At February’s end, Rebecca Duerst, ELCA director for diakonia, had just returned from Lutheran World Federation (LWF) meetings in Geneva when it dawned on her: COVID-19 was spreading like wildfire. 

Duerst had been compiling situation reports on the virus for Global Mission colleagues since the start of February. A month prior, she’d overseen the release of Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR) grants to Chinese companions combating the coronavirus. Duerst, who has a doctorate in immunology, soon realized that COVID-19 could become a pandemic. 

In March, Global Mission staff sprang into action, allocating up to $1.5 million for relief requests they anticipated from ELCA companions. Those funds would come from general donations to LDR, Duerst said, and this was a strategic choice. 

“Usually when we face a disaster, we put out an appeal,” said Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of Global Mission. “We knew that financially our congregations would find themselves in a challenging position.”  

At the same time, leadership faced another issue: ensuring the well-being of staff in the field.  

Chicago-based staff who were traveling were immediately recalled. The Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program concluded early, and volunteers were flown home.  

As for missionaries, “we had to make quick decisions about bringing [deployed staff] home and supporting them while in [the] home, and also working with those who chose to stay in their countries of service,” Malpica Padilla said. 

Some missionaries wanted to return home but were unable to leave as travel restrictions were put in place. International students who have ELCA scholarships faced similar travel issues and worked with Global Mission staff to resolve them. 

Mission formation events, at-home missionary visits and other events scheduled throughout 2020 were canceled. By April, the ELCA’s global engagement had shifted dramatically, and leaders such as Duerst and Malpica Padilla believe the pandemic will have a lasting impact on it. 

Collective relief 

At press time, over 16 million people worldwide have tested positive for COVID-19, and more than 655,000 have died, according to the World Health Organization. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in July that nearly 4.2 million Americans had contracted the virus and over 147,000 had died. 

Since the outbreak began, the ELCA, through LDR, has financially supported 49 responses led by companion churches and organizations in 35 countries. In the United States, LDR has supported 28 synods and three social ministry organizations that developed feeding ministries to meet needs brought about by COVID-19. In addition, the church has funded five international pandemic responses carried out by the LWF, ACT Alliance and Church World Service. 

“As a member of the Lutheran World Federation, it is important that we walk with our global companions.”

Given the numbers, some might argue that the ELCA ought to prioritize funding for the U.S. response. But Malpica Padilla points to theologian Emil Brunner, who wrote: “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission, there is no Church; and where there is neither Church nor mission, there is no faith.” 

“We sing in our hymns, ‘In Christ there is no east, no south, no north.’ Even though we are having a rough time here, we have a larger vision,” Malpica Padilla said, stressing that support is needed at home and abroad. “As a member of the Lutheran World Federation, it is important that we walk with our global companions.” 

For the ELCA, walking alongside companions during the pandemic can be characterized as relational, contextual and constantly evolving, Duerst said. “We have been in communication since the very beginning of this,” she added. “They know who is in need; they know how to reach them.” 

The virus has disrupted societal rhythms around the world, but companion needs differ by country context. “We assume what we do here should be normative. That’s not the case,” Malpica Padilla said. “It is a decision based on economics. There are people who can’t afford to shelter in place. We need to contextualize those decisions.” 

Five themes emerged among their responses: 

  • Supplying hospitals and communities with preventive materials such as medical equipment, medical supplies, protective gear and hygiene kits. 
  • Giving food to those unable to leave their community or whose incomes were negatively affected by the pandemic. 
  • Disseminating media on proper hygiene practices to prevent the spread of infection. 
  • Offering psychosocial support and counseling to manage pandemic-induced anxieties  
    and isolation. 
  • Providing financial assistance to those who have lost livelihoods. 

These efforts targeted the most vulnerable, Malpica Padilla said, naming women, migrants, refugees, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and families experiencing poverty as those facing compounded challenges because of COVID-19. 

Julinda Sipayung, a Lutheran pastor and the coordinator of a women’s crisis center in Indonesia, has seen firsthand that “women are at the forefront of the pandemic—looking for ways to meet [their] family’s daily needs and put food on the table. They have a heavier burden.”  

