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.
Walla Walla church cared for community health
At First Congregational United Church of Christ (UCC) in Walla Walla, the whole congregation and board leaders understood that they had "a sacred responsibility to care for the community health of congregation and wider community through the pandemic," said the pastor Nathaniel Mahlberg.
"Abiding by sound science as it's emerged about how to be safe, has been an important priority for us," said the pastor of the 150-member church.
"By checking in on our neighbors, and checking in through ouor calling tree, friendships and relations have been deepened and formed," he said.
Their priority has been "to be church, do church and care for the spiritual and emotional health and physical health for their people, finding a creative balance.
While no members were sick with COVID, they've had close relations become sick and some have unfortunately died, so members were personally impacted.
"Folks have struggled with anxiety, depression, and the emotional and spiritual toll being isolated from one another," said Nathaniel.
Worshipping online provided a creative possibility. They set up low-wave radio transmitters, and had people come to worship in their cars. They returned to in-person worship with masks, ventilation and social distancing for Pentecost Sunday and restarted small groups.
Nathaniel found that the United Church of Christ Pacific Northwest Conference was helpful, forming online communities for church leaders to help them navigate the pandemic, developing skills in live streaming and discerning the steps forward.
"I've benefitted from our denominational support and guidance," he said. "Being a non-hierarchical church, local congregations decide what we want to do. Our leaders could urge, but not forbid or require.
For a long time, First Congregational UCC shared a food ministry with other churches in town, providing one to two lunches a week. Wednesday is the community lunch. Before the pandemic, they served people in the church dining room until the pandemic hit.
During the pandemic, each church has prepared lunches with a little crew, serving them at an outside central location.
Walla Walla's Christian ministry organization, Christian Aid Center, stepped up to serve lunches churches prepared and delivered to them.
Leaders of the church ministries, which also has a Sleep Center that provides lunches, connected with the county health department and adjusted how they were doing that so it was as safe as possible.
First Congregational UCC wrestled about the several addiction recovery groups it has hosted. Many adjusted to online meetings, so until recently no group or recovery group were meeting on site.
Two other church-related organizations in town held in-person meetings, but First Congregational has been erring on side of caution, said Nathaniel. It was hard but the groups were resilient stayed in touch.
The church put out surveys in mid-May, so they estimated that 80 to 90 percent of those who attend had had two doses of the vaccine and the remainder "are expecting and intending to get vaccinated," said Nathaniel.
"Our 'reopening with care' taskforce, helped guide our decisions. We have a doctor and a nurse, so we have tried to be objective in assessments. We did not make assumptions or just take anecdotal evidence on whether people had been vaccinated," he said.
For people who were not on computers or had difficulty to navigating to sign up, members of the congregation helped with that.
"Our people are inclined to trust data-driven medical science and were overjoyed when the vaccines were deemed safe and were available. Some volunteered at vaccination clinics, seeing that as a public service to care for community's wellness," said Nathaniel.
For folks who were nervous or reluctant, some members talked them through that.
"Understanding the science behind that is reassuring, I find," said Nathaniel. "Understanding that medical professionals who developed it have asked the right questions, also reassures."
Education on vaccinations has been more one-on-one between pastor and congregant talking about it or other members of congregation steppingd forward to help people get vaccinated.
Individuals have volunteered at county effort.
"Vaccination makes a big difference, that has been key in our church determining that we are being wise in returning to in-person worship in the sanctuary," he said.
"If we weren't at a place where such a strong level of our people had been vaccinated, it would have been a difficult decision. It would be really difficult for me to learn if somebody contracted a deadly virus because of participating in something at church. I feel responsible to protect their health," he said.
The congregation is on board.
"God doesn't demand human sacrifice to worship. I've not felt the need to rush it in to do it in an unwise way," said Nathaniel.
The congregation has been among the privileged in this pandemic with many working folks able to continue to work, either because they are in professions that adapted—health care, education—or working class in sectors like building, farming and health care where they kept their jobs. Folks on fixed incomes were managing, he said.
Stresses in the congregation have been more emotional, psychological, and spiritual.
The eviction moratorium has kept homeless numbers from going up. Those with homes and kitchens who needed food assistance have been going to the food bank. Their numbers have increased. The line is blocks long every week, Nathaniel said.
The lunch program serves those living in more precarious situations.
"The housing market in Walla Walla continues to be bonkers, hard to afford homes, and it has gotten worse over time," he said, uncertain what's ahead in housing.
"We have weathered the pandemic ok," Nathaniel said. "Many churches are struggling because of splits, dividing members on understanding of soundness of vaccinations or whether this pandemic is serious. Our congregation has been on board with treating this seriously and being cautious, careful and creative, and being church for each other," said Nathaniel.
"I've appreciated how deep the roots of our faith are in experiences of upheaval, catastrophe and challenge. The testimonies of the Bible come from challenging times, in which people relied on their experience of how God was at work," he said.
"We benefit from out roots. Our church community has weathered depressions, world wars and pandemics before. We have a history of resilience. Elder members who experienced World War II have let us know we will get through this together. It's just another thing to weather, we will be ok," he said.
"There is a sense of tried and true wisdom I've really appreciated. There's a light at the end of the tunnel," Nathaniel said. "We'll just keep moving. People come together to care for each other when times are tough."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree,June, 2021