This is Bishop Stokes' column from the September 1 edition of Good News in the Garden State
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy Proverbs 31:8-9
Images and stories of the incredible devastation of Hurricane Harvey have dominated the news cycle for nearly a week. No doubt this will, understandably, continue to be the case. Harvey has delivered massive damage and destruction on the United States' fourth largest city and its surrounding areas. The effects of this will impact that area, and the entire nation, for many years. Our prayers and financial support of relief efforts through Episcopal Relief and Development and other agencies is vitally important. I encourage everyone to be generous on both counts.
At the same time, we must recognize and remember that people in our own communities in the State of New Jersey live with crises and devastation every day. More than a million people in New Jersey live in poverty, more than 350,000 of them are children. Homeless, hunger, unemployment and the grind of poverty are part of their daily experience.
The Reverend Kathy Murray is leaving St. Mark's, Keansburg after four years to become rector at Beckford Parish - Emmanuel and St. Andrew's Parishes, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I am excited for Kathy who has been prayerful in discerning this call. I wish her the very best. Beckford Parish is getting a wonderful priest.
Beckford Parish's gain, however, is the Diocese of New Jersey's, and St. Mark's, Keansburg's loss. Like many of our congregations, St. Mark's is struggling. Currently, about 15 persons make up their regular congregation on Sunday morning. They have "plate and pledge" income of under $25,000. They are not alone; we have several congregations who are struggling at similar levels.
But St. Mark's also hosts a community outreach ministry that is vitally needed in Keansburg. St. Mark's Center for Community Renewal serves 80 to 100 meals every day; almost 3,500 meals monthly. 4,000 individuals are served yearly by the St. Mark's Food Pantry. A nurse from the Visiting Nurse Association is on site weekly to answer health questions and provide screenings. A licensed social worker is onsite regularly.
St. Mark's Center for Community Renewal existed before the area was hit by Superstorm Sandy. Poverty and all that accompanies it was endemic. That monster storm only exacerbated the challenges. Grants from Episcopal Relief and Development were instrumental in meeting critical needs in that community.
Today people of all ages, races and ethnic backgrounds come to St. Mark's for help. The ministry even built a children's play area in the main parish hall where meals are served. While Keansburg is experiencing a revival, there is still a significant pocket of poverty there with all poverty entails. Mother Kathy informed me that Keansburg had 14 overdose deaths in 2016. Middletown Township, with 6.6 times the population, also had 14.
I believe maintaining the church's presence in Keansburg is essential. The Center has been able to write grants that have helped sustain the ministry financially. As we begin to determine how we will address the future of the church in that area, it is clear to me that we need a priest who is either a social worker, or who has a social worker's heart who can serve the needs of the existing congregation, but who also understands that St. Mark's Center for Community Renewal is the primary ministry in that place.
For now, on Sunday mornings, St. Mark's will have the services of their stalwart deacon, Rosemarie Broderick and Supply Clergy. The leadership assure me that the ministry of the Center can be sustained because they have the help of a young mother named Theresa, a former Assistant Manager at a MacDonald's restaurant who has already been overseeing a lot of the ministry of the Center. There is also a core of volunteers and support from other churches - Episcopal and others - who keep the operation going.
I'm thankful for the willingness of these few to take on so much. Diocesan staff and I are going to work diligently to find someone to take the helm at St. Mark's, Keansburg. It's one many real challenges we face. What does it mean to be a diocese in today's church? It means that St. Mark's, Keansburg's ministry is a ministry we all share together.
This Labor Day, let us remember those who are out of work and those who are the working poor and give thanks for all who labor for the common good.
Almighty God, who has so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. BCP, 261
Blessings and Peace,
The Right Reverend William H. (Chip) Stokes, D.D.
XII Bishop of New Jersey