Ministry to all
The Salvation Army had anticipated that 2020 would be its year to gain a sharper vision of the future. Then COVID–19 happened and the world’s entire socioeconomic landscape suddenly blurred. Nonetheless, this global Christian social service and disaster relief agency remained focused on doing what it has done for the past 155 years—meeting the needs of people everywhere. Today, staffers pack boxes with canned and frozen food for sidewalk and drive–thru pick–ups; others prepare them for home deliveries at doorsteps. Counselors comfort people via phones and video conferences. As the pandemic continues, the need becomes even clearer, particularly in many minority communities.
Signs of the times
Along Route 59 in Suffern, N.Y., day laborers wearing caps, hoodies, jeans, and sneakers stand or sit on a curb, waiting for a flatbed or a pick–up truck to stop. They desperately hope to hear the words “get on, we have a job for you today!” In the past that would’ve easily happened, but now in this COVID–19 world, the roads are virtually empty and the few trucks that drive by, keep on going.
“If they don’t work during the day, their families don’t eat at night,” says Major Samuel Gonzalez, Hispanic Ministries Director for The Salvation Army in the USA Eastern Territory.
“They wonder if the pandemic is a sign that we are seeing the beginning of the end times.” Gonzalez knows that such ideas are taken seriously in communities that have already been hit by poverty and want. Weary, hungry, and frequently undocumented, they have already seen life come to an untimely end for friends and family whose only desire was to live the American Dream.
Now as a result of this global outbreak, Gonzalez believes that such workers and ultimately all of us will suffer a post–traumatic stress reminiscent of the horrific events of 9/11. “People are still recovering from it,” he says.
However, through his twinkling eyes, Gonzalez sees great opportunity and that gives him hope. “I’ve spoken to officers who are feeding needy families and offering emotional and spiritual care in Cleveland, Buffalo, the Queens section of New York City, Spring Valley, and in Puerto Rico,” he says with a broad smile.
When food distribution on the island of his birth came to a standstill because of government red tape, The Salvation Army’s goodwill from many years of disaster assistance in Puerto Rico helped clear the way for an effective COVID–19 response. “Today, food is being delivered to locations throughout the island,” Gonzalez says.
Those day laborers on Route 59 also have hope. “The Salvation Army is delivering food directly to the doorsteps of these unemployed workers,” says Gonzalez. “My wife and I are part of a ministry team of hotline counselors who answer their distress calls. In this way, we’re providing the emotional and spiritual care they need.”
Socially distant, spiritually close
“The Korean people are resilient and have an inner strength to survive,” says Lieutenant Grace Cho, an officer at the Salvation Army’s Queens (Flushing), N.Y., Corps Community Center. She speaks softly, and in an accented voice, chooses her words carefully. “But when people are spiritually down, they cannot help themselves or each other,” she says.
The Korean community has been hard hit by COVID–19. They live in close quarters, which makes social distancing rarely possible. The loss of jobs and hundreds of small business closures have caused feelings of frustration, fear, and depression.
Cho and other officers at the corps combat such outcomes by making “phone visitations.” These socially distant encounters are the best they can do under current government restrictions, but they are effective.
“We are spiritual people and are worship oriented,” says Cho, who is sure her congregation believes that God is sending them an important message. “Many people believe that He is trying to tell us something.”
Cho says the phone visitations are helping people prepare for the time when they will once again convene in the same space and hopefully with a grateful heart toward each other and God. “We are learning not to take God and each other for granted.” She quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Major Do sung Park, commanding officer of the Philadelphia Korean Corps, reflects on how The Salvation Army is helping families deal with the loss of life, income, and mobility. He says that this time at home is an opportunity to minister to people who would normally be at work. “We’re focusing on developing our faith. I’ve spoken to so many church members. These days of staying home from work means our faith in God must work overtime.”
COVID–19 is a particular challenge in the African American community. Having traditional jobs in essential industries such as healthcare, food service, hospitality, and transportation has resulted in high rates of exposure, infection, and deaths. The problem is exacerbated by underlying health conditions and is further complicated by a troubled American history and culture.
