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A spiritual renaissance

Harlem, N.Y., is famous for its history; the social and cultural renaissance of the late 1930s, its role during the civil rights era, and in recent years, its economic boom and gentrification. Since COVID–19 hit the predominately African American community, a spiritual reawakening appears to be happening in the lives of residents who have lived there for generations as well as for newcomers to the area.

“Personally, I think God is giving us a golden opportunity to go back to the basics,” says Lieutenant Chaka Watch, corps officer of the Harlem Temple Corps. “You know how people get very busy with those things that are not really important? We neglect the relationship we’re supposed to have with God. That relationship is what can actually propel us forward to fulfill the other aspects of our lives.

“We are accustomed to going to the restaurants, yet we don’t even pray over the meal. Today, God has closed all of the restaurants. We’ve taken God out of the schools. Today, He has closed the schools. We go to basketball games and all of these things and we even skip church. Today, God has closed the churches and told us we are going to worship in our homes.

“So now, He has taken away everything that is distracting us from another opportunity to revisit our relationship with Him. Everything starts with Him. So, we have an opportunity to reevaluate our living. Scripture reminds us that ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ (Matt. 4:4).”

Lieutenant Chaka and his wife Lieutenant Emeline Watch are from Zimbabwe. Years ago, when they arrived in the United States, they soldiered at Harlem Temple. Now they are leaders of the corps and are noticing the change in attitude toward God that is taking place as the community struggles to make sense of the pandemic.


Answering the questions

“For example, people ask, ‘There are no funerals, so what do I do? Where is God? What is going on?’ More people are now talking about God. They say, ‘I need you to pray for me,’” says Lieutenant Chaka.

“Counseling calls are coming in and we’re calling members of the society. Not only are they church members, but we’re now dealing with everyone else who has issues,” he says. Lieutenant Emeline, who recently earned a PhD degree in psychology, is taking many of those calls.

These conversations have also happened as the Lieutenants Watch and their staff and volunteers distribute food boxes to community members who visit their pantry and receive doorstep deliveries. “We are one of the few if not the only church around here that’s still open,” says Lieutenant Chaka. “When COVID–19 started, people rushed to buy food from the grocery stores. Now that the food is beginning to run out, they know that they can come here to The Salvation Army. We’re giving out food every day and they’re coming. We’re seeing more families coming. The numbers for the food pantry have doubled.”

At this point, the corps is serving approximately 300 meals per day. “That’s a lot because we’re used to serving about half of that. We’re serving about 60 families a day,” he says.

The corps is using funds raised during Christmas time that was designed to sustain it for the whole year. “We are in May and we are running out of money,” he says. “We’re talking to donors and looking for grants to sustain ourselves.”

The good news is that workers are fully equipped and have plenty of masks and sanitizer. Known as a fun–loving personality, Lieutenant Watch nonetheless adheres to Centers of Disease Control guidelines. “Of course, we have to be cautious about the way we are dealing with people every day. Social distancing is one of our priorities. In the midst of all this, we must be very attentive,” he says.

Watch says golden opportunities also loom in the future. “I’ve started to minister on Facebook, and I think it will remain part of our outreach even after COVID–19 is over.”

by Warren L. Maye