By Angela Fee-Maimon
The face of hunger has changed.
Rev. Thomas Miller has witnessed this change in his time as pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church. It isn’t just the chronically homeless who do not have a steady food budget, he says. Mothers and children, people with disabilities, people who have had a medical crises leading to financial crises, the elderly on fixed incomes — all are among those who might wake up one day and realize that they don’t have enough money to buy the food they need.
“The truly hungry in our midst don’t know how, where or when that meal will come,” Miller said. “Most modern-day Americans have never experienced this level of hunger. But, it’s important that they face the sad fact that many people in their region do live with this kind of hunger.”
Every Tuesday since April 4, Trinity United Methodist Church has been doing something about the issue. People in the area who are struggling to afford nourishment for themselves and their families can go to Trinity’s fellowship hall for a home-cooked meal served by volunteers and prepared by Mercer County Muslims Against Hunger.
Shaesta Chaudhry, a volunteer with the Mercer County chapter of MAH who runs programs in Trenton, Hightstown and Freehold in addition to Bordentown, helped launch the satellite soup kitchen, and the organization provides and prepares all of the meals that are distributed to the hungry. She said that the meals are made with the same quality food that volunteers would eat at home with their own families.
“We feed people what we like to eat,” Chaudhry said. At a recent dinner, volunteers served up meatloaf, potatoes and beans.
Miller said different church groups were meeting to discuss ways to better serve the community when parishioners Elyse Carty and Diane Moretz, who provide ministry through hospitality, reasoned that the fellowship hall at the church was large enough to be utilized as a place to serve meals to those in need.
“Social justice ministries engage with the overt and covert injustices within culture/society,” Miller said. “Our church family seeks to meet the needs of our community and beyond it. Hunger, addiction, chronic homelessness and poverty call out to us as a Christian community of faith.”
Carty has been involved with the hospitality committee at TUMC for years. They have provided monthly coffee hours, run a bake table at street fairs, and provided meals for the congregation at special occasions over the years.
The church reached out to Paul Jensen at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen to learn how to convert the fellowship hall into a place to feed the hungry in Bordentown. Their church met the necessary standards. TASK then introduced TUMC to the Mercer County chapter of Muslims Against Hunger, an organization that provides and prepares food to feed the hungry in New Jersey.
“A community program like ours, involving Christian, Muslim and secular volunteers, sends a simple yet very clear message: hunger has no religion, and strangers are the friends we haven’t met yet,” Miller said.
The church has issued food vouchers to local grocery stores for the hungry to those in need for the past 30 years. Miller hopes the launch of the soup kitchen will help to ease that burden a little more in his community.
Miller has been with Trinity since July of 2005. He has seen a lot of change in the community since then.
“The economy has never fully recovered from the economic crisis we faced in 2008,” he said. “Food banks, used-clothing closets, and emergency rent vouchers have been a part of our mission at Trinity United Methodist Church long before I arrived to serve as the pastor. However, in my 12 years here, the needs have significantly increased. In a small city like Bordentown, surrounded by railway and bus lines, welfare motels, turnpikes and interstate highways, the influx of those in need of the basic things of life is ongoing.”
Miller said as the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to grow, so does the number of people who need assistance with basic needs.
Families are moving into local motel rooms as their primary residences, and the church provides emergency rent vouchers for the motels so that those in need can continue to have a roof over their heads. Miller and his parishioners have delivered flyers to local motels about to spread the news about the soup kitchen.
“I believe that when we are chronically physically hungry, it becomes so difficult to stay strong emotionally or spiritually,” Carty said. “We then can fall prey to hopelessness, anger, and frustration that compounds the spiral, and blocks any path to peacefulness.”
Chaudhry said that the Mercer County chapter of MAH formed six years ago, and has expanded to serve more than 1,500 meals per week, run by the Institute of Islamic Studies of West Windsor. She said that she envisions the Bordentown location growing through word of mouth.
She attributes the success of the program to the dedication of volunteers, like Ahmad Nawaz, who participates in feeding the hungry at every location the group serves.
Miller said many volunteers from the church help make the soup kitchen a success. He credits Megan Wolf and Ryan Forbeck alongside Carty and Moretz as leaders in the ministry who have played a part.
“No one should have to go to bed hungry when we have the facility, volunteers and the donations needed to help provide a hot meal a week for those less fortunate,” Forbeck said.
TUMC hopes that as more people in the community who are struggling to make ends hear about their Tuesday night program, they will stop in for hearty meals and fellowship. Meals are served from 5 to 6:30 p.m.
“It was great to see an idea come to life,” Wolf said. “It is easy to mention a great idea and never see it be actualized. Seeing the fire behind the project and the urgency in which it was done was amazing.”
“After speaking with a few visitors and our volunteers, I am optimistic and again, hopeful that this project is indeed a blessing and ready to blossom,” Moretz said. “The seed has been planted, and now we wait in anticipation for the hungry dinner guests to arrive.”