Take Back Christmas!

Advent Wreath

The day after Halloween, stores like Target and Walmart slashed prices on costumes and candy corn to make way for artificial Christmas trees and holiday decorations. Before everyone had a chance to digest their turkey and cranberry sauce this past Thanksgiving, people were lined up to catch great deals at the big box stores. Stores used to wait for Black Friday to unleash a manic day of purchasing material possesions, but now our day of thanks has been compromised just for some deals, and Cyber Monday adds to the frenzy of Christmas shopping.

Princeton is known for spreading holiday cheer. Performances of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol can be seen at McCarter Theatre. There’s the lighting of the Christmas Tree at Palmer Square and at the Princeton Shopping Center. Morven holds its Annual Festival of the Trees. A horse and carriage gives rides throughout downtown. Carolers sing and musician play in the Square, and there are sightings of Santa about town.

Add the Christmas songs and TV specials about Rudolph and Frosty, numerous parties with mistletoe, eggnog and cookie exchanges, sending cards that read ‘Seasons Greetings’, and you’ll know that Christmas is but a mere national holiday for some. Even those of other religions put up a tree. This extreme commercialism has evolved from a few traditions and moments throughout history. Gift baskets were given in the north during the Yule season as part of the Winter Solstice, celebrating the return of the sun. These traditions were adopted by Christianity and were much simpler than those of modern day celebrations.

Since Christmas has become an American holiday, it’s hard to ignore some of the fun, but for those who are Christian, it should definitely take a back seat to preparing for the coming of Christ. Everything in moderation. This coming Sunday is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, marked by lighting the pink candle of the advent wreath. This indicates that our expected guest has almost arrived, and it’s NOT Santa.

Great ways to observe Advent are to volunteer serving warm and nutritious meals at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen or at our Cornerstone Community Kitchen, collect warm clothing or supplies for those in need, buy a gift for a needy child, or sign up to volunteer ringing the bell and collecting for the Red Cross (look for the sign up sheets near the office during the week). These are all great ways to open your heart, and prepare for commemorating the birth of Jesus. So, take back Christmas and bring back the true meaning of the season!

Peter Brown: The Church as “Social Urban Lung”

Peter Brown Speaking at Labyrinth Bookstore

Originally posted on Princeton Comment.

Diversity is much prized by some Christian congregations, but in recent history it hasn’t always been this way. Churches have been historically the most segregated, divisive groups in America. But in Rome in the period of late antiquity, in the period from the 2nd to the 8th centuries, says Peter Brown, the church promoted the value of diversity.

In a conversation between Brown and Elaine Pagels at Labyrinth Bookstore on Wednesday night. Brown and Pagels discussed Brown’s new Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, published by Princeton University Press. Brown cautioned against “pauperizing” the poor, thinking of poor people as … simply … poor.

Quickly scanning his book, I found Brown’s observation that, in the Hebrew tradition, the poor were not merely beggars: They came to the rich and religious leaders to seek justice and protection. Brown writes (page 77) that the early Christian church viewed the poor, not as ‘the others” but as “our brothers.” (Ironically that is even more true today now that folks who thought they could live in comfort now find themselves in foreclosures. In Princeton there are hidden pockets of need in the most affluent-seeming homes.)

Brown writes (page 87) that wealthy people “valued in the churches a certain lowering of the sense of hierarchy and a slowing down of the pace of competition.” (Just two days before, this is what Roberto Schiraldi seemed to be calling for, when he led a Not in Our Town discussion on the values of “white privilege” at the Princeton Public Library.)

Continues Brown, “Members of the rich often came to the church so as to find there a social urban lung.” That term, social urban lung, describes a place like the Princeton Public Library, which harbored refugees from the power outage, some poor, some wealthy, all equal as they needed warmth and plug-ins. It also describes the house of worship where people can drop their pretensions or inadequacies and “love their neighbor as themselves.’

It  has resonance to see what I see happening in my own church, where at the very hour Peter Brown was speaking, the Cornerstone Community Kitchen was serving dinner to a wide variety of people — some who needed the food, some who just wanted to mingle, some who just wanted to “give back” by helping. The good part is, you don’t need to know — and it isn’t visible  — to which group a person belongs.

