A church in the heart of downtown Princeton transforms into a free restaurant, clothing store, supermarket and a toy store once a week.
The Princeton United Methodist Church at 7 Vandeventer Avenue is the weekly host for the Cornerstone Community Kitchen, a partnership that started five years ago with the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.
From 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, anyone can visit the basement fellowship hall at the church for a hot meal, free of charge. Originally meant to serve roughly 50 meals a week, Cornerstone now feeds closer to 100 people a week, in addition to providing other services.
“If someone’s hungry, that’s the person I want to see because I can do something about that,” said Larry Apperson, Cornerstone’s program coordinator. “All the people that volunteer here, they feel the same way.”
Apperson speaks with a measured southern drawl picked up from a childhood spent in Atlanta. He had a strict Methodist upbringing and runs Cornerstone based on those values.
“I believe in Jesus Christ and doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you. Feed your brother. Clothe them,” he said. “Take care of your brothers and sisters.”
Every Monday, Apperson drives to local food outlets – McCaffery’s, Wawa and Trader Joe’s among them – and loads up his trunk with roughly 40 pounds of food donated by the stores that hasn’t been sold. It’s all set out on cloth-covered tables before the guests arrive: fresh produce, bagel sandwiches, canned soup, and salads. Guests can take whatever they need to help get through the week.
“There are those among us who are more challenged to meet their needs,” said Judy Miller, a longtime volunteer and manager of Cornerstone’s clothing store. “This is the kind of program where there are no questions asked. You drop in, you have a lovely meal, someone will serve you at the table. It can help extend for people whatever their resources are.”
Miller, like Apperson, has been a member of the church for a long time – more than 30 years. She became active with Cornerstone two months after the program started, when the church put out a call for someone to decorate tables. While she still helps put butterfly decorations at each seating area, Miller’s main project these days is the so-called clothing store adjacent to the main dining area. Each week, a group of attendees is selected via lottery to come in and take whatever people need: kids’ clothes, casual wear, dresses, even suits. All the items are donated.
One of the volunteers who helps Miller is Jeanette Timmons, who came to Cornerstone soon after its expansion to Princeton along with her son, who was volunteering as part of the lead-up to his bar mitzvah. Five years later, Timmons is still there, along with a gaggle of other volunteers she recruited from the Jewish Community Center.
“Most of the volunteers are regulars, most of the guests that come for their meal are regulars and everybody has become one community,” Timmons said. “I’ve met a wide cross-section of people from Princeton whose paths I would not cross and whose paths would not cross with me.”
Even though Cornerstone is a Methodist church initiative, organizers estimate that roughly 70 percent of the volunteers come from outside the church. A large portion of the non-Methodist volunteers are Jewish, which volunteers said comes in handy on Christian holidays.
“We have had cases where Christmas Eve or Christmas Day was on a Wednesday and we want the congregants of the Methodist church to enjoy their holiday at home with their families,” Timmons said. “We’ve had 15 congregants from the Jewish center come and take over for the evening.”
The Trenton Area Soup Kitchen has 13 locations in five central New Jersey towns. Two of the satellite locations are in Princeton: the First Baptist Church on Tuesday nights and the Methodist Church on Wednesday nights. The program at the Baptist church is a takeout operation; only Cornerstone offers a full sit-down meal.
Timmons worries that the people who need Cornerstone in Princeton are being under-served in the community. “I’ve had several guests ask me personally what other nights of the week we are serving meals. There are some people who are looking for every night of the week.”
Although the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen’s other locations serve meals on different nights, many of Cornerstone’s guests either don’t have access to transportation or cannot drive because of a medical condition.
“Our guests seem to be aware of where other opportunities are, but they’re not always easy to get to,” Miller said.
Karey Maurice Counts is one of the regulars; he’s been coming to Cornerstone for three years. He is a local artist who lives with neuropathy, which causes numbness and pain in his feet and hands. Cornerstone makes him feels like he belongs somewhere.
“I love the community, I love being welcome in a church even where I’m not of the faith or the denomination. And the food, of course, is very important,” Counts said.
The food was the most important thing to Apperson, too, especially when it comes to serving young people.
“Really, it was the children that pulled at my heart more than anything else,” she said. “The idea of a hungry child going to bed at night in Princeton that can’t sleep or going to school and can’t concentrate…we couldn’t be everything to all of them but at least we could make an impact on the hunger situation.”
Kids have been the greatest joy to Apperson, especially a young girl that came in to the church the week before Christmas with a box of cupcakes to donate. There was a card attached to the box describing how she’d moved to Princeton two years earlier and didn’t realize how many people went hungry in town. The girl wrote that she and 21 of her friends raised money for Cornerstone over the prior weeks.
Inside the card was a check for $500.
“This was a young girl that was 12 years old,” Apperson said. “I remember asking ‘can I hug you?’ and she said yes and I did. It was a very emotional thing.”
For more information about the Cornerstone Community Kitchen, to donate clothes, or to volunteer, visit the group’s website.