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‘We the poor — all we have is God to protect us and we put ourselves in God’s hands’

Focus during Thursday’s 1001 webinar is on house churches 

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Elmer Zavala, pastor of the Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston, baptizes a child of a family that attends a house church. (Photo by Ellen Sherby)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Elmer Zavala of the Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston south of Louisville knows about unusual and difficult challenges immigrants face with COVID-19.

Many in the house church of more than 40 families work in restaurant kitchens, hotels, or construction firms that have been slowed to a standstill by coronavirus.

Nearly 50 percent of those in the community have lost their jobs, Zavala said — and those who are still working are earning less because they’re working fewer hours. Making matters worse, under current law, even those who have a tax ID and pay taxes are not eligible for unemployment benefits or government stimulus checks.

Zavala said that what is happening to the community he pastors, in the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky, is happening in immigrant communities across the country.  Recently in raising awareness for its new church development emergency fund, the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta said that 35 percent of its new worshiping communities were struggling with poverty before the coronavirus hit and are currently at risk.

The media specialist for the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, Miranda Emery Segrest, wrote in an email that families in these Atlanta-area worshiping communities “are being hit hard, because they fall outside of the government safety net and stimulus packages as they face such things as job loss, eviction and food insecurity.”

In a happier time before COVID-19, elementary-aged children of families in the Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston participated in house church. (Photo by Ellen Sherby)

According to Zavala, some families in the Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston who have access to benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as food stamps — are hesitant to use them because they are in the process of trying to gain residency.

“They’re afraid if they’ve been getting public (assistance), it might harm their ability to get a permanent resident card,” he said.

That fear is real. Zavala has heard stories that legal immigrants with Social Security numbers are afraid to apply for benefits because doing so might harm the immigration status of a  family member.

 In reality, Zavala said, what is coming the rest of 2020 is going to get even more difficult for many in his community.  In Kentucky and in other states, landlords can’t force renters to pay rent. Courts are not accepting new eviction filings, at least for the time being. But eventually those worshiping in the Preston Highway community and in other communities across the country will have to pay what they owe to their landlord.

“Even if their working hours get back to normal, they won’t be able to pay their accumulated debt,” Zavala said. “The bills are coming, and the situation doesn’t allow them to stay home, even if they want to.”

Before the pandemic, house worship was carried out in person by families in the Presbyterian Hispanic Latino Ministry of Preston south of Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Ellen Sherby)

In March Zavala and wife Ellen Sherby wrote a letter to the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky. They told the story of Eugenia (not her real name) to paint a picture of what life is like for some immigrants in their community:

Eugenia is a single mother from Mexico with three elementary school-aged girls. She came to the U.S. in 2006 to escape abuse (from) her adoptive father — and is a survivor of more recent domestic violence in the U.S. For years she has been in the process to obtain a “U” category visa for victims of violence. She has a tax ID number and pays her taxes on her income every year.  Her last day at work at a Louisville hotel was during the week of March 23.  She hopes to get her job back eventually, but with schools and day care centers closed she has to be with her girls. If she ignored safety distancing protocols and got a babysitter, what she might earn in day would go almost entirely to pay the person caring for her children. She has food stamps to purchase groceries, but soon it will be impossible for her to pay rent and utilities. She was hoping to file taxes this month and looking forward to getting something back from the government during this time. It appears that as the parent of children born in the U.S., she will not receive a stimulus check for her dependents.

Calling the situation for those in the community who are not able to work “a tragedy,” Zavala overheard two members talking recently that went like this: “Thank God I’m working. Are you working?” “No, I’m not working. I don’t have a job right now.”

And another man in the community told him, “We the poor don’t have the luxury of staying home. We the poor — all we have is God to protect us and we put ourselves in God’s hands. We have no other choice.”

“It made me realize how Ellen and I are so privileged,” Zavala said.  “We’re having a completely different conversation.  We’re talking about how we’re not working in the same way as we were before.”

 On behalf of the Hispanic Latino ministry in Preston, Mid-Kentucky Presbytery applied for and received a $7,500 Covid-19 PDA Grant. The Rev. John Odom, presbyter for Community Life, said the presbytery has already begun dispersing the money to the south Louisville ministry.

Zavala will be one of the guests on a 1001 New Worshiping Communities webinar on house churches at noon Eastern time on Thursday. View the webinar via Facebook Live here. During the pandemic, 15 families in the ministry have on a rotating basis been hosting worship services via Zoom from their homes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.


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