P.S. Come out some Wednesday for the free meal, served in partnership with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen but definitely not in a soup kitchen atmosphere. You are served by volunteers at an elegantly dressed table (at right), and the meal includes fresh vegetables, salad, and dessert, and there’s even a piano player. It’s every Wednesday, 5 to 6:30, at the Methodist church at the corner of Nassau and Vandeventer, all welcome.

I love Brown’s term, “a social urban lung.”


Princeton’s Good Samaritans Nurtured Community After Superstorm Sandy

Written by Sarah Harris, Barbara Fox, and Robin Birkel

PUMC Serving Lunch after Superstorm Sandy

Hurricane Sandy caused havoc in New Jersey. Princetonians suffered downed trees, road closures, power outages, school and business closures, sporadic cell service, and no Comcast or FiOS phone service.

Princeton has long been one of the most wired towns in the nation. So when Sandy hit, and virtually all of Princeton lost power and phone service, lots of people were frantic, not just to notify family members that they were safe, but to conduct business. The next day Princeton United Methodist Church opened its doors. That day, and the entire week, Pastor Jana Purkis-Brash, Music Director Hyosang Park, and church members plugged in the coffee pot and posted a sign on the lawn. It read: Come in! Get warm! Charge and use our wi-fi!

We provided a safe and warm environment for charging cell phones and other devices, staying connected with family and friends, reading, studying, and working. Additionally, we served meals to those not able to cook.

Wednesday, two dozen passersby sought brief refuge from the cold, plus nearly 100 people spent the day. Church members hosted in the Sanford Davis room. Then at 4 p.m. the Cornerstone Community Kitchen team converted it into a dining room. The menu was roast pork, mashed potatoes, salad, and dessert for 73 hungry people.

Thursday, PUMC hosted 75 wi-fi users, everyone from entrepreneurs who stayed all day, to frustrated travelers needing a computer to update their itinerary, to families with children who just dropped by. Some were referred by the Princeton Public Library, which with thousands of visitors daily was having trouble meeting the enormous demand. Even PUMC’s wi-fi had faltered because of too many users, so two more wi-fi nodes were added. We served breakfast, lunch, and another Cornerstone Community Kitchen dinner. This time it was spaghetti for 100 people. At that point, many in Princeton still had no power, and it was getting quite cold.


PUMC hosted lunch again on Friday, and breakfast and lunch was offered on Saturday. Of course, all of these services were provided free of charge.

“You imagine that this is what a church should do, but you rarely ever see it done,” said Princeton resident Diana Rhodes, one of the grateful visitors. “What a wonderful service you have provided!”

Princeton United Methodist Church Youth Raking Leaves

Meanwhile, outside of the church, PUMCers were living their faith. More than a dozen in the youth group responded to a plea for help to clean the property of a church member living alone. Generators were brought to several families who are vulnerable to the cold, including someone new to the community.


Appalachia Service Project (ASP)

Princeton UMC ASP 2012

The Appalachia Service Project, also known as ASP, is a Christian volunteer organization founded in 1969, to repair homes of low-income families. They live in central Appalachia in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. The primary goal is to make homes safer and more comfortable for their residents. It’s an 8-week summer program open to all volunteers.

The Princeton United Methodist Church has participated in this ministry since the mid-1970s. Every year we send a team of high school students and adult leaders the beginning of July to help needy families. Volunteers are not restricted to just our church members. We welcome all to participate.

Princeton UMC 2012

While the trip takes place in summer, planning begins a year ahead, basically after the previous group returns. Meetings start in October the year before, so those interested can get informed and start raising funds for the trip.

Princeton UMC ASP 2012

Each participant must pay for the rental of vans that are the mode of transportation, lodging at a facility like a school, meals, and materials to repair the homes. Fundraising helps offset the costs, and is great for early team building.

Princeton UMC ASP 2012

Teens participate for a number of reasons. No matter the objective, their journey returns them as changed young adults. The experience is unparalleled, just based on their personal growth. And as a bonus, sophomores can use some of the time spent toward hours needed for community service (check with individual schools). Of course, adult leaders are also transformed.

The first meeting was last weekend, but it’s not too late to sign up. If you’re interested, please contact PUMC by email office@princetonumc.org or call 609-924-2613 for more information. You can sign up with a friend or family member, and remember, you don’t need to be a member of our church, or any church to participate.

Go to our Flickr album for more ASP 2012 photos.


