How One Church Fed An Entire Town Destroyed by Sandy

The only dry spot in Bay Head, New Jersey, transformed itself into the "Bay Head Bistro" and will serve its last dinner Friday

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St Paul's UMC

St Paul's UMC in Bay Head, NJ.

Scott Bostwick knew the situation was grim when he had to park his car at the edge of town. All the roads were blocked, police were checking ID, and a sea of water stretched before him. He put on his hip waders and his wife Karen put on tall boots, and they began wading toward their home in Bay Head, NJ, to see the damage Superstorm Sandy had wrought two days earlier on Monday night, October 29, 2012.

Images of the devastation had already started to spread—home after home was destroyed, roads and bridges washed away. Their home was three blocks from the ocean, next to the bay and a lake, and the water in town was still knee-deep in most places. “We just saw it was going to be terrible before we even opened the door,” remembers Bostwick, 53, head pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. “When we went inside, it looked like a wave had passed through the house. The downstairs was a total loss.” If it was this bad at the parsonage, what would they find at their church?

Scott and Karen waded around the corner toward St. Paul’s, where they have served for 11 years. “As we walked up the steps, I was prepared for the worst,” Bostwick says, “but as we got to the door, you could see the high water mark was actually…underneath the door. We were literally the only dry spot in down.” It was a miracle.

They turned to social media to let people know the church was dry. At first the response was slow—after all, no one in the town had power. Then someone a 45-minute drive south noticed and offered to donate a generator. Another person further south offered to drive it up. “Next thing you know,” Bostwick says, “we were the only spot that had lights and hot coffee and cell phone charging.” They posted the news on Facebook and put a poster board sign out in front of the church: “Hot coffee, water, charging station. All welcome.”

The town was still sealed off—the National Guard and state police made sure that only residents and emergency responders could enter—but people who were stuck there started coming. The next day, a woman brought a crockpot full of hot dogs, and nearly 40 people showed up to eat. From then, she and a friend started dropping off hot dogs a couple times a day. “We lost the fire station, the police station, we lost everything else, but we were the sanctuary for people in town,” Bostwick recalls. “We were the only church left standing.”

MORE: Hurricane Sandy, One Year Later: Self-Portraits by Communities in Distress

On Sunday, six days after the storm had leveled the Bay Head and the Point Pleasant area, Bostwick organized a morning community prayer service at St. Paul’s. Some 120 people came, and afterward, an emergency responder approached Bostwick with a request: the command post set up at the town’s recycling center was overburdened—could St. Paul’s organize the feeding of the area? Bostwick, remembering Jesus’ miracle of feeding 5,000 people with just fives loaves of bread and two fish, said yes. Within the hour, Red Cross trucks pulled up at the church and started to drop off supplies to serve lunch.

The “Bay Head Bistro,” as the church quickly became christened, was born. St. Paul’s stayed open 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, serving three meals a day. Bostwick got a core of volunteers together to start organizing the ministry, and they began posting their supply needs on Facebook: paper plates, milk, butter, coffee, breakfast meats, canned goods, homes for persons with pets. Community centers and other churches heard about the needs, and soon vans from places Bostwick didn’t even know would pull up and drop off supplies. The town’s restaurants and grocery stores were destroyed or closed, so shop owners started dropping off whatever remaining supplies they had at the church. “We just became a distribution point for water, supplies, food, it really just took off,” Bostwick says. “We didn’t know what to do besides keep the doors open and the lights on.”

The road to recovery was long, but the St. Paul’s community plugged on through the winter months. Bostwick would arrive at 5:30 a.m. and stay until 8 p.m. before trekking back north to his temporary home. By December, the Bay Head Bistro was feeding 500-some people three meals every day. They distributed nearly $100,000 worth of Christmas presents to the community. The Jersey Shore cast donated $10,000 and meals for the holidays. Someone from Germany sent supplies. A church group from Vermont came to give Bostwick’s crew a break. Toyota donated a 4Runner to the church, and Bostwick was beyond grateful. “The church isn’t much bigger than the 4Runner—the kitchen is about that size,” he jokes.

It was January before the utilities were turned back on in the town. Even then, so many buildings had been destroyed that there was little to turn on. When eateries started to reopen that month, the Bistro stopped serving lunch to help support local businesses. It was April before the Bostwicks could return to their home, and in May, the Bistro stopped serving breakfasts to help the shore community kickstart its summer season.

A year has now passed since Sandy devastated the Jersey shore, and the Bay Head Bistro will serve its last dinner on Friday, November 1, the same day the town will host a one-year celebration of its recovery. Other nearby churches are almost both back on their feet. Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church has completed its renovations, and All Saints Episcopal hopes to host its first service on Christmas Eve.

Food is no longer St. Paul’s primary concern. Counseling, group therapy, case management—these are the next challenges, Bostwick says. Many people are still displaced, working on elevating their homes, waiting for FEMA state numbers, or living with relatives. “Once the Bistro ceases operation, there will be a sense of loss. It’s what we have known every day for the past year,” Bostwick says. “It is why we are transitioning, not stopping.”

St. Paul’s is launching a new nonprofit called the Hope Center to address these new needs. It will focus on single parents, people who are working multiple part-time jobs, and people looking for work. National organizations are helpful, Bostwick says, but their approach is to paint with broad brushstrokes. “We catch the people who fall between the cracks,” he says. “We catch the single moms. We catch people who were living in apartments before the storm and now don’t know where they are going to live. We catch the undocumented folks…and the people who still have to use the church for a bathroom during the day because they don’t have one yet.”

The Hope Center is still in the early phases—Bostwick needs to hire a director, finalize partnerships with counseling organizations, and most importantly, raise $300,000, the amount he has budgeted to cover the first year of costs for facilities, staffing, and free counseling. He continues to partner with area community, education, and religious centers.

Bostwick is too humble to mention it, but his work has already received national attention. Governor Chris Christie honored Bostwick in May and presented him with a flag flown over the World Trade Center site, and the Red Cross will name Bostwick a “Faith Based Champion” at a breakfast reception this Wednesday. But Bostwick remains fixed on the people he serves. On Saturday, St. Paul’s helped organize a Festival of Hope for the town. “We are going to keep the ministry rolling until the last person is back in their home,” Bostwick says. “The needs have changed, from supplies to feeding to the longer term case management and counseling, but we are there until the everyone is back on their feet.”