Commentary: America’s faith-based groups: Helping neighbors in a time of crisis

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When Rev. Jay Vorhees, pastor of City Road Chapel just outside Nashville, Tenn., saw dozens of people in his community laid off as restaurants and bars were forced to close because of COVID-19, he started a fund to buy grocery store gift cards to help them get through the crisis.

Such charity, happily, is not uncommon. Across America, people of faith and religious organizations – spurred by President Donald Trump’s call to pray and act in response to this crisis – are finding innovative ways to meet the medical, financial and spiritual needs of their neighbors.

Religious organizations, long at the forefront of America’s health care system, are playing a vital role in combating COVID-19. Seventeen percent of America’s hospitals are faith-based, with Catholic hospitals hosting one in every six of the nation’s hospital beds and Seventh-Day Adventists treating over five million patients each year. As American cases of COVID-19 have surged, their services have become critical to the country’s ability to treat patients and stop the disease’s spread.

Churches and other religious communities are also finding other ways to increase the public health system’s capacity to respond to the virus. Despite having to suspend worship services, Alabama’s largest church found a new way to serve. In close coordination with the state government, Birmingham’s Church of the Highlands began hosting a drive-thru COVID-19 test site. The church has run a medical clinic since 2009 and in just two days, qualified medical personnel staff tested nearly 1,000 people.

And America’s faith-based organizations aren’t only responding to COVID-19 in the United States. Samaritan’s Purse, a North-Carolina based Christian relief organization, recently airlifted a field hospital and medical personnel to the city of Cremona in northern Italy, which is suffering from a shortage of hospital beds and medical equipment due to the virus.

Houses of worship and faith-based charities are also mobilizing to meet their neighbors’ material and financial needs. Miriam’s Kitchen, an interfaith ministry in Washington, D.C., normally provides hot meals to the hungry, but they have rapidly shifted to providing takeout meals served in the church’s courtyard instead of its basement to allow for greater social distancing. Ministries such as Miriam’s Kitchen have been around for years and are trusted by their communities, making them especially effective in times of crisis.

In California and Michigan, faith-based ministries are donating and distributing groceries for the elderly and medically vulnerable. They’re also providing meals to children who have lost access to school breakfasts and lunches because of coronavirus-related closures. And several Muslim organizations banded together to raise over $200,000 for low-income families impacted by the crisis.

In times of great stress, religious organizations are also equipped to provide mental, emotional and spiritual support. Many Americans’ lives have been upended, some are battling illness and others are struggling with uncertainty and loneliness as they self-quarantine. In a time of social distancing, religious leaders are finding new ways to convey encouragement to their congregations. J.D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, recorded a video message to pray for church members and encouraged them to seek out ways to safely serve their neighbors.

Campus ministries, already embedded in the lives and communities of students, are repositioning themselves to support students faced with sudden disruption. Hillel, a campus ministry to Jewish students, launched an initiative to provide virtual meetups for students who are now physically separated from community. A Christian ministry, Cru, helped students pack up and move out of their campus housing.

As the Department of Health and Human Services Center for Faith-Based and Opportunity Initiatives noted in a COVID-19 guidance statement: “Faith-based and community leaders continue to be valuable sources of comfort and support for their members and communities during times of distress. They have the unique ability to address potential concerns, fears and anxieties regarding COVID-19. Additionally, by reiterating simple hygienic precautions and practices, these leaders can broadly promote helpful information.”

As they have throughout our history, America’s faith-based organizations are reaching out to their neighbors by keeping them informed and by meeting their material, social and spiritual needs. Their trusted relationships and local knowledge are enabling them to respond effectively to the emergency, doing invaluable work that governments are not always able to perform.

In the ongoing battle against the coronavirus, they are giving strength and spreading hope to Americans as they face the days ahead.



Emilie Kao is Director of the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation ( Andrea Jones is a researcher for the DeVos Center.


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