Stoolmacher: Hunger’s Not a Game

Written by Barbara Fox

Feeding the hungry — that doesn’t sound like a fun topic, one that you would like to contemplate over a meal. But at the United Methodist Men’s breakfast at our church on October 14, Phyllis Stoolmacher  quoted poignant stats like a politician, dispensed the folk wisdom with the aplomb of a culinary Dr. Ruth, and inspired like a preacher.

Stoolmacher has been the forever-director of the 25-year- old Mercer Street Friends Food Bank, which  distributes 50,000 pounds of food a week to some 60 organizations to help feed 25,000 people in Mercer County who don’t have access to enough healthy food.

Some at the breakfast had just taken the food stamp challenge, to live for a week on the meagre amount provided by what is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And the 25-year-old food bank partners with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen which in turns partners with our church to deliver a weekly Wednesday meal at the Cornerstone Community Kitchen.

I learned new facts and confirmed what I already knew. Federal contribution of commodities has been cut by two-thirds. A family of four can qualify for SNAP if the household income is less than $23,500, and this number does not account for the high cost of living in Mercer County. “It’s not a welfare program,” says Stoolmacher, “and we send our people out into the community with laptops to help people qualify.” Nutrition dollars come on a debit card so nobody can tell whether someone is swiping a credit card or the SNAP card. People stay on SNAP for an average of 9 months.

Restaurants can’t donate because of health issues. Supermarkets do donate, but not prepared food. The state provides funds to buy Jersey Fresh fruits and vegetables. Children who would otherwise go hungry on weekends get sent home with a backpack of easy-to-prepare microwavable meals. Simple recipes go into regular bags of groceries.

It’s best to give dollars rather than canned goods because the food bank can buy in bulk. “You would be surprised at what comes from food drives,” she said wryly, “how much cranberry sauce we get at Thanksgiving and how much matzoh we get in April. Who likes  matzoh? I want tuna fish! Give me tuna fish and I am a happy camper.”

What else can we do? Realize that someone you know may be “nutritionally challenged.” Encourage somebody who is looking for work, maybe they’ve run out of unemployment benefits, to sign up for the SNAP program. Or bring them to our Cornerstone Community Kitchen on Wednesdays, from 5 to 6:30 p.m.  Nobody knows the difference between the people who come for nutrition or those who come for conversation and companionship. There’s plenty of food on the plates, and there are flowers on the tables.

Some of that food found its way to Princeton via Stoolmacher. She won’t countenance empty or unhealthy calories — not soda, not Gatorade, not ramen noodles, not sweet cereal. Besides tuna fish, her most coveted item is shelf stable milk-in-a-box. “It tastes like real milk.”

At the next United Methodist Men’s breakfast, Sunday, November 11 at 8 a.m., PUMC church member Ed Felten will be the speaker. Reservations at office@princetonumc.com, $5.00.

A version of this post was published on the Princeton Comment blog



Food Stamp Challenge

The congregation was given a food stamp challenge. We were asked to live off the weekly food budget of $31/person, which about $1.48/person per meal. I’ve seen signs around Princeton for people to participate.

This challenge allowed us to understand the struggle that low-income parents have to provide healthy meals for their family, while avoiding hunger. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough for most families, so many must turn to food banks and soup kitchens to steer clear of starvation.

It’s comforting to know that we here at the Princeton United Methodist Church host a community meal on Wednesdays thanks to our Cornerstone Community Kitchen to help those in need in the Princeton area.

Pastor Jana mentioned that we eat in excess, so if we establish portion control, shop wisely, use coupons, stay away from snack foods and specialty drinks (including soda), don’t eat out or get take out, it’s possible to feed your family for $31 per person a day, but it is a real challenge.

Prices can prove to be the biggest obstacle, so you might have to shop around. This means cutting out purchases at Wegman’s and Whole Foods, and look for the best deals at Shoprite or make a trip to Walmart or Aldi’s to help you stay within the budget. The trick is to buy food that’s filling while being nutritious.

This was a difficult challenge, and I think I failed by going over budget a bit to keep my 16 year old athlete from starving. We ate old-fashion oatmeal and raisin bran for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta, rice with beans, and soup for dinner.

My favorite meal was a Greek-inspired dish made with giant butter beans in a homemade tomato sauce with onion, garlic, and thyme, topped with a little feta cheese.

Did you take on the challenge? How did you fare?


Bloom Where You Are Planted

Reposted from Princeton Comment.

