoline. One woman even left her car — and 10-year-old daughter — in Hall’s care while she made a quick bathroom dash.

“Then we realized the people who were coming were hungry, and they couldn’t cook [without electricity],” Broderick recounted. So the church served hot dogs for lunch and made a run to a restaurant supply store to buy supplies for a spaghetti dinner. A handful of staff, family members and lay volunteers began the effort; by the evening’s end, more than 100 people had arrived for dinner and 15 or 20 people were working the kitchen and serving lines.

The church began serving three hot meals a day. News 12 broadcast a report after breakfast Nov. 2, and volunteers and donations began pouring in. Some people came for dinner and warming a day or two, then returned to help after their electricity was restored.

“They’ve been so kind to us here,” said one such local resident, Leslie Acheson, who arrived Nov. 3 with fruit for the next day’s breakfast. “They’ve been so kind to us here. … We needed to give something back.”

As much as the food and warmth, the church offered a place for people to recount their stories and escape the depressing isolation of sitting home in the dark, said Broderick, who filled the rectory’s spare beds with elderly parishioners living in homes left unheated by the storm.

“People are told by society that what they really need is objects and things or not to be stressed physically or to have pleasant physical experiences and have food that’s exactly what they want to eat. They should be at the right temperature, see only people that they’ve invited,” she said. “We’re told that, if we could actually control the universe to that extent, that we’d be happy.

“But in this circumstance, we cross this divide to intimacy with people we didn’t know, discussions with people who don’t have our text number and physical experiences that are not comfortable, but we find that we have real joy, and that is the gospel. It’s God’s grace poured out on a hurting world.”

“It doesn’t matter if a person is a member or not a member of St. Peter’s,” she said. “Membership doesn’t mean anything. Membership is a membership in the world that experienced the hurricane, which is everybody.”

Still, the outreach may result in some new members for the parish.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, New Jersey, hosted a mini Halloween celebration for youngsters on Nov. 2, inviting them to don costumes and trick-or-treat on campus. Here, three children compare their treats. Photo/Sharon Sheridan

Shannon Mrotcheck and her children, Emily, 6, and Johnny, 4, attended dinner Nov. 1 and returned for trick-or-treating the next day.

“I’m going to come here on Sunday with the kids,” she said. “I’ve been really impressed with how warm and welcoming everyone is.”

Several children who attended dinner two nights in a row asked for a tour of the historic church.

“I want to go here!” announced Tiffany Jones, 11.

“It cares about other people,” said Imani Haskins, 13.

Jeffrey Hargrove, 38, lost his job at a local health food store when the business closed and now lives at a homeless shelter. He stopped in at St. Peter’s and spent time volunteering at the children’s crafts and games table.

“I just might be back to St. Peter’s, and they can help me more integrate into the community,” he said. “I found that here the people are very willing to teach, and I think that’s what the world needs, to help people think on their own.”

Besides providing post-storm assistance to the community, St. Peter’s continued with its regular services throughout the week, including a funeral Sunday afternoon for longtime parishioner Bill Keill. Retired Newark Bishop John Shelby Spong preached. He and his wife, Christine, were out of state when the storm hit and had their return home to New Jersey delayed several days; they arrived to find entrance to their electricity-less home blocked by three downed trees.

The Rev. Margaret Otterburn, former St. Peter’s parishioner and now rector at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Chester, attended the funeral after holding services at 8, 9 and 10 a.m. without electricity. A handful of people arrived for the first service, one family with children for the second, 19 for the third.

“It was like 53 degrees in the sanctuary,” she said. “It was light and sunny, so we could see.” And they fetched water from the firehouse for flushing toilets.

Afterward, conversation flowed, even without coffee hour. “It was so wonderful because we could be a community.”

“I wish that we’d had power so we could help the community,” she said. “It’s hard when you want to help and you’re helpless.”

Otterburn has managed to contact most of her parishioners to be sure they’re OK. And the church sent toiletries from its regular food and nonperishables collections to a devastated Jersey Shore town and served its regularly scheduled meal at the county’s homeless shelter via candlelight. But Messiah postponed a planned celebration with the bishop celebrating the 20th anniversary of its sanctuary.

