By Melodie Woerman
St. Peter’s, Gallipolis and Grace, Pomeroy are small, 180-year-old congregations in small towns along the Ohio River in Appalachia. They share a resident priest, the Rev. Joshua Nelson, and a commitment to serving their communities, both of which are struggling with higher-than-average poverty rates.
Around Gallipolis, St. Peter’s is known as “the Loaves and Fishes church” for hosting the 30-year-old ministry that provides a hot noon meal one Sunday a month, said Nelson, who grew up in nearby Circleville, and began his ministry with the two churches in February 2021.
During the pandemic the ministry had to switch from a plated meal to carryout boxes, which kept people fed but resulted in what Nelson called a loss of “the community that was so important to its ministerial identity.” But last Sunday marked a return to in-person service, and, according to Nelson, the congregation served 30 pot roast dinners either at the church or to-go, and provided another 60 meals for residents of the housing unit next door.
St. Peter’s and the churches with which it collaborates in Loaves and Fishes also make items such as used clothing and shoes, toiletries, diapers and feminine hygiene products available to its guests on the Sundays it serves meals. The program “is not a feeding ministry per se, but another way to build a different kind of community,” Nelson said. The same is true, he added, of the Narcotics Anonymous chapter that meets in the church’s undercroft.
St. Peter’s location in downtown Gallipolis makes its front yard an ideal spot for the town’s Tiny Pantry box. People from all over the community donate canned goods that are available to anyone in need. Nelson said the church tries to pay special attention to the unhoused people in Gallipolis, making sure easy-to-eat items like fruit cups and canned Vienna sausages are available.
“At least every day somebody comes by and gets something from there,” he said. “It’s another kind of extended community.”
In Pomeroy, Grace is known for its annual children’s shoe giveaway. Every August since 2009, the church has purchased more than 100 vouchers from a local shoe store and given them to children who needed new shoes. The ministry is now known as the Steve Story Shoe Giveaway, named for a prominent local attorney and parishioner who died in August 2018, and whose widow asked that he be memorialized through donations to the shoe drive.
Church members also provide financial support for the Mulberry Community Center, a cooperative venture among 26 local churches that offers feeding, recovery and exercise programs, as well as a secondhand shop. Nelson said the center recently raised money to buy a generator, enabling it to serve as an emergency center during natural disasters, such as flooding. He recently became a new board member and hopes to find ways his parishioners can connect even more to the center’s needs.
Nelson, whose ministry in Gallipolis and Pomeroy is made possible in part by the diocesan residency program that will pay half his salary for two years, said Grace Church and the town of Pomeroy have deep ties to the Ohio River—Parishioners can see coal barges on the river from their building—and he would like to revive a former parish connection to the Seamen’s Church, an organization that supports merchant mariners.
In addition, Nelson reaches out beyond the church walls through social media, providing a weekly lectionary-based YouTube program for children called Story Time with Fr. Joshua and a podcast about the Book of Common Prayer and its effect on daily lives, The BCP and Me, which is sponsored by Forward Movement.
Nelson said that in communities like those he serves, “these days, every church is little,” but the ministries provided by St. Peter’s and Grace show that the efforts of small congregations can have a big impact on people in need.
–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.
The Loaves and Fishes outreach ministry is a long-time grant recipient from Episcopal Community Ministries (ECM). Learn more about ECM.