St. Paul’s Lutheran Church: A Model for Urban Ministry and Sustainability

When it comes to contributing to our vibrant community, St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church sets a high standard through a clear mission and close collaboration with a variety of other local groups.

While the church has deep Jersey City history, beginning when it was founded in 1884, its ties to the community have broadened and deepened in the past six years, as Pastor Jessica Lambert explains.

Lambert, who was called to St. Paul’s in 2007 after finishing at Yale Divinity School and The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, points to a “courageous and brilliant decision” the congregation made at the beginning of her tenure as a turning point. Enabled by a Community Development Block Grant from Jersey City, the church renovated some of its properties with the goal of renting the space to local community and social-service nonprofits.

One of the first tenants in the new space was Hudson County Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children (CASA), which advocates for and works with foster children across the county. The church, through its companion secular nonprofit, St. Paul’s Center of Caring (SPCC), now rents space to many organizations: the Jersey City Food Co-op; The Sharing Place food pantry; the Lutheran Home for Children, which temporarily houses teenagers in crisis; Food and Water Watch; the P.E.A.C.E. Community Garden; Sustainable Jersey City. The Center also hosts orientations and classes put on by Rising Tide Capital; Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings; and community cooking classes with chefs who sell at the farmers’ markets.

Connecting with other community groups is an important part of the work of SPCC and the church as a whole.

“We do not simply want to be landlords, indifferent to our renters,” Lambert says. “It’s part of our mission to truly be neighbors, being generous with our resources and energies, and counting on these wonderful agencies and organizations for resources and friendship in return. We are always seeking avenues for collaboration when possible.”

It’s that kind of outlook that leads community leaders to seek out the church, as Jersey City Food Co-op vice president Lisa Clarke explains.

“When I was looking for a location for us to get started, St. Paul’s immediately came to mind,” says Clarke, who also has been a member of St. Paul’s since 2008 and serves on the board of the SPCC. “I knew firsthand about the SPCC’s mission to be a supportive partner to nonprofits and community-based initiatives in Jersey City.”

The Co-op, which believes that “everyone should have access to nutritious, high-quality food at fair prices,” uses the church as a distribution site while it works toward opening a physical grocery store. “It’s right in the heart of the city, which makes it a convenient place for everyone to meet and our local vendors to deliver,” Clarke says.

The Co-op isn’t the only food-related venture housed at St. Paul’s. There’s also the food pantry, The Sharing Place, which has been serving food to Hudson County residents for 35 years. It gives out almost 9 tons of food to an average of 500 families and individuals on the last two Saturdays of every month. (The Sharing Place also doubles as a community outreach center, with agencies serving low-income populations invited to set up shop on distribution days to help residents see if they are eligible for food stamps, help them sign up for utility assistance, navigate the Affordable Care Act, do health screenings , offer education on nutrition and provide other social services.)

There is also the P.E.A.C.E. (Permaculture, Environment, Abundance, Community, Empathy) Garden, which itself grew out of the Co-op’s involvement with the church.

P.E.A.C.E Garden at St. Pauls Church

P.E.A.C.E Garden at St. Pauls Church

In 2010, I had the idea to start a community garden onsite,” Clarke says. She introduced the SPCC to two of the Co-op’s other member/owners, Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch and John Wong, and they founded the P.E.A.C.E Garden. The garden now serves a diverse population of community and church members and hosts workshops on urban gardening and composting, with an overall goal of “education, beauty and urban agriculture,” according to Lambert.

“Many grow herbs and produce to eat at home, others give it to The Sharing Place Food Pantry, and some donate it to the Community Dinners,” the pastor says of the gardeners “By mid-summer it is a lovely, lush green space in the midst of all the concrete of the city.”

Sustainability is a big part of the mission at St. Paul’s, and the church is aiming to extend that mission throughout the Five Corners neighborhood with what can best be described as an eco-village.

“With Sustainable Jersey City and [Ward C] Councilman Rich Boggiano, we are working towards becoming a hub of sustainability, or an ‘eco-district,’ with the use of solar panels on our parish hall roof, storm water remediation, rain water capture, composting and perhaps even green infrastructure development, which we hope can happen on our block,” Lambert explains.

For example, the church is having a rain garden installed on the church’s lawn this spring to capture water that would otherwise flow into the sewer system, thanks to a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation grant received by Sustainable Jersey City.

“We are conducting a community assessment of the greater Five Corners neighborhood,” Lambert says. “With all of the new development happening in Journal Square, we want to be part of the conversation about what happens next, and our main concern is affordable housing in our city.”

She also hopes that with the new residential developments, there is also thought and planning around commercial development, community centers, mixed-use spaces and green spaces.

“There need to be places for people to gather and create,” she adds. “I do worry about increasing economic disparity and what that could mean for the future of the city. I hope that it is a priority for our civic leaders.”

It is clearly a priority for Lambert and the other civic leaders involved in the St. Paul’s community, as they embark on a decidedly activist form of ministry.

“If we, as a relatively small church, in collaboration with others, can be a model of urban ministry and sustainability in the 21st century,” she says, “we would consider that a blessing.”

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church is located at 440 Hoboken Ave. Worship services, always with Holy Communion, are on Sundays at 10 am and Wednesdays at 7 pm. For more info visit  stpauljerseycity.org.

Top photo by Mickey Mathis bottom JCI file photo.

Gia Portfolio

is a book editor, copywriter, and contributing writer for various online publications. She loves to wander, learn, create and discover, which led her to create Jersey City Gal, a place where she promotes local businesses and shares her experiences with the Jersey City community.