Mission Mosaic: COVID-19 response

Partners respond to COVID-19 grants with compassion, creativity

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

The COVID-19 pandemic faced PDA with a disaster unlike any it had faced before. (Contributed photo)

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — An unprecedented calamity called for an unprecedented response.

“Every place in the world is impacted,” the Rev. Jim Kirk, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s Associate for National Disaster Response, said as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded last spring. “I can’t think of a time when an event had impacts across the globe to this degree — every community, every congregation, every partner has been impacted on many levels by the pandemic.”

Whether it was the impact of the disease, or the economic impact of efforts to combat its spread, such as lockdowns and shuttered businesses, or the toll stress and isolation took on mental health, the COVID-19 pandemic faced PDA with a disaster unlike any it had faced before. Even in the most massive disasters, support usually comes from unimpacted areas. But with COVID-19, there were no unimpacted areas and the need was greater than ever.

So, PDA staff went to work in the early days of the pandemic, setting up a grant program to help congregations and communities, with a focus on marginalized communities that staff knew, from experience, would be hit hardest.

With COVID-19, there were few unimpacted communities. Needs abounded across the country and around the world. (Contributed photo)

From the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020, the disaster response program gave 476 grants totaling $3,469,619.28 to 56 countries and 125 Presbyterian mid councils supported in the U.S.

The ministry was able to make such a large contribution thanks to its general fund, which Presbyterians have given to over the years, allowing PDA to use the money where it saw the greatest need.

“There are a lot of Presbyterians and other people in our communities that have been incredibly generous through the years,” PDA Director the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus said. “A lot of people give not just in response to a particular disaster, but they give to our general disaster response fund knowing PDA responds to many disasters, not just those everyone hears about, and they trust our discretion.

From the start of the pandemic through the end of 2020, the disaster response program gave 476 grants totaling $3,469,619.28 to 56 countries and 125 Presbyterian mid councils supported in the U.S. (Contributed photo)

“This is the kind of rainy day that requires us to pull from our reserves. Without the Church’s historic generosity and One Great Hour of Sharing, we would not be able to pull $2.7 million from reserves to respond to COVID-19.”

PDA also facilitated an additional $300,000 for Matthew 25 Continuity of Ministry Grants of up to $7,500 to congregations whose survival may be in question due to the impact of COVID-19. The funds were set aside by Presbyterian Mission Agency Executive Director and President the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett.

Moffett said, “2020 and all that came with it redefined what community means and the Matthew 25 grants were made available to help churches who, during these unprecedented challenges, continued to keep their focus on serving others.

“Jesus calls us to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned and poor. We wanted to come alongside those churches as they were doing God’s work.”

Kraus said, “Being able to offer grants both for outreach and for internal congregational support is a demonstrable way of balancing self-care with service in our congregations and presbyteries, as together we face the impact of the pandemic. PDA is grateful to be part of a church that seeks to stand with those most vulnerable and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.”

Loving our neighbors means more, of course, than giving them money. PDA came alongside communities in other ways, quickly offering churches tips on how to safely operate in the midst of a pandemic. PDA did have experience and expert guidance to rely on from responses to Ebola and H1N1. And PDA’s Emotional and Spiritual Care team quickly adapted and offered webinars to promote resilience among faith and community leaders dealing with the spiritual and emotional toll brought about by the pandemic.

PDA staff marvel at the creative ways many grantees used the resources they were given.

Susan Krehbiel, Associate for Refugees and Asylum, cites Ridgetop Coffee and Tea in the Washington, D.C., area, a ministry of Riverside Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Virginia, which was being used as a training ground for young adults to enter the food service industry. But when the pandemic closed in-person dining, those people were out of work.

“It was really a community-based project and they had to shut it down,” Krehbiel said, noting its relationships with area farmers and other producers for its café. “The idea they had was because they had tried to keep paying these young adults who were learning the food service industry with this café, there’s also a huge group of day laborers — many of them undocumented, a lot of them very nervous or for other reasons not able to access public services — and they weren’t working at that time either.

“So they said, ‘What if we took a grant from you all, and then we’re able to repurpose the café, bring everybody back in to do the work socially distanced to keep buying the food from these small farmers who also aren’t having any outlets for selling their goods? And we can do box meals for like 150 day laborers plus their families.’ It’s a really cool melding of congregation, community and vulnerable populations. And it was a pivot of an outreach that they had already had.”

Kirk said PDA worked with many programs across the country focused on serving marginalized communities, such as the Plowden Mill Road After School Enrichment Program based out of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alcolu, South Carolina. This program was borne out of the academic needs they witnessed following the March 2020 school closures and supports predominantly African American schoolchildren in grades pre-K through 11.

