Up to 500 a day turning to N.J. United Methodist church as it opens doors for community space

With help from church volunteers, Hurricane Sandy has transformed Morrow Memorial United Methodist Church in Maplewood, N.J., into a living room, office, play space and kitchen for the entire neighborhood.

“It’s really become a community center,” said the Rev. Chris Heckert, senior pastor.

Remembering the power outages that afflicted the area during Hurricane Irene and the October snowstorm in 2011, Heckert made the pre-hurricane announcement during Sunday worship on  Oct. 29: If the power remained on at Morrow Memorial, those without “had a place to come.”

Soon, Sandy’s winds toppled trees and utility lines. A Monday morning Facebook invitation from Heckert started the stream of visitors.

By 11 a.m. that day, church members were bringing in neighbors to share Wi-Fi access and multiple cups of coffee from a large, ancient coffeemaker. Volunteers from the congregation of more than 640 lined up to assist. Parents came with kids. An evening movie showing in fellowship hall drew 70 viewers.

By Wednesday, the number of daily visitors had ballooned to 500.

“I made the call that we had this huge building, this resource, and we needed to open it to those who needed it,” Heckert said.

Sometimes, the pastor acknowledged, the enormous size of the traditional stone church building near a section of local shops in Maplewood Village feels like a burden, but, he added, “This week, it’s a ministry asset.”

Church members have organized the effort, Heckert said. Volunteers monitor a sign-up sheet at the door, keeping track as visitors come in and out.

Certain rooms were designated for specific activities. “The library became a quiet working room for adults (and) fellowship hall was a general place for people to work or eat,” Heckert explained. “Downstairs, we pulled out big play toys from our preschool and that’s where kids played. Our youth room became a place for older kids to play and watch movies.”

Cooking became part of the equation after Heckert took in rice and beans and soup on Monday. ”I thought maybe if we got a little food started…people could bring food in. Now, our refrigerator and freezer are filled,” he said. “People are eating and feeding each other and sharing.”

Because much of the community is still without power, some residents are departing to hotels or to stay with relatives. Still, Morrow church was keeping its doors open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. “From day to day, we’re making decisions about what we’re offering,” Heckert said.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

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