“Life goes on but in challenging ways,” Otterburn said. “It goes with All Saints Sunday, doesn’t it? We’re all called to help each other, and that’s what people are doing.”

The Rev. Stephanie Wethered, former assistant at St. Peter’s and now rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Essex Fells, also attended the funeral. Police prevented the Essex Fells church from holding services Sunday because of dangerous conditions caused by downed wires and trees. The church is collecting donations to help All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Hoboken and St. Simon’s by the Sea in Mantoloking, Wethered reported on Facebook.

The Rev. Sonia Waters left home Friday, Nov. 2, using the last of the gas in her car to get to Budd Lake to stay with a parishioner so she could hold Sunday services, with or without electricity, at Christ Church, where she is priest-in-charge.

She brought with her two kerosene heaters, 10 gallons of water from Home Depot and “blankets to keep parishioners warm if it’s really chilly,” Mennell said. “She’s geared up for All Saints, come hell or high water — which we’ve had a little bit of both.”

Further east, the church where Mennell is rector, St. Luke’s Episcopal in Montclair, has served as a warming and recharging station since Oct. 30, with visitors joining the church’s regular feeding program for hot lunches.

“We’ve got one TV running, showing local news reports, another TV running, showing kids’ movies. We’ve got a kids’ craft table set up,” Mennell said. “We also did a Halloween party on Halloween night spontaneously.”

Between 50 and 75 people attended. One person who arrived to use the church’s Wi-Fi turned out to be a professional storyteller and helped entertain the Halloween visitors.

“People are so grateful, just so happy. It’s just a wonderful way to see the church alive and at work,” Mennell said. One of the church’s assets, he noted, is its buildings. “If we can’t use them to invite people in, we’re doing something wrong.”

A stream of messages to the diocesan e-mail list from other Newark diocese churches proclaimed their availability for worship, food, warming or recharging — electronically or spiritually. In Madison, Grace Episcopal Church announced that it had “power and enough singers” for a Nov. 3 performance of the “Faure Requiem” with the church’s adult and school choirs, harp, organ and violin. A freewill donation, after expenses, was designated for Episcopal Relief & Development’s Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.

The Rev. Diane Rhodes, priest-in-charge at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Harrington Park, reported on Facebook that the church was collecting new and gently used toys and children’s clothing for children affected by Hurricane Sandy in an effort headed by one of the parish’s teens.

In the Diocese of New Jersey, Christ Church, New Brunswick, sent out a Hurricane Sandy Edition of its electronic newsletter on Nov. 1, asking members to pray “for all who have lost their lives, been injured, lost property, and for all who are assisting in the cleanup effort.” The parish office remained closed pending the restoration of electricity. But Sunday services, the church reported, “will take place, regardless of the electricity situation.”

A full list of damages to Diocese of New Jersey properties is here.

Across the river in the Diocese of New York, the Rev. Stephen Harding, diocesan disaster response coordinator (, reported that Bishop Andrew Dietsche had asked all Episcopal parishes to conduct a food drive that day, with donations from the Bronx and Manhattan to go to Staten Island and those from the Mid-Hudson to Region II. Online forms were available for communicating Sandy-related needs and for signing up to volunteer.

St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery, New York, organized volunteers to deliver ready-to-eat and non-perishable food to residents in high-rise buildings still without power along the East River. On Nov. 3, the church held a BBQ (burgers and hot dogs) in the churchyard, free soup in the parish hall and free coffee and oatmeal on the sidewalk for all who were hungry for a hot meal. Photo courtesy of St. Mark’s

St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery spent two days organizing volunteers to deliver “ready-to-eat and nonperishable food to residents in high-rise buildings along the East River still without power,” Junior Warden Roger Jack Walters said in an e-mail. On the second day, Nov. 3, they also offered burgers, hot dogs, soup, coffee and oatmeal for anyone needing a hot meal.

Photo courtesy of St. Mark’s.

“Power was restored to most of the East Village [Friday] afternoon, out since Monday night,” he said. “Many members of the congregation and the church were included. The church was not flooded, but several trees in the courtyard were damaged from high winds, including the loss of one 100-year-old tree.”

The church planned a “thankful homecoming” for the congregation on Sunday, said Walters, who added his thanks to Calvary St. George’s, Epiphany, Holy Trinity, St. Matthew and St. Timothy, and Trinity Wall Street churches for providing people and supplies.

