Rev. Charles Perez, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Dover, stands for the marginalized. For the past three and a half years, the Newark native has been instrumental in bringing more awareness to homelessness by helping families in his community of Dover, a town whose Hispanic population has risen to about 70 percent in recent years. In turn, he has inspired others to do the same.
“On January 6, 2016, I found myself under a bridge with homeless people living in inhumane conditions. I remember praying for a miracle because it hurt for me to see so many individuals living under those circumstances in the town that I was appointed to be the pastor,” Perez, a first-generation American said.
“When I look at homeless people, I see my dad’s face,” said Perez, who recalled the stories of how his father, Benildo Perez faced homelessness after emigrating from Cuba when he was 22. “After having to eat from garbage cans and overcome alcohol issues, he transformed from atheist to Christian. It’s amazing how God works.”
Perez worked with other community members like Rev. Rod Perez-Vega from the nearby St. John’s Episcopal Church and other United Methodist churches like the Wharton United Community Church, Rockaway UMC, Teabo UMC, Grace UMC, Lower Berkshire Valley UMC, Hurdtown UMC and UMC of Lake Hopatcong, who he likes to call “small but mighty.”
“It takes 12 to change the world,” Perez said as he inferred that the size of the congregation at Lake Hopatcong was no coincidence. “I want to give a special thanks and honor to UMC of Lake Hopatcong for their unshakeable continuous participation.”
On September 1, a service was held at Lake Hopatcong UMC to celebrate the homeless ministry’s fourth year. A special offering was taken to help the homeless people, many of whom are immigrants.
As word spread of the program’s effectiveness, community members of Dover started to take notice and get involved. A business owner donated food from her restaurant; people from the Wind of the Spirit immigrant resource center in Morristown volunteered their time and resources; the Holy Hoops basketball ministry adopted the homeless ministry and Mayor James Dodd, Police Chief Anthony Smith, area clergy and many other people stepped in to see how they could help.
A fire in October 2018 displaced about 100 people in town. With the support of the former Skylands District Superintendent Steve Bechtold, the UMC churches responded by raising six thousand dollars to help the families impacted. This allowed the homeless ministry to place five families out of homelessness and into a future with hope for better days.
“Ten years ago, the conversation on homeless people and people on poverty was treated as taboo,” said Perez. Today, this homeless ministry has changed the conversation in how we can help as a community and as a connectional UMC.”
The group, which continues to grow, supports its local community by providing food, clothing, Communion services and whatever else they need to help them thrive.
“Most of all we offer them friendship and a place where people listen,” said Perez.
The group has also partnered with Morris County and St. John’s Episcopal Church to make sure that during the harsh cold weather on what are known as “Code Blue Nights,” the homeless people have a place to stay.
“It truly takes the whole community to allow social holiness to occur in the lives of all people and especially those on the margins,” said Perez.
Perez said he is planning to celebrate his birthday a little differently this year by hosting a community barbecue three days later on November 9 with the intention of not only celebrating the lives of all community members but also bringing more awareness to the issue of homelessness.
When asked if there was one person who stood out over the past three years, Perez without hesitation said, Eric Hidalgo. “If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be here today. He was a homeless person living in Newark who helped other homeless people. He’s the catalyst for what we have done.”
For more information or to get involved, contact Rev. Perez at firstname.lastname@example.org.