And Stephen Deal, ELCA regional representative for Central America, has observed in his work that, although “everybody is exposed and vulnerable to this virus … the population of migrants and refugees are even more vulnerable. They’ve got no place to shelter in place.” 

Migration and gender justice were already key emphases for Global Mission, Duerst said, and as societal inequities have grown due to the pandemic, Global Mission has deepened its commitment to accompanying companions in the pursuit of justice. 

Stories of hope 

Though the challenges are great, success stories from initial LDR-funded responses give Duerst hope for the future. 

In the Egyptian context, for example, COVID-19 has increased the discrimination faced daily by refugees and migrants, Duerst said, making it difficult for them to find work. A cash-grant program for migrants and refugees, offered by St. Andrew’s Refugee Services (StARS) in Cairo, is providing relief. 

In April, less than a week after giving birth, Aisha (last name withheld) experienced domestic abuse. StARS helped Aisha and her baby relocate to a safe and stable home, paired her with a caseworker and provided a grant to cover living costs. Staff report that she is rebuilding her life. 

Staff of Lutheran Health Care Bangladesh have reported that an LDR grant for personal protective equipment and other medical supplies helped the center stay open and treat patients, adding that they didn’t stop service for a single day, even during the lockdown. 

When the Indian government announced a lockdown in March, Rekha (last name withheld), a factory worker in Kolkata, lost wages and couldn’t buy food. With LDR funds, Lutheran World Service India Trust gave Rekha and 79 other residents at a homeless shelter daily meals and hygiene kits during the shutdown. “[They] met all my needs. Staff are helpful and stand beside me and all of us at the shelter,” she said.

“I hope [congregations] here can follow the lead of churches in Africa and be promoters of what we really need to do now to counter behaviors we’re seeing arise in the U.S.” 

In Jerusalem, Augusta Victoria Hospital used LDR funding to purchase medical equipment and build up its capacity to test and treat COVID-19 patients. Within three weeks of receiving its first case in April, the hospital had been declared free of the virus, staff reported (read more in “A doctor’s logbook”). 

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of The Gambia collaborated with the national government to distribute handwashing materials, sanitizer, face masks and gloves to select communities and sustenance to 300 families experiencing income loss due to COVID-19. Neneh Jallow, a villager from Gambia’s west coast, had just returned from the market, worried how she’d feed her children and grandchildren, when she encountered a surprise. “What I could see is a bag of rice and oil,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh my God, what a mighty God you are. Thank you, God!’ I am a Muslim, but I am grateful to God through the church.” 

Duerst thinks ELCA congregations have much to learn from their Lutheran and ecumenical partners’ response to the pandemic. She highlights the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone, which built on its knowledge from fighting the Ebola crisis and quickly implemented a coordinated hygiene campaign to prevent COVID-19, aided by LDR funding. (See “You took care of me” from our August issue.) 

“I hope [congregations] here can follow the lead of churches in Africa and be promoters of what we really need to do now to counter behaviors we’re seeing arise in the U.S.,” she said. “We know the church has had a key role [there], so maybe the church can have a key role here.” 

Adapted evangelism, new connections 

While Global Mission diakonia staff partnered with companions to address health, hunger and poverty issues brought on by the pandemic, ministry and education leaders supported adaptations in spiritual care.  

Two days after Kenya detected its first case of COVID-19, Ngatu Lutheran Church was ordered to stop services. Church leaders pivoted, working with volunteer preachers to deliver in-person worship for bomas (family homesteads) on a rotating basis while following and communicating physical-distancing guidelines. The congregation created a WhatsApp group where members could access the weekly sermon and readings and engage in discussion, and offered a new online-giving opportunity. Simon Kyengo, Ngatu’s head elder, noticed that offerings and engagement have grown as a result. 

“The church gives light. It gives direction to life,” he said. “Especially in the context of the coronavirus, they see that there is hope.” 

Like many ELCA congregations and institutions, the Protestant Christian Batak Church (HKBP) in Indonesia started offering pastoral care to its members via Zoom. HKBP staff also produced web content with uplifting Christian messages and music while in-person meetings were suspended. Although people are experiencing great pain due to the virus, Debora Sinaga, an HKBP pastor, said such resources allowed them to “freely express their situation.”

