Impact of COVID-19 and vaccinations on Communities of Faith
The Fig Tree is focusing a section on stories about how vaccinations are having impact on rural, urban and ethnic congregations, and on creative ways congregations have been responding in their settings. Marijke Fakasiieiki, The Fig Tree's development director, surveyed rural congregations in the region and gathered stories for this summer issue on the impact of COVID and vaccinations on their ministries.
Pastor sees opportunities in chaos
Benjamin Watson arrived as the new pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Spokane in September 2020 in the midst of the pandemic.
The building was shut down but open a few Sundays for him to meet some of the congregation, and then gatherings were on Zoom.
Recently he preached on "Cannot Be Business as Usual," making the point that "God did not take us out of the church for 15 months to have us come back and do church as usual.
"With God, some things change. In Methodism, we can be very methodical, so we need to continue to seek God as we come back. Ministry will never be 'normal,' as we have known normal. We are entering a new norm in this new season where God is doing a new thing as we emerge, walking with God," he said.
Benjamin reminded his congregation that after Jesus' resurrection, he met the disciples in a room and then disappeared. Peter said, "Let's go fishing." The other disciples followed and went back to what they knew. They labored all night but caught nothing.
"Jesus came to them and said, 'Hey fellas, got any fish?' Then he told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat," he said. "We must not become distracted by the old ways. We must trust God will guide us and expect an authentic move of God."
So when vaccinations were being offered twice a month at the Martin Luther King Jr Center in East Central Spokane, Benjamin used worship, meetings and emails to educate people to help them overcome apprehensions they may have had about health care. Emmanuel Family Life Center and Bethel AME received a grant to do COVID vaccination education and testing.
He acknowledged that hesitations arise among Blacks leading to reluctance to take vaccinations, both because of history, such as syphilis "tests" that spread the disease among men at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, and because of the ongoing disparities many experience in health care.
"We encouraged everyone to take a vaccination shot, especially our seniors. We don't ask who has been vaccinated, but I know a large number have been vaccinated," Benjamin said.
Here's what he tells people:
• "First, I share that we trust God in everything. People with high blood pressure and diabetes are helped by taking medicine. They trust that will happen, so they take it.
• "Second, we are to love God with all our hearts, minds and souls, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Being vaccinated is a way to protect our neighbors and ourselves from getting COVID.
• "Third, we cannot open up the community yet. If we want to come to a new norm, we need to do our part and get vaccinated," he said.
Benjamin is pleased that young people waited for their time and when appointments opened up for them, they went to be vaccinated.
"I've also been pleased by the spirit of everyone doing their part when vaccinations came available, including taking seniors to the clinics," he said.
For Easter—Resurrection Sunday—on the first Sunday of April, the congregation was back in the building to worship—with masking and social distancing.
In mid-May, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) said for those who are fully vaccinated mask wearing is optional.
"I took the shot, because I didn't want to wear a mask all my life," Benjamin said. "The CDC said it's safe for fully vaccinated people. Some who are vaccinated may continue wearing masks, but I share with the congregation that if they are not vaccinated please continue to wear a mask, and we will continue to encourage them to get vaccinated."
Benjamin pointed out that Bethel AME is part of a campus that includes the Richard Allen Apartments and Emmanuel Family Life Center.
It also works hand in hand with other churches of color and the Martin Luther King Jr Center, which together have reached the wider African American community with education.
When Bethel AME's building was closed, it held its worship service on Zoom. Now that it offers worship at the church, it no longer offers Zoom. Instead services are being offered livestream as they were before COVID.
"My children who live on the East Coast and in Texas could log on to our service after their services. Local people who would not step into a church can come," he said.
Some meetings are still on Zoom for convenience, Benjamin said. Church Conferences are for all members. We meet at 5:30 p.m. just after many are off work, so those people can attend from home on Zoom. Men's and women's meetings that are smaller groups are meeting at the church.
He also found that Zoom church meant anyone working out of town or staying home sick could participate.
"It's also a convenience with gas prices going up," he said.
Benjamin grew up in Big Springs, Texas, the seventh member of his family to be an African Methodist Episcopal pastor. His grandfather was the first.
After school, he served in the Navy until 1991 and then worked with the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Big Springs. He began ministry nearly 29 years ago, driving three hours one way to serve his first church in Crowell, Texas.
Working with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, he was "bi-vocational. When he transferred with that work to Denver, he was assistant pastor at the AME church there. Then he served the AME Church in Casper, beginning in 1996, commuting from Denver.
One day in 1996 when he was commuting to work, there were 36 inches of snow in Denver. Snow was piled on the sidewalk.
Seeing a blind man with a cane, he wondered how the man would get over the mound of snow. The man came to the embankment and walked over it, his stick hitting a light pole on the other side. He walked around it.
Benjamin said he audibly heard a voice say, "If I can take him who can't see over and around obstacles, what can I do with someone who can see?"
Tears streamed down his face as he drove to his job. He gave two-weeks' notice to focus on ministry.
"The church in Casper was thriving and growing, but I had only been in the community Saturday evening and Sunday morning. I moved there and went from earning $60,000 a year to $12,000 a year full time at the church, but we were never hungry and never hurt."
In 2000, Benjamin moved to Cheyenne to serve a church and came back then to Denver as pastor of the church he previously served. He then returned to Cheyenne, where he served until coming to Spokane.
At Bethel AME in Spokane, his wife Debbie ministers with him as an evangelist, which he said is important, because she can better address issues women in the church face than he can.
Benjamin appreciates the generosity he sees in Spokane with the abundance of food banks and groups donating food. Working in maintenance with Richard Allen Apartments, he sees people bring boxes of food to give to people there and in the neighborhood.
He also sees the struggles of people who live there, so he applied for and received grant funds to provide rental assistance.
"When businesses shut down, people lost jobs and lacked income to buy food," he said. "They also lacked income to pay rent."
As part of a sermon on "Opportunities in the Chaos," Benjamin shared three points: "shed unnecessary excess, shape the place you call home and rediscover intimacy with God.
"The opportunities we have had in the chaos have helped us learn that we can live on less, share with others and reengage with our families," he said.
"Often in our hustle and bustle of rushing in and out of the house, we did not know who our family was. It's a time to rediscover our relationship with our families, our church, our community and our God."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2021