SPOTSWOOD, NJ - Despite the challenges served up by the coronavirus pandemic, St. Peter's Episcopal Church has worked hard to adapt during these difficult times. The church, founded in 1756, is one of the oldest Christian churches serving communities in New Jersey. Father Marshall Keith Shelly has been the rector at St. Peter's for a decade. In October, he celebrated 25 years as a priest and his 10th anniversary at St. Peter's. Last March, COVID-19 closed the church's doors and its community outreach programs including the Alice's CUP food pantry, Wednesday Night Community Suppers, and its popular Thrift Shop. Down, but not out, Father Marshall used the lockdown time to regroup along with his staff of committed volunteers to safely get back to the business of helping people in need as quickly as possible.

"When the lockdown started, the church had to effectively shut down for a time," Father Marshall explained. "That meant suspending all ministries in order to keep our volunteers and the people we help safe. By summer, we were ready to reopen the Community Supper, Alice's CUP, and our Thrift Shop."

"The pivot to reopen took us some time," he continued. "We worked with church leadership, Community of Hope leadership and our Diocese to form a plan. Since we cannot gather in large groups as a church community, we decided to dedicate space unusable for fellowship and Sunday School to the Thrift Shop, increasing our available space by a factor of 10. We moved our Community Supper to a curbside delivery. Alice's CUP Food Pantry moved from in-pantry visits to volunteers bringing food to client's cars. Alice's CUP also committed to turn no one away. Everyone is given food."

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Like others, St. Peter's adapted to take on the challenges presented during the pandemic. The church installed i-wave ionic generators in the air handling systems to help ensure sanitized air circulation. Capacities for shared spaces were limited and masks and hand as well as surface sanitizing became the norm. Food and Thrift Shop donations were also sanitized and handled differently to protect volunteers and the people utilizing the outreach programs.

"Our volunteers have been amazing, and have continually led the charge to help us innovate," Father Marshall added.

Cathy Decker is one of those dedicated volunteers.

"It is important to be of service any time, but moments of crisis – like the pandemic, put additional strain on social services already under pressure," Decker said. "It is important to do the work we do – to feed hungry people and help provide basic goods and fellowship, because we can."

Decker and fellow longtime community outreach volunteer Maureen Barlow have noticed an increase in the people relying on the services St. Peter's provides especially food assistance.

"There is more demand for food," Decker said. "Changes to government programs, changing school schedules, unemployment, and underemployment have all contributed to more and more of our neighbors worrying about how to put food on the table. We’ve seen an incredible uptick in the number of meals we serve every week. To help meet the need, we’ve also begun a mini pantry on Wednesday nights to help our guests take home additional groceries."

Wednesday Night Community Suppers have been a church staple for almost 30 years. The church was able to resume the popular mid-week suppers in August as a takeout service. The number of meals being picked up each week grew steadily.

"Our Community Supper went from serving 60-70 people a week to offering 110-125 meals for takeaway every week," Father Marshall added. " The supper has grown dramatically, with people also taking food to their neighbors who cannot travel. We are actually at our kitchen's capacity for producing a meal, and the church has started a 'meals ready to share' collection of easy to heat meal kits for clients when we run out of food. We have also added mobile carts of pantry items for our supper guests. People have demonstrated that the needs are great in our community, and we are doing all we can to ensure we are helping them."

St. Peter's expanded Thrift Shop has also grown in popularity, offering its customers affordable clothing, shoes, furniture, baby items, and more.

"Under the direction of Emma Jane Decker, the Thrift Shop has transformed, from one room crammed with goods to taking over nearly the entire Parish Hall," Decker said. "When Covid-19 made social ingathering impossible, the space was converted to accommodate racks of gently used clothing, seasonal items, jewelry, shoes and housewares. Most of all, it’s become a vibrant part of the community’s social fabric, making it possible for those who are in need to find goods at value prices and a reliable and grateful place for homebound- folks cleaning out to donate."

The Alice's CUP Food Pantry, the Wednesday  Night Community Suppers, and the Thrift Shop all run thanks to the diligence of volunteers.

"We have a group of incredible and motivated volunteers who live the mission and who, early on, were motivated to adapt," Decker continued. "Food insecurity is real and the pandemic, which impacted jobs, made it worse. Jeannie Fitzpatrick, who runs the kitchen has been pressed to source enough food to manage the increased demand." 

"We were worried about those we serve, but we have been able to remain in service and kept St. Peter’s a vibrant and trusted part of the community," Decker added.

With the increased demand, the need for volunteers has grown as well. Volunteers do not have to be members of the St. Peter's Church. Anyone interested in volunteering is welcome as are donations. Volunteers can reach out to Decker by telephone at 732-239-3910.

"When you volunteer," Barlow said. "You receive far more than you've given. The need for volunteers has increased because we are serving so many more in the community as a direct result of the pandemic."

"St. Peter's is in so many ways the heart of Spotswood's efforts to care for those in need," Father Marshall said. "The whole community looks to the church, CoHM and Alice's CUP for help, and as a way to help, when people are in need. Our feeding programs ensure that no one in our community needs to feel hunger or feel anxious about having enough to feed their household. Our Thrift Shop allows people to find things they need or want at an affordable price, and for people to bring treasures our of their own homes that they no longer want or need, so other may benefit. Children find coats for the winter and toys to play with during leisure time. Adults find clothing for job interviews. People entering transitional housing find pots, pans and dishes they can afford. Families are able to shop together. When someone has nothing, we make sure they don't walk away empty-handed. What has amazed me is that everything we do to expand services is met with gratitude and an expansion to the capacity we can offer."

"We have learned a great deal as a church in adapting to the challenges of the pandemic," Father Marshall added. "We have been able to evolve as a faith community by using technology in new ways. We have experienced a deep clarification of our sense of mission and purpose. Though we have experienced profound losses, we have also celebrated an increase of spirit and connection. As a pastor, I have been amazed by the heart and hope of my community. Even in the midst of these challenges, the St. Peter's community to a household is focused first on figuring out how to help. That has been a true blessing!"

Father Marshall celebrated Ash Wednesday last week with parishioners making appointments through a sign-up app. Sunday services are live-streamed and held outdoors whenever possible. The outdoor services before winter showed its teeth were popular with parishioners.

"People want to be together, as we are able to gather safely, and though numbers are reduced we have been able to weather the pandemic well with hybrid worship," Father Marshall said. "Every Sunday brings a new set of challenges and gives us new experiences and lessons to treasure. We have learned that our membership is flexible and what matters is being able to gather and praise God together, at a distance. We have learned how to adapt, enjoy, and benefit from technology, for virtual and in-person worship. Daily worship attendance has increased dramatically. Sunday worship has allowed people who must remain at home to feel less isolated. People are looking forward to being together again outside once the weather breaks.'

St. Peter's Thrift Shop is kicking off a Winter Dollar Days Sale on Tuesday, February 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Thursday, February 25 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and on Saturday, February 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. All winter clothes will be on sale for $1. All the proceeds from the sale will go to assist the community programs sponsored by St. Peter's Church that include Wednesday Night Community Suppers and the Alice's CUP Food Pantry.

Thrift Shop donations can be dropped off on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Food donations can be dropped off at the Alice's Cup Food Pantry during its hours of operation on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. until 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. until 3:30 p.m. as well as on Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.