Impact of COVID-19 and vaccinations on Communities of Faith
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.
Pioneer UMC weathers the pandemic
Juli Reinholz, pastor at Pioneer United Methodist Church (UMC) in Walla Walla, believes the congregation has weathered the worst of the storm.
"In response to COVID, as with everything, we followed our bishop of Greater Northwest UMC guidelines as best we could for 14 months, so the building was closed, but the ministry was not."
Members continued as best they could with ministries in ways that were safe, following guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the governor and bishop.
Their last in-person worship was in March 2020 and the first in-person worship in the building was Sunday, May 2, 2021.
While the building was closed, Juli said they focused on how to stay connected with members. The health ministry team made hundreds of phone calls.
"We livestreamed worship services, and for those without electronics I sent sermons," said Juli, who also put the sermon and parts of the worship out on on the phone.
The church mailed letters and treats for children. Using "Godly Play" for Sunday School, teachers put lessons online and sent packages to children to keep connected.
"Ministries while we were not in the building connected people as best they could in multiple ways," Juli said.
Pioneer UMC looked at its ministries to make them safe for everybody. The elementary school was reactivated and refashioned during COVID.
"We started Walla Walla speaks with the City of Walla Walla, holding online conversations on social justice issues, like immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter and domestic violence," she said. "Webinars were open to the entire city, trying to connect with the realities of what was going on."
The church's choral music closed but continued music in audio production.
"We looked at what we were doing to find the core of what was important in this ministry, and redesigned or reactivated it in ways that helped us continue to reach out and do what the community needs," Juli said. "We didn't lose anything."
The associate pastor, Liv Gibbons, created a VBS program virtually for children and youth.
Juli guessed in May that 80 to 85 percent of members were vaccinated based on phone calls or running into people, who talked about being happy to be vaccinated. She expects the 20 percent who have not been vaccinated likely will be, including young people. She has met few anti-vaxxers.
"It is an emotional thing for those vaccinated. They are pleased to be able to go out, and think if they catch COVID it won't kill them," she said.
At first, vaccines were hard to schedule. Juli sits on a vaccination equity committee and was part of conversations on how to use local hotspots to make sure they reached people who might not come to a mass vaccination center. Now such centers are closing.
The city and county used the county fairgrounds nearby, then added two more vaccination sites, and now pharmacies and doctors are vaccinating people, as well as mobile sites.
Nurses in the church showed videos in gratitude moments, speaking of the positive effects of vaccination. Pioneer UMC also used newsletter articles, links to online articles and weekly e-mails with doctors' testimonies. Health professionals in congregation shared in the education.
Public Health, the city and the hospital connected for education on vaccines in an online webinar.
Those who are vaccinated, have gained "confidence to step out of their homes, end their isolation and engage with people. Some are still hesitant, for some people it will take more time," Juli said. "I still see them social distancing, not rushing to hug each other, and wearing masks. It is lovely to see people go from a fear base to confidence, move on, knowing they have weathered the worst."
Juli reviewed what happened in outreach to the community.
Walla Walla has a sleep center offering full-time housing for homeless. The church does a weekly free meal for them. When the COVID lock down hit, most homeless ended up in the sleep center, and the county found ways to feed them.
To continue their ministry serving a free lunch once a week, the community decided to distribute at one location, offering lunches in paper bags on a smaller scale to older people without engaging in person.
They also continue to collect food for the food bank, but distributed it at several large food banks in town, where the National Guard distributed food. With numbers of people who are food insecure, the church continued to share.
The church began to use its bus after mid-May to transport people to the half-capacity, in person worship.
Pioneer UMC also used its connection with the Immigrant Rights Coalition to set up a vaccination clinic.
When the Walla Walla River flooded in February 2020, the church worked with others to create a long-term response team.
"We connected with the UMC for a grant to help people flooded out, but when COVID hit, it took funds that would have helped people recover from the flood," said Juli.
The church received a grant of $12,500 From the Pacific Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, which the church matched for flood victims with long term recovery," she explained.
"Our congregation learned that we are never alone. God never leaves us alone. There is always a way for us to grow together," Juli said.
"Many could not see how we could worship through livestreaming. We learned we don't have to be in the building for spiritual growth," she said.
"Outreach reminds us of needs of the community outside our building so we don't always need the building," she said.
Juli said church is going to change.
"We don't know what it's going to look like. We can pivot and learn new ways of doing things. It might be strange to begin with. We don't do this alone. We do it with the Spirit. We can pivot, change and walk through storms together. We can do it and we will be ok," Juli said.
For information, call 525-1870 or visit pioneerww.org.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, June, 2021