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Church ministries care for vulnerable people during coronavirus pandemic

4.27. 2020 Written By: Tim Huber, Mennonite World Review 174 Times read

Photo: Women from New Life Christian Center serve Stone Soup Ministry to-go plates in March for community members needing meals. Photo by Maria Hinojosa

It was already hard for un­documented families in South Texas to find work, get groceries or visit the doctor. Staying at home was already a lofty goal for people experiencing homelessness in Seattle.

COVID-19 concerns and mandates made both even more difficult. As the coronavirus pandemic disrupts every aspect of daily life, congregations are finding ways to continue ministering to some of society’s most vulnerable people.

New Life Christian Center in San Benito, Texas, has operated a “sharing room” out of its building for more than a decade. Pastor Eduardo “Lalo” Hinojosa said COVID-19 has only increased the necessity for his church members to share what they have with refugees — people living in the United States without official U.S. documentation.

“We have kids and families who cross the river,” Hinojosa said. “They are sick, all kinds of diseases, and we try to help them out. They’ve been raped. There’s just a lot of things that we see. We help, we try to counsel them and work with them. It’s a challenge.”

The congregation — a member of Mennonite Church USA’s South Central Conference — opens its doors to share clothing and meals and offers a room for adults to pray and a game room for children. Sometimes people without a roof over their heads sleep in the building.

“We just figure it out. We get $5 here and there,” he said. The ministry’s budget runs about $1,000 to $1,500 a month. “The budget is just so low, we’re trying to figure it out and pray to God.”

Lack of money and insurance limits visits to doctors’ offices, but Hinojosa does have a doctor he can call for help. But testing for COVID-19, or pursuing a small job for pay like housecleaning, is a scary thing for marginalized people looking to avoid the attention of authorities.

Hinojosa is doing what he can to line up yard service and lawn work as an outdoor option for work and trying to keep the church open for an growing number of people needing assistance.

He staggers times for people to visit the church to keep the numbers low and undertakes the equally difficult job of telling some church members not to come volunteer because of their own COVID-19 vulnerability.

“They want to help, and I said, ‘I know you want to help, but I think if you are 50 or 60 years old you can’t come, you stay home and pray for us,’ ” he said. “I’m 77. I’m doing the work. I’m praying, ‘God help me, give me strength.’

“It’s a challenge for me. My family, they call me and say, ‘Take care of yourself.’ . . . It’s hard just to leave people out, to close the doors and say ‘stay out.’ ”

An essential service

Likewise, the only people Seattle Mennonite Church is turning away from God’s Little Acre — its community drop-in center — are the older staff and volunteers who would usually serve people experiencing homelessness.

Staff members Barbara Moe and Grace Helmcke sign up people for showers at God’s Little Acre, Seattle Mennonite Church’s drop-in center. Photo by Jonathan Neufeld/Seattle Mennonite Church

The facility has laundry facilities, a community kitchen, showers and hygiene materials, internet and phone service, a food pantry, nursing care, 24-hour secure storage, clothing and resource referral services.

“We’re an essential service,” said Melanie Neufeld, one of the church’s community ministers, who works with the center, which has a staff of nearly 20 workers. “Our coffee shop, our library, our places where people would normally go to sustain themselves, to toilet themselves, those are all closed. In order for people to have some level of stability, we need to stay open. This is basically their home.”

SMC first hired community ministers in 2007 to offer spiritual care and engage people experiencing homelessness in the community. Although the center would typically see about 60 people come through on a typical day, staff are trying to coordinate smaller groups of visitors to maintain physical distancing.

“Still in these times people are allowed to cook for themselves in the open community kitchen,” Neufeld said. “So we have volunteers sanitizing, and we’re receiving a lot of donations for people doing meals. . . .

“We’re seeing new people coming through our community we’ve never met before because there are fewer places open.”

Neufeld noted that maintaining the center when so many facilities are closed is work the church is called to do because the people it serves are the only ones who can’t “shelter in place” when government officials tell people to stay home.

“We see this as an opportunity to do justice and seek peace with our neighbors, to walk alongside people who are oppressed,” she said. “It is an opportunity for radical hospitality, that Jesus would have sat with the marginalized people, the outcasts in our communities and the most vulnerable, and would have been part of healing.”

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