Local Methodists to go a little NUTS

The First United Methodist Church of Hightstown is kicking off its NUTS fund-raiser this week to gather money to repair their house of worship.

By: Scott Morgan
   HIGHTSTOWN — Are you nuts?
   Well, the congregation of the First United Methodist Church of Hightstown is, and are they ever proud of it.
   Unfortunately, the congregation is a bunch of nuts with no real shell. In 1999, the structure of First United Methodist, dangerously flagging and no longer suitable for occupancy, was condemned. Today, according to the church’s pastor, the Rev. Neill Tolboom, 50 percent of the giant stone building on Stockton Street remains condemned.
   For the moment, the Rev. Tolboom said, those who come to worship must do so in the sanctuary, close to the steel props that tenuously keep the structure intact. But these nuts don’t crack easily and they are fighting back the best way they know how — with money.
   This Saturday marks the official kickoff of the church’s NUTS (Need U To Step-up) campaign, a fund-raising drive designed to whip the 100-year-old building back into shape. Beginning at the First Presbyterian Church of Hightstown at 6 p.m. Saturday, the congregation of First United Methodist will host a covered-dish dinner (the kind in which everyone brings something to eat), followed by a presentation of the church’s landmark significance.
   Built at the dawn of the 20th century, First United Methodist was constructed without steel, the Rev. Tolboom said. Without steel supports, time and weather have played their parts in weakening the structure, he said. Three years ago, when the building was condemned, the Rev. Tolboom said the congregation was forced to worship in the sanctuary portion of the church, which is not condemned. Also, he said, the fold occasionally uses the Presbyterian Church’s space, for which he thanks them.
   As the building sat, the Rev. Tolboom said, a few people began to wonder what could be done to fix it. But the idea of trying to raise capital in the middle of such an uncertain economic climate was a little … well, you know. Surely anyone even entertaining the idea would be nuts.
   That was the point and from that humble observation by some members of the church, a theme was coined that has grown as ambitiously as any legume could ever hope.
   The Rev. Tolboom said church officials took instantly to the nut theme, filling up the sanctuary with jars of peanuts, wearing nutshells as pins and even constructing a 6-foot cardboard peanut by which the minister preaches every Sunday. Incidentally, attendees can have a photo taken with the gargantuan nut Saturday night at the dinner. A hole will be cut out for the camera ham to poke a head through and show just how much of a nut he or she really is.
   The idea for the drive, the Rev. Tolboom said, began when the stockpile of nuts started growing somewhere around February. He released the news to the congregation at Easter, he said, and since then has seen momentum for the project growing.
   But it still is a long way to the payoff. The Rev. Tolboom said he anticipates full renovation could cost upward of $250,000. Right now they have about $70,000. For the moment, though, the Rev. Tolboom said he is not terribly worried. After all, that’s $70,000 without the drive actually getting officially under way.
   The Rev, Tolboom said he hopes to see as many people as possible Saturday night. He added the guest speaker will be the Rev. Bill McElwee, former pastor of the Haddonfield United Methodist Church. Why choose him? Simple. He likes to pepper his sermons with clippings from his favorite comic strip: "Peanuts."