After seven moves and three kids, accomplished early in our marriage, we landed here in Princeton and have stayed planted for more than 30 years. (We love it here, but the cost of NOT moving is more clutter! It’s hard to get rid of stuff when you stay put.)Cheryl Mart and Karin Brouwer have more recent experience with the joys and challenges of moving.  They are leading a non-denominational Christian study, based on a Susan Miller book and video, at Princeton United Methodist Church on Wednesdays, starting September 19, 10:30 to noon.

This free one-semester study is designed to help in the process of letting go, starting over, and moving ahead with your life after a move.  Women do not need to attend the church to attend the free classes, which involve videos, reading, and discussion.

“Over the last 25 years I’ve lived with my husband and three children in five different countries,” says Brouwer. “With every move I have experienced God’s sustained love to overcome difficulties and the importance of having a church family. It helped me to bloom where I am planted.”

Mart, a registered nurse, had a difficult transition in moving from Texas to Princeton and leaving her married children behind. “I found encouragement in ‘After the Boxes are Unpacked’ by Susan Miller,” she says. “By offering this study, we hope to reach out to those who are struggling with similar issues.”

Perhaps the “Moving On after Moving In” study is “right” for the newcomer you know. Or maybe another resource is. The Women in Business subset of the Princeton chamber comes to mind. In any case, the very best resource is probably YOU. Make time. Reach out. Have coffee.

For more information click here or email movingon@princetonumc.org, or call 609-921-0730.  (Disclosure — I’m a member at PUMC).

And They’re Off! UFAR 5K on October 6th


Reposted from Princeton Comment

It is such a pleasant path for a 5k run (or, in my case, a 5k walk)! Starting at the seminary, downhill past Springdale Golf Course, along the shaded trail through part of the fabled Institute Woods, where Einstein strolled, past the Institute for Advanced Study, then threading your way through the sycamore-lined streets of some of Princeton’s most impressive homes — and uphill (alas) to the seminary’s wide expansive lawn where cheering crowds await. Even for those who walk — and take an hour to get there — some are there to cheer and record the time. The three fastest runners, male and female, get prizes — and everyone gets a fabulous T-shirt.

And it’s all for a good cause — to combat riverblindness.  The annual UFAR 5k to Combat Riverblindness is Saturday, October 6. The starting gun goes off at 10 a.m. Those who register now qualify for a discount, $20 instead of $25. Go online to www.riverblindness.org

Just by running, you will keep 12 people from going blind in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The medicine for riverblindness is provided free by Merck & Co., but distributing it to remote villages costs 58 cents per person per year for 10 years.  One-third of the 60 million people in the DRC are at risk for getting riverblindness, which starts with a rash and leads to sight loss, forcing children to leave school to care for parents.us

If you are not the running or walking type, or if you just want to help a good cause, please consider volunteering – handing out water (you get to set up your table in a shady spot) or marking the trail or ….lots of ways to help. Mark your calendar for October 6 and call Princeton United Methodist Church at 609-924-2613 or email office@princetonumc.org.


Community Dinner a Success

PUMC Cornerstone Community Kitchen Grand Opening
L-R Howard Roundtree, Dennis Micai, Pastor Jana Purkis-Brash, and Larry Apperson

The Princeton Cornerstone Community Kitchen opened its doors on June 6th for the first time. TASK Executive Director Dennis Micai was on hand, as well as Howard Roundtree of TASK and the Crisis Ministry who will deliver the food.

Princeton Cornerstone Community Kitchen Breakfast BagRound tables, great for conversation, were set with tablecloths and flowers. 46 guests were served a nutritious meal, and kids were given a bag of breakfast treats for the next morning’s meal.

The servers were very friendly. People were seated, and the meals were given with a smile, and a bit of conversation. After they left, servers quickly cleaned and set-up for the next diners.

The group I sat with kept me intrigued and entertained the entire meal. It was nice to meet so many people who had interesting stories to share.

When families dine together, kids do better physically, socially and academically. When singles and seniors dine with others, it gives them the opportunity to eat a more balanced meal and have stimulating conversation.

Princeton Cornerstone Community Kitchen Meal

Overall, it’s a win-win situation for everyone who comes. And best of all, it’s absolutely FREE! I encourage you to join us for dinner on Wednesdays 5-6:30 PM, and please spread the word.