For programs that specialize in face-to-face outreaches, this time of the coronavirus pandemic brings about new challenges in communities where there are already plenty of hurdles to clear. And because of mandates restricting jobs and other lifestyle practices, these neighborhood programs that are being affected by COVID-19 actually have an even larger role to play in people’s lives and need to find a way under new regulations to thrive like never before.
Columbia Presbyterian Church, a small congregation that averages less than 50 people in attendance on Sunday mornings, has been supporting its Hands Across the Street (HAS) ministry since 2009, an initiative that provides food, clothing and shelter for the less fortunate in the Columbia, PA, area. This outreach – during pre-coronavirus days – would serve about 500 meals a month in the community. These days HAS is delivering 500 meals a day (five days a week) to neighborhood doorsteps.
“We’ve shifted our model a little bit,” said the Rev. Dave Powers, “from being a place where people gather in fairly large numbers for things like community meals and our coffee houses. Now we have non-congregant settings where we have been since March 17. We started as a walk-up grab-and-go thing, and then we shifted to meal delivery to keep social distancing and safety at the forefront.”
In the five-plus weeks since HAS has changed its format, it has fed meals to more than 8,700 children, given in excess of 7,800 meals to adults and provided food boxes weekly to more than 500 people. That means 16,600 meals – including breakfast and lunch – have been received by the Columbia community through HAS. The meals to kids and families are something HAS is doing in conjunction with the Columbia School District.
“As much food as we can get out into the community by different partnering organizations the better,” Dave added.
There is wide-spread food insecurity in Columbia. The poverty rate has been and continues to be greater than 19 percent, resulting in a “stressful situation becoming more stressful,” Dave said. With more people than normal out of work due to the coronavirus mandates, they are not able to access the everyday resources that they need, and that’s where HAS comes in to help them get the food that they need.
As has been the case, support comes by donations from Columbia Presbyterian Church as well as through individuals, churches, businesses in the community and denominational grants, including a recent Innovation Grant from the Synod of the Trinity that supported HAS hiring of a funds developer in charge of finding grants and donors.
“The Synod of the Trinity has been great in partnering with us,” Dave said. “We’re as pleased as anything to be serving alongside.”
Volunteers also come from the church and community, but these days they are being repositioned. Normally, there are anywhere from 15-20 volunteers in the building helping serve meals, but now only six are inside because of social distancing. The rest assist with the driving, where there is a slight shortage.
“We deliver meals five days a week,” Dave explained. “Last week we did it four days a week and we stacked meals through the weekend. Generally when we deliver on a Friday we put some meals together so people will have something over the weekend, or we give a food box away with our end-of-the-week deliveries so people will have food that they can prepare at home.”
Occasionally, HAS will still hold “food giveaways,” where people gather outside – six feet apart, of course, or in cars – to receive some of the leftover food that HAS received and was unable to get rid of by delivery.
The outreach of Columbia Church, which uses its work in the community to also take part in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Matthew 25 invitation, has actually stretched beyond the town’s boarders. In nearby Landisville and East Petersburg, HAS is also supplying meals for a pair of Church of God congregations to distribute in their towns. Close to 250 meals a week for children and adults are going to each location, with those volunteers driving to Columbia to pick up the food, then preparing their meals in their own areas.
“A band played at our coffee house from the Landisville church,” Dave explained. “Our outreach services coordinator knew the families that this band was built around. The relationship grew. They have been helping us with our shelter in the wintertime and the summer meals to children. It just shows you the power of relationship.”
With the warmer months just around the corner, Columbia Church’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) is normally gearing up for its busy time of the year. In actuality, the SFSP is already playing a big role in the current HAS program, as it has received an emergency waiver to be able to provide support to HAS’s current food distribution initiative. Beginning in June, the SFSP will kick into full gear feeding children (and even some adults) who are no longer receiving meals through school. And while Dave is hoping he and his volunteers will be able to see the children face-to-face by then, it is possible the delivery method will still be in place.
In some ways, all of this new coordination and outreach going on at Columbia Church is a minor miracle, but the hard work and determination is not something that’s lost on Dave.
“I’m blown away with the response of the community and the small crew of staff and volunteers that we have here at Hands Across the Street,” he said. “We were hoping to give everyone a three-day weekend last week because they work so hard. When this staff saw that there was still food to give away, they pulled together an impromptu food giveaway on Friday afternoon just out of the goodness of their heart because they saw a need. I’m humbled to be the pastor and leader of all of this. It makes you want to cry sometimes.”
In the 10-plus years the HAS ministry has been active, this is unquestionably the most unique time it has had to endure. But this stretch has only strengthened the program and positioned it for bigger and brighter days ahead.
“There are at least two times in the Bible – in the Old Testament and again in the New Testament – where the Lord says, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you,’” Dave concluded. “Those are the things that stand out to me. Nothing can separate us from God’s love. If we trust and believe that he is going to find a way for us to come through this and get stronger, he will provide.
“This church – the incredible witness here continues to blossom.”