St. Mark’s will continue to accept and distribute donations through Friday, Nov. 9.

Elisabeth Jacobs, a member of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Harlem, rode the bus to St. Mark’s — a trip that took an extra 40 minutes because of still-limited transportation — with donations and to help with distribution on Nov. 3.

“The Rev. Matt Heyd from Trinity Wall Street arrived with Rabbi Darrin Levine, Brian Parsons and Wesley Chen (all interfaith partners and brown-bag lunch program participants) and an SUV full of packaged food to be distributed,” she reported via e-mail. “I went with four others up to a tenement building on East 21st street.”

Concerning her faith, she said, “I connected with something I’ve never felt before — hauling that food up there, giving it to people who’ve been in their apartments without fresh food for a week, handicapped, afraid, not sure if they should open their doors, and, when they did, ever so grateful to see us.

“I encountered a woman who said nothing, she just stared … Suddenly it clicked. She was afraid to ask for help. I handed her a bag, and she then asked with tears in her eyes if she could have food for her two young children who were upstairs with her husband. [It was] humbling to be able to respond to her immediate need.”

In the Diocese of Long Island, Rector Michael Sniffen reported via e-mail that the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn would “serve as a principal training center and donation drop-off/pick-up site for a network of grassroots organizations including  Storm Hackers (a group assisting families with insurance claims and government forms) [and] Occupy Sandy).

“Volunteers will be stocking emergency supplies at the back of the church so they can be easily loaded and unloaded from trucks. Volunteers going out to the worst-hit areas to help secure buildings and deliver supplies will be trained in the lower parish hall. This will continue until Nov. 7, at which time we will reassess the needs of the groups involved and the ongoing recovery effort in general.”

The Diocese of Long Island’s offices are expected to remain without power until Nov. 7, and the diocese has is communicating via its Facebook page.

At St. Martha’s Episcopal Church, Bethany Beach, Delaware, Rector Mary Allen was giving thanks that the storm spared the parish.

“We are a block and a half off the beach, but because of the way the dunes are and because of the way the storm hit, we didn’t get any flooding,” she said. “I had to drive through water to get here … to make sure everything was okay. We were really, really, blessed, really lucky. If it had hit any further to the south, we would have been nailed.”

She put the Episcopal Relief & Development flyer in the Sunday bulletin so parishioners could donate to hurricane relief efforts. “I donated immediately myself, and I’m going to push it on Sunday,” she said.

While Episcopal churches across several states work to help their communities regroup and rebuild, a new storm reportedly may hit midweek.

The Diocese of New York reported a weather update passed on from Katie Mears, program director for U.S. disaster preparedness and response for Episcopal Relief & Development, noting, “A nor’easter is expected Wednesday-Thursday. Hopefully government warming shelters will be coming online, but especially in areas without power, it might be worth preparing now to shelter people or otherwise help those who have been staying in homes without power.”

But any lack of electricity, while creating hardship and precipitating need, won’t prevent churches from reaching out.

Todd Strickland of Boulder, Colorado, came to the Hanover Marriott in New Jersey for a ski and snowboard conference three days after the hurricane hit the state. The Marriott supplied food for the Nov. 3 dinner at St. Peter’s, Morristown, and Strickland and Cory Needham of Santa Rosa, California, inquired about volunteer opportunities and spent the afternoon at the church helping out.

Electricity or not, Strickland commented, “There’s always power on here.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


  1. Doris Zappala says:

    May God bless you all for how well you represent what God would have us do and the Episcopal Church during this time of so much loss. It makes be pleased to be an Episcopalian.

  2. Brilliant! I loved (1) the comprehension of the report – from Bethany Beach, DE to NYC, (2) the focus on communities of faith, and (3) the “money quote”: Electricity or not, Strickland commented, “There’s always power on here.”

    One minor quibble: I know that the Bishop of NY rode his bike from the UWS to St. Mark’s in the Bowery on the LES to help with distribution of food. I wish mention had been made of that and any other bishop who demonstrated real Servant Leadership.

  3. Roberta Bradford says:

    You forgot Calvary Episcopal in Summit NJ who served over 600 meals a day and served as sanctuary to those without power, water, and other fundamentals of life.

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