TUPELO • Even when COVID-19 caused churches to close their physical doors, some churches refused to allow it to stop their outreach. From hosting food drives to offering aid to the homeless, churches such as Chandlers Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church of Verona, Life Culture Ministry of Tupelo and St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church of Amory found ways to continue serving their community through their ministry.
“What this pandemic did is sort of show me how we need to get our priorities in order,” said Pastor LT Mabry of St. Paul MB Church. “From here on out, my priorities will be to serve the people … We have got to meet the needs of our communities whatever it be.”
Early into the coronavirus pandemic, Reverend Lesha M. Agnew decided to see what Chandlers Temple CME Church could do to serve the community following an extended Spring Break. The church partnered with the Tupelo/Lee Hunger Coalition, and now, in partnership with the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box program, Chandlers Temple has moved to weekly food pantry pickups. July 28 was their fourth week providing food through the program, distributing food boxes to approximately 400 families.
People come and pick up food boxes. Agnew describes her community as tight knit, with people picking up food boxes for those who don’t have transportation but need food. Agnew and church volunteer Kathy Smith also offer some deliveries.
The pastor since 2018, Agnew said providing food boxes was already part of their ministry, but the pandemic made addressing the food shortage in the community more pressing.
“[We are] trying to make sure people are able to have some types of healthy food and also try to help them keep money [for other necessities]. If we could supply them with some type of food to help them along, then they would have opportunity to try to save some of their personal monies,” Agnew said.
Mabry, who works in the school system, said he knew a lot of children who depend on cafeteria food as part of their meals. When schools had to close for the second half of spring semester, Mabry knew there were a lot of unemployed people and single parents who would be struggling. St. Paul MB Church began doing weekly feedings when the pandemic hit, paying for it out of pocket before Mabry was introduced to Mid-South Food Bank’s mobile food pantry program. The church hosted its second mobile pantry on Wednesday, and Mabry said the eventual goal is to offer the pantry monthly. He summed up the words of another preacher in saying that one of the things the pandemic did was “shut the church to make the church go out” and do more outreach.
“One of the things I’ve always said is that the church has not been closed. The building has been closed, but. ... when Jesus talks about the church, he is talking about the organism so the organism, the church itself, can never be closed,” Mabry said. “As an extension of ministry, it just shows us that even though our building may be closed, that ministry is still going on because we are still supposed to be meeting the needs of the people.”
Pastor Charles Moore of Life Culture Ministry echoed the sentiment of using this time to find ways to serve people. Moore, his wife Tonya Moore and Kecia Williams are the founders and administrators of Showers of Love, which offers showers and laundry to people who are homeless on Saturday mornings and meals on Sunday evenings.
What has motivated Showers of Love to keep serving during the pandemic was the fact that “homeless people are still humans,” Moore said. They have switched to curbside pickup for meals, and for showers, clients are required to wear masks within the facility and showers are sanitized.
“Many of us are just one mistake or situation away from being homeless, so our compassion and humanity is what keeps us driving,” Moore said. “...We have something that we can use to help them with or make their lives [easier and] to give them hope. Many of the people that come through, they say that just taking a shower helps break the monotony of them being homeless even for the moment.”
Showers of Love is an extension of touching people and helping change lives, Moore said. He sees his own ministry as creating a culture of giving back to humanity rather than just teaching. A self-funded organization, Moore said they are run by volunteers. They have some community counselors, such as LifeCore, who donate their time, and Showers of Love tries to be a place that offers resources to housing and other services. They are currently looking for a grant writer to help apply for additional aid. Showers of Love is finding ways to service the needs of people by having conversations, communicating and teaming up with others.
“The main thing is we’re listening. We try to hear what people are saying, hear where people are hurting, hear what the need is,” Moore said. “...It’s a twofold way. It’s listening and hearing, and then go serve it.”
Mabry sees St. Paul’s food pantry as an outreach ministry. At the church’s first mobile food pantry with Mid-South Food Bank, they served over 400 households, and served over 350 households during the second mobile food pantry. Agnew wholeheartedly believes in order for a church to be sustainable, it must be actively engaged. She sees the church as a place where the community and religion can meet to address unmet needs and hopes to create a culture where the church is more than just a Sunday experience. The community has been grateful, and since the ministry is not limited to just church members, she sees it as a way of spreading the gospel in a broader context.
“Even though people are not in the physical building, they have come to understand that the church is essentially not made up of brick and mortar, and does not mean, if you’re not having a Sunday morning worship service, then you are not the church,” Agnew said. “We are touching more lives where we are now...our spreading of the gospel in going forth in ways that we would have never dreamed … [and] we are boots on the ground in so many ways.”
At her own weekly drives, she encourages people to practice being good neighbors and making those in need aware of the program. Moore noted seeing more churches doing food pantries, but also noted within his own work, he has seen fear of COVID-19 keep others from volunteering. While Showers of Love has received donations, such as a recent water drive where people brought approximately 50 cases of water, he wants to encourage churches to “follow the intuition that is within and don’t allow fear to direct you.”
“I would encourage the church to go back and think the way Jesus thought. Think with intelligence, think from the power within,” Moore said. “...There are people who are out here who are giving who are very compassionate. They just don’t know how to give and stay protected.”
The church has to continue to give people hope, Mabry said. He hopes and prays his church sees the need to do more outreach ministry, stating they “can’t go back to the way they did before.” While he is hoping and praying for God to bring the cure to COVID-19, he hopes people take this time to evaluate their lives, get their priorities straight and see what is really important. He sees the church as needing to play a major role for people looking for answers in a plethora of ways outside of looking for answers about a vaccine or cure.
“You got people who are out of work. You have people this week whose unemployment just got cut. You got people that probably will never return to jobs. You got people with children who did not get to do a formal graduation, so the church has to continue to play a vital part ... because if anything, we have to continue to give people hope,” Mabry said.