“This has been a time of letting go and letting God lead us to new types of engagement … we have never attempted in the past.”

Munther Isaac, pastor of Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem, reported that his congregation had shifted to offering prayers and worship via social media as well. Although fear and loss of livelihood have devastated many and the occupation continues to expand, devotional practices have galvanized hope. “In the midst of all of these difficult situations, I’ve seen the best of our community coming together and helping one another, and, of course, the church is part of [that],” Isaac said during a Peace Not Walls webinar connecting engaged ELCA members with companions in the Holy Land.  

In May, Chicago-based mission formation staff hosted “For the Healing of the Nations,” a virtual prayer service that recognized global anxiety and reminded participants of the peace to be found in God. More than 400 people participated, including companions from the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America and the Caribbean.  

“We as a team are normally traveling around the country with the Glocal musician educators during the summer months as we partner with synods and congregations to lead assemblies, retreats and consultations, but those events have all either been postponed or canceled,” said Phil LaDeur, program director for education and curriculum development. “This has been a time of letting go and letting God lead us to new types of engagement … we have never attempted in the past.” 

Likewise, ELCA missionaries continue their work in adapted formats, leaning on technology for remote communication with companions and following prevention measures while in the field. Malpica Padilla said he hopes that missionaries who have returned to the United States can be deployed back to their countries of service by late summer or early fall. Duerst is tracking each country so Global Mission leaders can determine when it is safe to travel there. 

The YAGM program has been suspended for the 2020-21 program year, but volunteers who had planned on serving this year will receive priority placement for 2021-22, said Michael Busbey, interim director for global service. During this sabbath, YAGM staff are facilitating a program-wide evaluation.  

As for those companions with ELCA-funded scholarships, Kaleb Sutherland, director of the International Leaders program, said that, in partnership with companion churches and ELCA educational institutions, his team has focused on providing ongoing support. “This is an especially challenging time to be far from home, to attempt international travel and to reimagine summer plans,” he said, noting that some students had returned home while others remained on campuses. 

“For new, incoming students, we continue to be optimistic and flexible about how the fall semester will unfold. For some, this will mean adjusting to online learning or finding other hybrid solutions until U.S. embassies again start to issue visas and travel becomes more stable.”  

Looking to the future 

At press time, Global Mission staff were making plans with companions to embed long-term recovery work in their responses to the pandemic, such as growing community gardens in rural Guatemala, which was hit hard by the virus.  

But with $1.5 million of LDR funds allocated for a global response to COVID-19 nearly depleted, Duerst anticipates a need for more funding before 2020’s end. 

“We are hearing that the effects [of the pandemic] are going to be widespread, impacting every aspect of life,” she said. “Health is obvious. Livelihood is becoming one of the key things. When men are not providing, there is more opportunity for depression leading to gender-based violence in the household—all of those other things lead to instability. We are thinking about peace and reconciliation, as well as how it’s going to impact migration. The good side of that is that we already do work in these areas.”

ELCA World Hunger partners with global companions to implement myriad programs that address the root causes of hunger and poverty. Some have already shifted response to the pandemic. For instance, a skills development program for Ghanaian women changed its focus, and participants began sewing face masks for their community.  

In addition, Malpica Padilla is working on a pilot program to equip leaders of companion churches and institutions to apply for government grants to continue serving their communities. “Whatever we do should lead not only to the liberation of the self but of communities,” he said. 

With staff leaders, Malpica Padilla is reviewing at a high level the intersectionality of existing programs, and he anticipates creating connections to address evolving needs brought about by this virus. 

Amid great changes, Tammy Jackson, senior director for mission formation, remains optimistic: “The interruption caused by COVID-19 has allowed [Global Mission] opportunities to pause and to think [of] new directions, resources and ways to engage with our companions and ELCA members. Through the generous support of ELCA members, we are able to be a source of light in this time of great uncertainty and, through our actions, to serve as reminders that God sees us, regards us and loves us.”

Erin Strybis
Erin Strybis is a freelance writer based in Chicago and author of The Beauty of Motherhood: Grace-Filled Devotions for the Early Years (Morehouse Publishing, March 2023). Find more of her stories at her website and on Instagram.

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