When Reverend Horst Gerhardt “Gary” Kugler died last month at age 76, Hudson County lost both a loving neighbor and a fierce advocate for the homeless. Kugler had to put up quite a fight to establish a shelter for the homeless in the mid 1980s in the basement of St. John Lutheran Church in Union City, where he was ordained and installed as pastor.
That shelter eventually became Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation (PERC), which was spun off into an independent entity in the late 1990s and exists to this day as one of the premier organizations serving the needy in the region.
“He was a very genial guy,” said Bob Leber. “A man of his convictions. He started the homeless shelter in response to the homelessness caused by the Marielitos, the Mariel boat people from Cuba. Castro let go of the mentally ill from Cuba and sent them to this country and a lot of them ended up in the streets of Union City because of the large Cuban population.”
At the same time, mental hospitals in this country were emptying out and Vietnam veterans were suffering aftereffects from the war.
“He was a strong minded man who thinks his own way. He would take up the cause. He wasn’t afraid.” –Bob Leber
The church – which had members from Secaucus, Union City, and surrounding towns – also offered a soup kitchen, further taxing their resources. “It was a very active homeless shelter, sheltering probably 30 to 40 men a night in a small space, so it was very destructive to the church,” recalled Leber, who served as the first president of the shelter, from 1986 to 1996. “They put a shower in the bathroom and you can imagine the wear and tear on the place. The church took a big hit. It was a very selfless thing to do for the church community. It was really giving up your place to the poor.”
But Kugler never backed down. “He was a strong minded man who thinks his own way,” said Leber. “He would take up the cause. He wasn’t afraid. It didn’t have to be something that was comfortable.”
A man of the people
Born May 21, 1938, in Somerville, N.J., the son of Reverend Heinz W. Kugler and Dore M. Dittmann Kugler, Gary Kugler served as pastor at St. John Lutheran Church in Union City from 1966 to his death in 2015, a span of 49 years. “The first time I ever met Gary was in 1967 when he came over to a third cousin of mine’s house,” said Gilbert Corby, a longtime acquaintance of Kugler. “She was severely disabled and used to use a walker and he came over for a house visit. The unusual thing was that it was a Catholic family. They weren’t even Lutheran but he came over to visit and give her comfort. I thought that was damn nice of him. He was very generous. He had a very big heart.”
“People of all different faiths went to him to talk to him because he was so nice,” said Secaucus resident Roxanne Cintron-Patterson, who worked with Kugler for many years in the homeless shelter. “He was always smiling.”
“Our church opened a coffee house ministry. It was called His Place,” said Larry Giancola. “It was an outreach of the West New York Assembly Church under the director of Pastor Nunzio Leggio. We had members from Pastor Kugler’s church. He was at our coffee house.”
His Place started in 1971, at the height of the “Jesus Movement” begun in Haight-Ashbury in 1968, according to Giancola. “We had Christian rock bands and we held music festivals,” he said.
“Pastor Kugler would come to the coffee house on occasion,” said Rhonda Reid, who spent time there as a teenager. “He would speak sometimes. He loved being with the young people.”
When the West New York Assembly Church wanted to organize a ladies ministry, they went to Kugler and he offered up his church to host their events. Years later, Reid would bring leftover food from her job in New York to the church and donate it to the shelter.
But Kugler could be tough when it counted. “He was politically active,” said Leber. “I can picture him going door to door canvassing for votes for Project 70, a political organization that campaigned and won against the Democratic machine in Union City.
I think his whole life he was kind of a crusader.”
Everyone’s big brother
“The basement was severely inadequate for the shelter,” said Leber. In order to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation and secure funding, the shelter incorporated and became PERC.
“It remained in the basement even after it became PERC,” said Leber. “And then as time went on the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs made funding available that made it possible to relocate the shelter.”
Once the shelter relocated to its current home, Kugler became less involved, but he never lost his zeal. He was active in the early 1990s in Housing Now, an organization pushing the federal government for more affordable housing.
“I don’t know where he got his energy from,” said Cintron-Patterson. Even in his later years, after Kugler got sick, he kept active, serving as pastor and meeting the public.
“My sister had cancer last year and he came to the hospital a few times a week even though he was getting chemo,” said Cintron-Patterson. “He stayed 24 hours on her last day. And two weeks before he died he went to Trenton because somebody was dying. He stayed with them.”
Kugler was an active member of the Hispanic Pastors Association of Hudson County, the Family Policy Council of New Jersey, and the Hudson Cluster of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“His sisters said even though he was the youngest he was like a big brother,” said Cintron-Patterson.
Reverend Gary Kugler died on May 15 at Hackensack Medical Center.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.