It is no secret that East Stroudsburg Presbyterian Church provides valuable outreaches to its community. The church building is considered home to many different organizations, for everything from cello and piano lessons to older adult learning to Alcoholics, Narcotics and Overeaters Anonymous groups.
“Our church gets about (pre-pandemic) 1,100 people walking through its doors weekly,” said Pastor Nicki Vogel. “That has been our primary community outreach.”
But during the coronavirus pandemic, gatherings such as these were greatly restricted, as social distancing guidelines prohibited groups consisting of more than 10 people to meet. That led to some other places in town that also housed meetings like AA, NA and OA to close their doors. However, East Stroudsburg Church, understanding the importance of these meetings to those who are attending, chose to stay open with strict guidelines in place. It resulted in people from the neighboring groups now relying on East Stroudsburg Church to hold their support group meetings.
“During the pandemic, we never closed the doors to the NA or AA groups,” Nicki said. “The session was really concerned about people with addictions during this time. We ended up housing other groups whose churches that they met in closed.
“A gentleman who went to both places said, ‘You have saved lives.’ We got a lot of flack for it from outside places who said it wasn’t safe (to have these groups in your building due to the spread of the coronavirus). We chose that it was less safe for them not to be meeting given the addiction issue. We followed the social distancing protocols, and we have not had an issue with COVID.”
This is just one way how East Stroudsburg Church has branched out even greater into its community during this unprecedented time of the coronavirus pandemic. It has also created several other ministries, like a monthly food service program and the HOPE (Helping Our People Everywhere) Fund, which is an outreach that is helping those in need pay their bills.
Financial contributions for HOPE are supplied through the congregation, with many members choosing to sign over their government stimulus checks to help finance the program. Most payouts, which are available to the entire community through the church’s website, go toward covering costs associated with things like housing, car repair and even to help upgraded internet service for a family that needed better online access for schooling. Payouts have gone as high as $1,000 to an individual but are normally less than that.
As for the local food bank, it contacted East Stroudsburg Church to help it replenish its supply after it was depleted during the pandemic. The church’s Mission Committee decided to do a “drive-up food drive” where people can, from their cars, drop off items at the church that are being donated to the food bank. These drives occur whenever the food bank is low on donations.
“This is really about people in our community and the church coming together to help the community,” Nicki said.
The church has also seen an increased presence from the community at its parking lot services, which are held to commemorate important Sundays. The attendance boost includes those who attend other churches that were closed and others just from the community. With a normal average in-person attendance of around 80 on a Sunday morning, the parking lot service is drawing between 30-40 cars on a weekly basis, likely bringing the total attendance figure at or above what the church was getting in the sanctuary prior to the pandemic. And this doesn’t include those who are also viewing the services online.
The youth group’s flamingo project took on new meaning and importance during the pandemic. Last year, the church’s youth planted the colorful plastic birds in the lawns of church members, who then had to pay the youth to get rid of them as a light-hearted fundraising event. This year, the flamingos were again placed in members’ yards, but this time there was no cost for removal and those targeted were members in the high-risk age group who had been sheltering inside. This grew so popular that community members were asking to borrow the flamingos so they could put them in friends’ and relatives’ yards.
“We had the youth group on a Zoom meeting, and we were talking about what we could do for our community,” Nicki recalled. “It was brought up that we could cheer people up who were stuck inside for so long by putting them in their yards. It has been so well received. We took an idea that we used to do and reformatted it to fit the pandemic to brighten people’s days instead of raising money off of it.”
All these services have simply solidified East Stroudsburg Church’s hold as a valuable member of the community, one that can be counted on for support no matter the need. And it is not just the community that’s benefiting.
“The congregation wants to help their community,” Nicki said. “It was a matter of finding the ways, and this sort of forced us to find the ways. We’re in the process of a 5- to 7-year visioning plan, and this put our visioning plan into hyperdrive. We decided to do these things and see where it lands. This forced us into that without the planning aspect of it.
“Our hearts were there, the desire was there, but God made it work. I’m hesitant to say the pandemic has been a blessing, but it has been a blessing in my sense that God has worked through it through many of us, including myself, in my personal family and in our church.”