Envoy Vangerl Pegues says feelings of grief, isolation, and even denial are common and need to be addressed. “People need to see how real this thing is.” Before becoming a Salvation Army officer, she served in the U.S. Army.
“When someone said to me, ‘I know you don’t really believe that virus stuff is true, do you?’ I thought, What is this man saying?”
Pegues’s sister–in–law recently died from COVID–19. “We’re going to do the funeral service on Zoom. There’s no other way. I just said, ‘we’ve got to do something; we’ve got to do it this way.’ We’re doing a lot of things that we’ve never done before. When we get out of this, we’re going to do things differently. Things will never be the same.”
Shirley Williams, a local library literacy consultant and a Salvationist at the Salvation Army’s Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Philadelphia, Pa., says that neighboring families have been deeply affected by COVID–19, including her own. “My sister–in–law just went home from the hospital on Monday. She had been in there for about 16 days. She’s still on oxygen, but at least she’s at home. It’s better to call her there than wait for a text from the hospital. I couldn’t go in and see her.” Several other members of the Kroc Center, which is in a predominately African American community, have similar stories.
“We are trying to figure out what pastoral care looks like when you can’t even communicate with the family,” says Major Juanita M. Stanford. She and her husband Major Demetrius Stanford serve as corps officers at the Kroc Center. Some frustration is evident in Major Juanita’s usually upbeat voice as she talks about the separation from loved ones. “Two people in particular who are dear to me fell victim to the virus. She and her son have both recovered, praise God. It’s just so scary,” says Stanford.
… even with their faces covered, and as people of color, I still see them; I acknowledge and value who they are as people … they’ve not been forgotten. Captain Tawny–Cowen Zanders
The Kroc Center serves as a major food distribution hub for 18 Salvation Army corps and units in the region. Its 25 remaining staff members pack as many as 3,000 boxes of food and distribute them each week. The immediate community is also served meals via a daily walk–up and drive–thru.
“We’re still formulating a routine,” Stanford says. “Monday is a packing day for us. We pack between 1,100 and 1,700 boxes. Tuesday is delivery day for all of those meals, including frozen food. We deliver in Philadelphia and then the other corps come and pick up. Wednesday our administrative team meets and the warehouse restocks; Thursday, more packing. Friday, more deliveries. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are our drive–thru meal service days. We’re also doing every program that we’ve usually done, but virtually online.”
Now in its 10th year, the Kroc Center has helped spur some economic growth in the community as there is currently a grocery store and shopping plaza nearby, but it’s the only one for miles. This makes the Kroc Center’s feeding program an essential ingredient. Despite long days, sleepless nights are common for the Stanfords. “We’re just trying to be extra prayerful and sensitive,” says Major Juanita. “We have no idea what people are experiencing when they go into the community as well as the turmoil that might be happening in their own home. Many people are forced to shelter in place in some really unsafe situations.”
The need for spiritual care is great among people in the community says Major Demetrius. “I hear them talk when they drive up or walk up to pick up food boxes. Their conversation tells it all. They want to be fed, both physically and spiritually.”
“We talk about dealing with fear, a new way of ministry, as well as having moments of fun,” says Major Juanita. “Because we have a full complement of programming, we’re also checking in on members of our congregation. They’re listening to the news, which is quite anxiety provoking.
“People need to know there are signs of life, goodness, and hope in the Lord as well as fun things outside of what is consuming everyone’s hearts and minds. I try to smile with my eyes over the top of my mask into every car that drives up. I pray with people who allow me and just try to give them a positive experience.”
Captain Tawny Cowen–Zanders, who serves as the Army’s divisional secretary for Greater Philadelphia, also believes in the power of smiling eyes. She used hers recently to reassure people who had stood on line for four hours waiting for food after a delivery truck had broken down. “I use my eyes to talk to people; I wrap my eyes around them as I would my arms.” Her husband, Captain Kevin Zanders, is the Kroc Center administrator.
The Zanders’ interest in doing such ministry goes far beyond just the business side. “I want them to know that, even with their faces covered, and as people of color, I still see them; I acknowledge and value who they are as people. I want them to know that they’ve not been forgotten.” In doing so, Captain Tawny believes she is helping to restore trust and bring healing to God’s people.
by Warren L. Maye