Today in the Mission Yearbook

At many churches, homeless ministries continue during pandemic

 

Some PC(USA) congregations have expanded services as needs have grown due to COVID-19

November 2, 2020

On one of the first days concerns about the coronavirus were setting in, ministers at Mercy Community Church in Atlanta moved people into the parking lot and held a question-and-answer session to address people’s concerns. (Courtesy Mercy Community Church)

It was early March, and the daily routine at Atlanta’s Mercy Community Church had been thrown for a loop.

Every Monday through Thursday, the church is a gathering place for around 50 people who are experiencing homelessness or are marginally housed to do everything from talking and sharing a couple of meals to working on getting help with legal and medical issues, as well as other needs. But suddenly, with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, gathering wasn’t a great idea.

“Everybody spread out! We’re meeting in the parking lot today,” the Rev. Brittany Fiscus-van Rossum, one of two Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastors for the ecumenical congregation, recalls saying.

That was the first day of what has become an exhausting emotional rollercoaster of a few months continuing to minister to a population that can access few of the precautions people are told to take to protect themselves from the coronavirus, including staying at home and meticulous personal hygiene.

Mercy is one of many congregations across the United States that was forced to adapt its ministry to people who are experiencing homelessness or marginal housing when the COVID-19 pandemic started. For some, this meant expanding services the church was already offering, including shelter.

Northminster Presbyterian Church in Seattle had just transitioned from being part of a rotating group of churches offering overnight shelter to a group of men who are homeless to offering shelter seven nights a week at the beginning of this year. When the pandemic hit, the group Northminster works with, SHARE (Seattle Housing and Resource Effort), asked if the church could become a 24-hour shelter to help keep about 15 clients safe until a stay-at-home order is lifted.

“It’s probably one of the best things we could have done,” said the Rev. Dani Forbess, pastor of Northminster. “It puts the facility to the best possible use it could have at this time. We have been able to be part of the solution in a significant way.”

The Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), one of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA)’s fellow Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries, has also administered grants to congregations working to meet the needs of people experiencing hunger and homelessness during the pandemic. One of the issues Andrew Kang Bartlett, PHP Associate for National Hunger Concerns, sees illuminated by COVID-19 is affordable housing.

“As more people are hurt by the economic downturn, access to affordable housing will be critical to keeping the number of unhoused people low,” he said. “So, we are grateful for the PC(USA) congregations that participate in Congregation-Based Community Organizing coalitions, which are advocating for affordable housing around the country.”

In Cleveland, the Rev. Charles Hurst was already familiar with affordable housing needs and actions leading North Presbyterian Church, which he describes as a “zero-income church,” primarily serving those who are homeless or marginally housed. A few years ago, the church left its historic home in an older, expensive-to-maintain facility to share space with Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry in a renovated factory building.

Some people, he said, have found places to stay at hotels that have opened to people who are homeless. The church has worked to continue to pay the modest staff it has, and it has been awarded a PDA COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Grant that will support this crucial ministry.

Mercy has an online service for the few members who are housed and have internet access. But Fiscus-van Rossum knows that serves only a small portion of their congregation, which has grown since the start of the pandemic.

She is thankful that she and the staff can continue to meet with people in their congregation, with proper protections. As a group they have endured a lot the past couple months, including the deaths of two members — one to COVID-19 – and the restrictions on contact can be particularly hard for people at Mercy.

“In our community, shaking hands, looking each other in the eye and embracing are so much part of our bond,” Fiscus-van Rossum said.

“Every human being has dignity. I can’t wait for the day when we can pass the peace, and hug, and look at one another’s unmasked faces.”

 Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  Homeless Ministries During Pandemic

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Robyn Davis Sekula, Presbyterian Foundation
Mary Serovy, Presbyterian Foundation

Let us pray:

Creator God, from the earth you brought forth food to nourish and sustain us. Teach us to be good stewards of what you provide and help us to be a blessing through our stewardship of your good gifts. Amen.