Local Outreach in a Pandemic

What does local outreach look like when opportunities to volunteer are restricted, donation intake is limited, and the needs of your community are climbing? This is the exact situation we have found ourselves facing for the past seven months. Across the country, businesses have attempted to figure out creative approaches to navigate the “new normal” and keep their offices afloat when no one was allowed to show up to work. We educated each other on video conferencing and file sharing, and we kept count of the hours we spent in virtual meetings. In the meantime, local humanitarian organizations have had to navigate climbing statistics of abuse, addiction, and more in the face of increased isolation, high stress and a failing economy.

How does the Church respond? Although we are now seven months in and hopefully on our way out of such heavy restrictions, it may still be some time before outreach returns to “normal.” Over the course of the past few weeks, I had a chance to interview the directors of Lafayette Adult and Teen Challenge, a faith-based rehabilitation program, and Faith House, a local shelter and resource center for women escaping domestic violence. These organizations have worked tirelessly for years to prevent individuals in our community from becoming a statistic. They give generously of their time and energy, and I am thankful that Crossroads partners with each of them.

Although the pandemic affected every individual uniquely, the common thread we have seen is the horrifying result of isolation. Addiction thrives in isolation, and domestic violence rears its ugly head. When shelters close and law enforcement limits intervention in abusive relationships, or when rehabilitation centers are restricted in their capacity and available resources, many people who desperately need help feel like they can’t ask for help; or they feel like if they do, they will be turned down.

Billi Lacombe, director of Faith House, told me the unique difficulties that women in abusive relations were facing during the stay-at-home order: “On top of what [Faith House] was limited with, law enforcement was limited, the court system was limited, so survivors had less access to safety precautions that help them in their situations. Offenders were not being arrested; they were being issued summons… it didn’t allow the survivor to get to safety because they remained at home with the offender.” When the lockdown ended and Faith House was able to offer in-person services again, they were still under more restrictive rules than other organizations because of congregant living within the shelter. “We have to require our clients to wear masks, which for some of them is difficult because they may have trauma triggers from wearing a mask on their face.”

According to Michael and Victoria Hankins (directors of Lafayette Adult and Teen Challenge), who also work in a congregant living situation, one of the most surprising hurdles they faced was the weariness that accompanies repetition. “I realized how important the community of volunteers we had really was, because they were all taken from us at one time,” said Victoria. She told me that their clients were used to seeing regular volunteers once a week, even once a month, and when they suddenly were limited to their small team of staff members, they had to learn how to adjust quickly.

Despite the obstacles, these organizations are still giving all they’ve got to the people they serve.

“Our shelter remained open the entire [stay-at-home order].” Billi told me they had two or three staff members on site at a time throughout the lockdown. “We have provided more shelter in hotel stays in the past couple of months than we ever have!” With the devastation following Hurricane Laura, that was even further complicated by the limited availability of hotel rooms. “Normally, we would have one or two families in hotels; that would be our overflow from the shelter. Through this, we’ve had up to sixteen families in hotels.” In addition, Faith House has been able to receive extra funding through Covid that allowed them to offer out-of-the-box practical assistance, such as installing security cameras for survivors, changing locks, and providing doorbell cameras for survivors so that they could stay in their homes and stay safe. “The CARES Act opened some new streams of funding for us, so that we could pay for additional rents, utilities, back-due utilities so that we’re able to try to keep them housed.” Faith House also dedicates a significant amount of time and energy toward preventing violence. “We actually had some great virtual groups over the summer!” Billi said. Students that participated in their “Love Is” workshop received packets of goodies and gift cards to ensure they were fed throughout the workshop and could log on and participate easily. Although it looks like Faith House will not be able to offer their workshops in schools this year, they are working diligently to continue providing virtual classes.

For Teen Challenge, a typical Sunday afternoon includes family visits for their residents. “We had never done Skype visits before,” said Victoria. “When [lockdown] hit, we knew we had to keep them in touch with their families.” The Teen Challenge staff called all their families, got them to set up Skype accounts, and scheduled Skype appointments for each of the residents. Thankfully, they are now able to hold in-person family visits again, but they will continue to schedule Skype visits for residents whose families are unable to visit in-person. In addition, Michael and Victoria got creative in filling the gaps by including video curriculum with other speakers and scheduling time with their residents that wasn’t just instructional. “We did a bonfire- in the middle of summer!” laughed Michael and Victoria. “Probably not our best idea- it was hot! – but they enjoyed it. We played kickball, volleyball and basketball, all relational stuff! That stuff didn’t really matter as much before because they could see their families and other people, but when it became just us, we started to create more outlets.”

