As COVID-19 spread throughout the United States this spring, unemployment soared and demands on food pantries, shelters and social services rose. In response, the ELCA launched a special fundraising appeal, donations to which have supported the ministries most in need and best positioned to help.

Among the recipients of the COVID-19 Response Fund was the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, which was awarded $7,500. With additional support from its own disaster fund, the synod had $12,500 to allocate. Bethlehem Lutheran, a redevelopment congregation in New Orleans, received $2,000 to support its Community Table ToGo free meal program.

One of the city’s oldest historically African American congregations, Bethlehem in early March began offering the neighborhood a free hot lunch on Sundays. After the pandemic struck, the program expanded to provide hot meals to go three times a week. At press time, it was feeding 400 to 450 people each week.

“One thing Jesus is really consistent about is that he’s always on the side of feeding people, throughout his ministry,” said Ben Groth, pastor of Bethlehem. The congregation has used this idea to guide its expanded meal program.

The COVID-19 Response Fund has “made a huge difference,” Groth said. “We were moving from a once-a-week meal, which is nice but is not changing anyone’s life. Doing it three times a week has allowed us to become something that people really count on as a regular part of their food-security plan.”

“One thing Jesus is really consistent about is that he’s always on the side of feeding people, throughout his ministry.”

Bethlehem launched its Community Table program as many other local efforts were suspending services or shutting down. More people began showing up for the program—and more neighbors turned out to help. One of those volunteers was De Borah Wells, a cooking instructor who, because of the pandemic, had been laid off as a chef at Commander’s Palace, a historic restaurant nearby.

Wells had learned about Bethlehem’s program from Facebook. “I asked if she’d like to come and volunteer,” Groth said. “It wasn’t until after that initial interaction that I realized she was a chef and that this was the best thing that could’ve happened to us. She’s the real key.”

With Wells’ expertise, those serving the program better understood how to plan meals for hundreds of people. “I live in the Central City community, and when I saw [Groth’s] announcement about meals to go, I wanted to help feed my neighbors,” she said. “It has been an incredible experience. A truly meaningful aspect is the spirit of willingness on the part of the [Bethlehem] volunteers.”

Even during quarantine, when Groth has hosted Tuesday-evening prayers via Zoom and posted Sunday-morning sermons on Facebook, Bethlehem has seen increased interest in the life of the congregation. “People just keep showing up,” he said.

“I’ve been sending out invitations to a new-member class during quarantine, when we’re not leaving the house—seven or eight have already signed up,” he added. “I can’t imagine there are many churches right now that are holding a new-member class. People have been really attracted to what’s happening.”

“Miracles abound”

In April, the Grand Canyon Synod was awarded $10,000 from the COVID-19 Response Fund to assist Native American and Latino ministries with food, water and hygiene items. Deborah Hutterer, synod bishop, issued a challenge to match the amount. Within a week, the synod had raised $13,700.

“Miracles abound. In a crisis this church responded generously and quickly,” she said. “Just as God pours out love with great abandon for us, we get to use the resources given to let that love flow in tangible ways, like providing basic needs to our neighbors in need.”

Eight synod ministries received grants from the total fund amount, including Navajo Evangelical Lutheran Mission and House of Prayer, Rock Point, Ariz. Founded in 1954, the mission campus includes a clinic, an elementary school and housing.

“Just as God pours out love with great abandon for us, we get to use the resources given to let that love flow in tangible ways.”

The on-site Hózhó Café serves nutritional meals every weekday throughout the year. “COVID response funds have allowed House of Prayer’s longtime commitment to Hózhó Café to double daily capacity,” said Katie Adelman, executive director of the mission and pastor of House of Prayer. “COVID relief donor responses have included needed funding, but also nonperishable food, water, packaging and delivery products, PPE, masks, a large-capacity refrigerator, sanitizing products and prayer.”

Five days a week for three months, mission staff provided 60 to 70 to-go meals and delivered 110 student meals and learning packets, she said. In that time, they prepared and delivered more than 50 boxes of food to older adults and sick neighbors weekly and helped facilitate food drops by relief agencies.

Although the mission’s network has grown, the pandemic has also highlighted the ways its community has been disproportionately affected. “For the Navajo people, accessing food is difficult, far away, expensive and limited,” Adelman said. “Empty shelves have not been refilled for nearly three months. The COVID crisis has brought to the public eye the food and water insecurity that preexisted the pandemic.”

The challenges facing Native communities will not be solved by COVID response funding—but it has made a significant impact. “We have been overwhelmed and grateful for the generosity of so many,” Adelman said.

To learn more

At press time in June, the COVID-19 appeal had reached almost $1.5 million, with 55 synods receiving grants. For more information, visit elca.org/publichealth.

John Potter
John G. Potter is a content editor of Living Lutheran.

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