Kraus says the grant criteria were established in consultation with ministry partners, including fellow One Great Hour of Sharing ministries the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Committee on the Self-Development of People, as well as Presbyterian World Mission, the Office of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries and the Office of Racial and Intercultural Justice.

The Native American community was hit hard by the pandemic. (Photo by Ken Page)

The Native American community was hit particularly hard by COVID-19, with many communities suffering higher infection and death rates than the broad U.S. population. Several Presbyterian mid councils received grants to support the Native American communities in their areas, including Dakota Presbytery, Navajo Nation and the Wind River Reservation.

In communities where many are employed in fields, some workers were required to continue working in person during the pandemic, despite having little to no access to protective equipment. Kirk recalls grants and work PDA did with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida to secure personal protective equipment and other help.

“What really caught my attention is how the farmworker population was deemed essential, yet disposable,” Kirk said. “Peace River Presbytery, through partnering with CIW, helped to address that narrative.”

Krehbiel added, “A big focus of CIW is advocacy and to get the governor to recognize the farmworkers as essential workers and needing PPE and everything. They were eventually successful.”

Kraus noted that PDA’s relationship with the Immokalee workers started in the group’s work with the Presbyterian Hunger Program and Self-Development of People, again highlighting the collaboration inherent in One Great Hour of Sharing.

The international response to COVID-19 highlighted the ways in which the impact of a global pandemic falls particularly hard on communities already struggling with poverty, repressive governments, natural disasters and other challenges.

COVID-19 added an additional layer of uncertainty to an already complex situation. (Contributed photo)

“We’ve heard from partners in countries who were already dealing with a crisis before the pandemic. They are working with communities that may not have access to food and clean water and COVID-19 added an additional layer of uncertainty to an already complex situation. Travel restrictions have limited people’s ability to move around freely and those same communities are now being asked to wear masks and wash their hands multiple times a day,” Kraus said.

“Every time I talk about COVID, the image that is burned in my memory is a picture of the church in Honduras delivering food on a donkey,” said the Rev. Edwin González-Castillo, Associate for Disaster Response–Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We think of COVID and say, ‘We are all facing COVID, and we are all facing the same situation.’ Oh, no. Some people can stay in their house and order from Uber Eats. And some people have to get on a donkey and try to bring food to communities in need.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, water and sanitation issues were front and center, and grants supported projects such as a group of women in Haiti making soap for their community, as well as the purchase of filtration and hygiene supplies, in addition to masks and other protective gear. González-Castillo says that in Haiti, some funds were used simply for a truck to go around broadcasting information about the pandemic.

Central America was also a prime example of the fact that other disasters did not cease because of the pandemic. In November, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua were struck by back-to-back hurricanes, piling devastating flooding and the loss of housing and food on top of the virus. González-Castillo said people were reluctant to seek shelter for fear of contracting COVID-19.

Kraus said, “Disaster responders always say, when you’ve responded to one disaster, you’ve responded to one disaster.”

There were new lessons learned in 2020, as PDA responded to COVID-19. For instance, as the grant program was announced, PDA was differentiating between emergency and long-term recovery grants.

“One of the challenges in making that distinction is that for many in marginalized communities, even months after COVID started, they were still in crisis, still an emergency,” Krehbiel said. “They weren’t really in a recovery mode. People were still unemployed, people were still getting sick. So, a lot of the second round of grants we made were short term. Many of them were still providing for very basic needs.”

But the resources were and continue to be needed.

Many organizations had challenges allocating resources and partners available to assist and were grateful when PDA offered to help with some of their projects. (Contributed photo)

“One of the things that was really interesting in this case is that due to the overwhelming need all over the world, many organizations had challenges allocating resources and partners available to assist, so they were grateful when PDA reached out and offered the possibility to help with some of their projects,” González-Castillo said. “Allocating that amount of funding has been a blessing and, in some cases, the only option for many organizations to be able to assist their communities.”

Kraus said, “So many communities stepped up and stepped in, even though they themselves were suffering. Leaders and communities throughout the world and in the U.S. looked beyond themselves and found ways to have an impact in partnership with folks who were even more vulnerable. Globally, communities that we’ve had relationships with have really led the way in letting us know how they needed to help themselves.

“It’s a privilege that we’re able to be a part of that.”

This story originally appeared in Mission Mosaic, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s 2020 annual report. Click here to see the entire report.

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance respond quickly to catastrophic events. 


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