Listening to the Community

Pandemic (and beyond) food sharing
community-lined-up-for-grocery-distribution

I remember the day I was offered a vicarship at Saint Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton, New Jersey. The community did not have a pastor and was in need of some stability in their random guest pulpit. I was fresh out of Princeton Theological Seminary and was ready to begin this work I knew deep in my bones that I was called to do. I mean it’s Trenton. Trenton! It is like the stars aligned and directed me to where I could find God in the streets, in the alley ways, in the mangers of the city. 

I admit- the first few months were great. We held rallies against gun violence in the city, beat guns into garden tools, had an event surrounding the issues of mass incarceration  and systemic racism, and even threw an epic block party for the community in which I was fortunate enough to remember my baptism repeatedly in a dunk tank. My “office” is at the corner of Lakeside and S. Clinton on the sidewalk. As I began to talk with folks in the neighborhood, I realized there were some families in need of food and struggling financially. I brought this concern to the church council in February of 2020. The council approved an idea to start a food ministry in the community and we projected we would serve roughly 15-20 families. We were overjoyed! It felt good to see this congregation really begin to find life and a sense of the gospel call again, and the new food program was just one thing that was going to show that. Then COVID came…

March of 2020 was a turbulent time for the South Ward of Trenton. Folks lost jobs. Kids weren’t able to attend school. Countless folks  were hospitalized. The “great toilet paper drought” was in full effect. And of course, we had to close the doors of the church to in person worship. I remember that last service when, as a vicar, I had to announce the closure of Worship services and the move to Facebook live. I’ll never forget the emotions, the confusion, and the anger from that Sunday morning. It was one of the hardest moments I have ever experienced.

That next Sunday, with our masks on, we set up to do live streams from the church. There were knocks on the door. Many families heard that we gave out food to those in need, and so that morning, we gave groceries to 5-6 families. Soon after, we talked with the church council, and decided to keep the pantry open. This is what God was calling us to a month ago. The comical aspect of it all is that none of us knew what we were doing! We stepped out in faith.

 The last two years have been unprecedented in terms of need. COVID, rising inflation and sky-rocketing food and fuel costs have devastated the finances for so many families. I thought we might put ourselves out of business by doing this work. God had other ideas. This year, Abiding Presence, Prince of Peace, and Saint Bartholomew’s formed a partnership highlighting the Christ centered ethos of unselfishness, unity, grace, and generosity as we work together to serve the South Ward of Trenton. We have also gained secondary partners such as  Allentown Presbyterian, Saint Paul’s, Living Waters, Living Hope CMA, Princeton Alliance, and Kingston UMC. 

The Community Chest

Saint Bartholomew named this endeavor ‘The Community Chest” because 500 years ago, in Luther’s parish church in Wittenberg Germany, a “Community Chest” was placed in a central location so people could make their own contributions to help those in need. That’s what we sought out to do – to keep the “Community Chest” tradition alive by helping those in our own community. Currently, 337 families are being served through the feeding ministries with bread and vegetables on Friday, and grocery distribution on Saturday. We see this need for this level of ministry continuing at least for the next 3-4 years.

Statistics since March 2020 to August 2022

Bags of groceries-  27,025

Fresh produce & Vegetables: 23,494 bags

Many of us don’t know what it means to be hungry. We don’t have to think twice about filling our cabinets with food, ordering online groceries, or even indulging in the occasional Grub Hub order for those times when we’re “just too tired to cook.” But hunger is real to many in our community. Food security is not a reality for all. Our post-pandemic world does not allow for many of our neighbors to pay for rent and utilities and put food on the table. My community is forced to make daily decisions about where and how to spend their money. And I’ll never forget what one woman told me. She said: “ Padre, thank you! If it wasn’t for your church, I do not know how I would put gas in my car or food on the table for my family.” 

If we are to be this mystical body of Christ, then we belong to one another in suffering and in joy, in abundance and in need, in every minute of every day. And isn’t this what we all desire? Isn’t this who we are created to beAs followers of Jesus, we want to help and plan ahead for the needs of our community. We study together and are inspired by examples of this kind of love in scripture. Remember when  manna fell from heaven in Exodus 16?  And then we have Jesus, who after spending all day healing the sick, a crowd of 5,000 were getting hungry. It really didn’t matter that the disciples could only muster up five loaves and two fish: Jesus took that food, blessed it, and created an abundance of  food in which ALL were fed. Allow that to just sit with you for a minute: What does it tell you about how God intends for all of us to live? Do you see this in your own community? 

At Saint Bart’s we strive to do our best to listen to our neighbors, and meet their needs by sharing what we have. What began with feeding people around a table, handing out lunches on the corner of Lakeside and S. Clinton, and handing out bags of food, has now grown into a pantry where hundreds can come and do not have to worry about where the food will come from.

Whatever you have been through these past few years, no matter what, you have a story. We have a story. And we have love. Love for Saint Bart’s means ensuring that folks have the food they need so that they can live. I encourage all of you to seek to follow in Jesus’ footsteps and love your neighbors. Sometimes it starts out as an idea and then …it grows roots…

Again, take a minute to reflect: how has listening to your neighbors changed your community? How has it changed you?

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Erich Kussman

Erich Kussman

Reverend Erich Kussman is unabashedly Christian, but his message is full of anti-empire, revolutionary social justice, combined with piercing insight into the power of radical love.

Erich was born in Plainfield, NJ and has resided in NJ all of his life. Erich overcame many trials and adversities in his life. He served 12 years in NJ state prison. In prison, he worked with the Petey Greene program to obtain his GED. Erich attended Pillar College, graduating with a BA in Biblical Studies.

In 2016, Erich began his formal theological education and pastoral training at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton and graduated with a Masters in Divinity. He is a published writer and also is a prison reform activist. Erich sits on the board of Raw Tools Philly and the WorkWell program. Currently, Erich is a called and ordained minister of Word & Sacrament in the ELCA pastoring Saint Bartholomew Lutheran Church in Trenton, NJ.

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