As we enter summer, the global coronavirus pandemic continues to affect our lives, churches, economy, and community connections. The pandemic opened a variety of ways for church members to get involved in the community, from visiting prisons and transitional housing facilities to educate residents or detained individuals about the COVID-19 vaccine, to delivering food to individuals with limited access, to teaching children, youth, and seniors how to prepare healthy meals. Meeting our community’s health needs allows us to become involved in people’s lives in invaluable and much-appreciated ways.
COVID-19 Education and Prevention
More than 169 million people worldwide have been infected by, and more than 3.5 million worldwide have died from COVID-19. In the U.S., a study of selected states and cities with data on COVID-19 deaths by race and ethnicity showed that 34 percent of deaths were among non-Hispanic Black people, though this group accounts for only 12 percent of the total U.S. population. As a result of the disproportionate impact of the disease on Black, Hispanic, Native American, and other communities of color, efforts in Massachusetts and across the country have focused on ensuring the equitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, a MassINC Polling Group survey, sponsored by the Museum of Science, the City of Boston, and conducted in partnership with the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, found that 38 percent of White residents said they would take the vaccine “as soon as possible” compared to 28 percent of Black residents and 22 percent of Hispanic residents.
Church members, such as Paulette Denise Chandler, M.D., M.P.H., a specialist in preventive medicine and internal medicine, who is affiliated with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, explored why vaccine concerns exist in these populations and discussed strategies to address structural barriers and increase vaccine acceptance rates among diverse populations.
Through virtual town halls, webinars, and in-person events, Chandler served as a panelist for COVID-19 vaccine discussions with various organizations, including the Black Ministerial Alliance of Boston, Brigham and Women’s Hospital Center for Community Wellness, Suffolk House of Corrections, and the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “People wanted the information to be able to make the right decision about the COVID-19 vaccine for themselves and their family members,” Chandler said. “Attendees were so grateful to have their questions answered and gain confidence in their decision to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Fuel Up: Healthy Food for a Healthy Life
Chandler founded Fuel Up: Healthy Food for a Healthy Life, an after-school nutrition and cooking class program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital Center for Community Wellness at Sportsmen’s Tennis and Enrichment Center (STEC), and serves as one of the instructors for the cooking class series. Mandy Bass and other STEC staff also help conduct sessions. The program continued online or in-person during the COVID-19 pandemic. STEC staff have embraced the program and enjoy preparing recipes with the children. They learn how to prepare healthy, plant-based recipes and about the nutritious benefits of various fruits, vegetables, beans, herbs, nuts, and seeds. They also taste new ingredients. Lime, cabbage, and pumpkin seeds are big favorites!
Addressing Mental Health Needs and Social Isolation
Bernadette Henry and Phoebe Odhiambo, Women’s Ministries leaders at Framingham Centre church in Framingham, Massachusetts, decided to lead the women in a variety of outreach efforts. Members of Women’s Minstries supported the community engagement opportunities in different ways, from monetary donations to preparing gift bags for women at the family shelter next door to the church. They decided to reach out to college students and send care packages to let their student members know that they were remembered. They also visited seniors and gave them flowers or a plant and a gift bag. Odhiambo, who is also a nurse, conducted a special Sabbath session on how to deal with depression and anxiety.
Lifeboat Boston: Providing Both Physical and Spiritual Nourishment
Before the coronavirus pandemic, more than 35 million people experienced hunger, according to the USDA’s Household Food Insecurity in the United States report. Some households that experience food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and must rely on their local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for access to food. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment and food insecurity soared, and more than 42 million people may face hunger because of the coronavirus.
Food pantries such as the Lifeboat Boston Food Pantry, operated by Boston Temple in Boston, Massachusetts, since 2017, helped address this vital need in their community during the pandemic. Lifeboat Boston was founded by Melissa Ghulam-Smith, M.D., and Kevin Smith, and Glacier Gray is the former director. According to Orlando Hall, Boston Temple church pastor, “Before the coronavirus pandemic, the food pantry assisted some 60-80 families each week; post-pandemic, that number rose to serving 110-130 families on Thursdays and 30 families on Tuesdays.” Lifeboat Boston partnered with the City of Boston’s contact tracing program and the Boston Public Schools to provide food to families and students. On Tuesdays, Lifeboat Boston volunteers deliver food to families living in the Boston neighborhoods who cannot physically get to a pantry.
Not only is Lifeboat Boston blessing the community, but its volunteers are reaping rich spiritual blessings, as well. Lifeboat Boston’s goal is to develop the culture of community through a consistent demonstration of compassion flowing through its core group of ministry workers. Hall and Zienna Forbes, an elder, highlight the commitment of non-Adventist volunteers who dedicate time each week to ensure the program’s success. For example, Nansee Öng and her husband, Somsac, have led out in organizing the food each week since the start of the ministry. Students from Northeastern University and other area schools enjoy the camaraderie of the ministry team as they help package food bags and listen to the prayers before the team starts working. One volunteer from the community commented, “I like the family feel at Lifeboat!”
Ruth Frenchwood had been studying the Bible with Forbes for several months before inquiring about a church ministry in which she could participate. Forbes suggested Lifeboat Boston. Frenchwood experienced anxiety and sadness while going through the lockdowns and restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Being active in Lifeboat Boston, enjoying the human contact while making the food deliveries, and interacting with people receiving the food bags has helped her deal with the depressive feelings and elevated her desire to live for God while caring for His people. “I don’t help Lifeboat Boston. Lifeboat Boston helps me!” says Frenchwood, who was baptized in December 2020 and has requested special time off from her job on Thursdays to volunteer with the ministry. “Breaking the cycle of self-centeredness [with] Lifeboat Boston [has] helped me see how much God loves me. It is thrilling to my heart to live at the level of compassion that is missing so often in life.”
Sharon Hamel is another Lifeboat Boston volunteer who sees ministering through Lifeboat Boston as a means of responding to God’s Word by being the hands and feet of Jesus. “Coming to Lifeboat Boston has been an important action toward practicing my faith,” Hamel says. “Every time I try to imagine what I want in life, the more and more I come to [understand] the fact that life is about service to others. Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35).”
Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. . . . Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me”—Matthew 25:35-36, 40, NKJV. The members of Boston Temple are discovering that coming together with the common purpose of ministering to and serving others results in empowered living and is energizing them as a church.
“Being connected to my church community outside of church time, working as a team, and being connected to God’s larger community has revitalized me spiritually,” says Hamel. Frenchwood, who studies the Sabbath School lesson with Forbes and other women on weekday mornings, sees ministering to others as an extension of her newfound faith. “I’m not just praying and studying. Now I can practice what I’m learning,” she says. “As I’m learning about God, I’m able to help others learn about Him, and it helps me be less focused on myself.”
In Luke 10:25-27 (paraphrase), Jesus reminds us that when we “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength . . . with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourself” we “will live.”
During these months of uncertainty, many churches sought to meet the needs in their community by partnering with organizations, collaborating with other individuals or ministries, or stepping out into uncharted waters to start new initiatives. As we attempt to navigate a post-pandemic society, the work remains—people still need health education and mental health services, they experience loneliness, and they need help combating food insecurity. Let us continue to be faithful to doing the Lord’s work, for as we minister to others, we serve Him.
A collaboration by members of the Boston Temple and Framingham Centre churches in the Southern New England Conference.