By Dr. Theresa Brightman, Deacon, Mount Zion Baptist Church-Newark
Mount Zion Baptist Church of Newark stands on a 143 year legacy of community service, advocacy, protecting human rights, education, and family stability. Established in 1878 when 32 members withdrew from the Bethany Baptist Church, Mount Zion’s inaugural service was held April 14, 1878. Mount Zion has had an international impact being that the renowned jazz vocalist, Ms. Sarah Vaughn, was a lifetime member. In keeping with our history, we remain a resource to both the secular and sacred communities. In the height of the Civil Rights Movement, The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) found a safe place at Mount Zion to convene. Over the years, Government officials hosted meetings so that Newark residents are able to assemble in a safe place and have their voices heard. An independent community preschool taught hundreds of children for decades in our building. And still today, the Board of Elections uses our building as a polling site, and more opportunities to serve those who are residents of this city and beyond are granted.
Meeting the Needs of the Community
One of Mount Zion’s largest community initiatives—feeding the hungry, started out as a soup kitchen, Mount Zion transitioned to a grab and go food pantry exemplifying our belief in the Scripture, Matthew 23:35 that says, “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in”. Our food pantry serves over 3,000 people monthly at no cost to the recipients and with 95% of the individuals having no affiliation with the church. Mount Zion recognized that many New Jersey residents, of which a large population is children, face food insecurity and the realization of not always knowing where their next meal will come from on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, this terrifying reality is magnified in wake of the COVID 19 health pandemic plaguing our communities. “COVID-19 has dramatically increased hunger in communities across the country. New Jersey is projected to experience a disproportionate increase in food-insecure residents, estimated to increase by 56%, higher than the national average, and more than 10 percentage points higher than neighboring states (Feeding America). More than 1.2 million New Jersey residents are estimated to be food insecure, with 431,000 newly food insecure as a result of the pandemic”.
Since April, 2020, Mount Zion Baptist Church has witnessed an increase in food pantry participants from 150 families per month to 450 families per month resulting in an increase of 200%. Prior to the onset of COVID 19 our pantry primarily provided supplemental emergency food under the auspices of the State Food Purchase Program (SFPP) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); however, the pandemic has caused catastrophic and widespread need. Each month at our food pantry, family after family shares experiences of lost employment, food insecurity and hopelessness.
For example, at our most recent food distribution, one gentleman expressed his appreciation for “stumbling upon the pantry” while walking to search for employment – unexpectedly walking by Mount Zion where he saw food being distributed. He explained he had recently been “let go from both of his jobs” and had no idea how he was going to feed his family.
Mount Zion is the recent recipient of a grant through the Newark Network Initiative that allowed the expansion of our food pantry to serve the community two times per month and offer additional items such as household cleaning supplies like laundry detergent and disinfectants, personal hygiene products (i.e. toilet paper, toiletries, soap, shampoo, menstrual products), baby formula, baby wipes and diapers, which we have not routinely provided because funds used were strictly for the purchase of emergency supplementary food. Additionally, funds will be used to purchase Personal Protection Equipment (face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer) for volunteers and pantry recipients.
This past year has taken its toll on many. Families have suffered losses of epic proportions including loss of loved ones, employment, and in some instances, housing. Institutions of learning were relegated to virtual remote instruction which greatly magnified the digital divide that exists within our country and reignited stands against racism to continue to raise awareness and advocate for racial justice in communities across the United States. Faith Based Organizations have been greatly impacted by the current health pandemic. Pre-pandemic, weekly in person church services provided opportunities to assemble, worship and socialize. Since March 2020 and the abrupt closing of houses of worship, we have yet to fully comprehend the psychological, emotional and spiritual toll such closings have had on communities of faith.
Growing Stronger, Going Deeper, Reaching Higher
Mount Zion Baptist Church Newark, under the pastorate Rev. Dr. Olivia Stanard, recognized the importance of staying connected and being accessible to membership during the pandemic. With the assistance of technology and on-line meeting platforms such as Zoom, we are able to host Thursday Bible Study, Weekly Worship Service, Sunday School, Youth Church, and Church Business Meetings as needed. These past thirteen months have given us the opportunity to strategize about remaining relevant and accessible to our membership and the community.
Introduced to JAG through Membership Committee Vice-Chair, Darryl Love, whose assistance was invaluable as we planned the virtual funeral service for one of beloved members, we appreciate the opportunity to join such a knowledgeable community and look forward to future involvement as we expand our on-line presence to meet the changing needs of our congregation.