Overwhelmingly, the Church has asked again and again, “How can we help?” One of the biggest challenges to each organization has been turning away volunteers due to social distancing restrictions. Although we cannot currently show up and help in traditional ways, Michael and Victoria Hankins offered this challenge to the Church: change the way you define volunteering. Helping out may not look like you imagine, but if you sincerely desire to serve, then be willing to do what is needed.

Some of the ways volunteers can serve creatively are simply offering your own skill sets. “If you’re a mechanic, offering to fix a survivor’s car is a huge blessing,” said Billi. Tutors are needed to help kids with virtual learning. If you can donate anything from clothing to cleaning supplies, every donation is greatly appreciated.

Michael urged that if you know a staff member at an organization, reaching out to check on them personally can be the boost they need that day. “When you have someone who doesn’t sign your checks, who you don’t report to, who has no dog in the fight, that calls you and checks on you, and they’re like, ‘I know this is probably tough for you; how can I be there for you?’… that’s so important.”

God is always faithful to bring joy in all circumstances. There were surprising things- good surprises- that have been a result of the pandemic, as well. Michael and Victoria told me of a guy who showed up at their door one day who was out of work as a result of the pandemic, which meant he had a lot of time to offer. The Holy Spirit had prompted him to go to their property and just ask what they needed that he could accomplish. As he had time, he donated over $15,000 worth of work to meet those needs.

Billi told me of a donor who, sensing that the Faith House staff were emotionally exhausted and could use the encouragement, surprised them all with individual bouquets of flowers. “I think they really needed it,” Billi said. “Like they even brought them on the right day when the staff really needed that.” She continued, “One of the things that has kept us all going is that we’ve seen a lot- a LOT- of blessings, just unexpected things. We’ve had moments where we used up the last of our Lysol, which you can’t easily buy right now, and someone will show up with a trunk full of Lysol. It’s very unexpected, but it’s even more of a blessing because it’s already difficult for them to secure those items for themselves, and they were thinking of us!”

There is still much uncertainty for the days ahead, but I am hopeful. Outreach may never look the same again, but just because the method has changed doesn’t mean the mission has. Our goal is still to follow Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 28:19-20, to go into all the world and proclaim the good news.

In conclusion, there are many considerations we need to keep in mind as we look for ways to bless our community in this “new normal”:

  1. The pandemic has unique repercussions for everyone, but especially the vulnerable. As we continue our ministry day-to-day, remember to be on the lookout for people in your church and in your community that may need additional support. Post phone numbers and websites for local shelters, rehabilitation centers and other resources regularly on your church’s website, social media, and in accessible locations in your church building (for example, display a domestic violence hotline in your women’s restroom).
  2. There are outreach opportunities all around you. What talents and resources are in your church family? Do you have mechanics in your church who would be willing to partner with a local shelter to bless a woman escaping domestic violence? Are there business owners who would be willing to adopt a local school and donate the supplies their faculty and students need? Are there retired teachers willing to tutor disadvantaged students? Would your small group commit to writing cards to the staff at local organizations once a month? Could you as an individual donate lunch (or even coffee!) for the staff at your local rehab center one day?
  3. Be willing to serve how you’re needed. There is often a conflict between what is effective and what is appealing. We want to serve in ways that market our church, look good on a resumé/transcript, and will get the most likes on Instagram. To effectively serve our community, however, we need to be willing to ask organizations what they truly need and then follow through.

As the world continues to slowly reopen, I’d like to extend this challenge to fellow pastors and leaders: how can your church be a blessing in your community, even if you can’t volunteer like you used to? Let’s be creative. Covid will not be our excuse—let’s make it our challenge.

(If you are local and would like to be a blessing to the organizations mentioned in this article, you can learn more at each of their websites: faithhouseacadiana.com and louisianateenchallenge.com)

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