For new worshipping communities in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – communities that by definition are experimental and often built around relationships – the COVID-19 pandemic has brought both opportunities and challenge.
It’s hard, for example, to be a dinner church when, because of a pandemic, people cannot gather around a table for dinner.
And being a fellowship serving immigrants and refugees is “centered around being together,” said Gad Mpoyo, an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo and the organizing pastor of Shalom International Ministry, a multicultural church in Clarkston, Georgia.
“They’re wildly creative, but it’s been painful,” including financially, said Nikki Collins, national coordinator of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities program. “With a lot of our immigrant communities, being together in person is so important. The job loss has been huge in a lot of these communities because of COVID. And the church is not just a once-a-week thing. It’s a whole social network and support structure.”
Despite those difficulties, grant applications for seed grants – the first round of funding for new 1001 projects, with up to $10,000 available per community – is holding strong, and many 1001 communities have found creative ways to connect online and even start new ministries or try new approaches, Collins said.
Collins said she suspects that in 2021, “we’re going to see a lot of new things start. I was really worried that this was just going to crush the will to start new things, but it has not. … People are scared. But this moment has also pushed us to innovate, and we’re learning that there are some really good things that have come from the innovation.”
At The Open Table in Kansas City, Missouri, “dinner is our communion,” said Nick Pickrell, a pastor and organizer of the community. Before the pandemic, the dinner church met every other week for artistic expression and exploration of the places and ways that spirituality and social justice intersect.
The goal, Pickrell said, was to use those gatherings to form contemplative activists, with a dual commitment to justice and exploring Christian mysticism. “Our theology remained grounded in things that are actually affecting the community” in the struggle for liberation, he said.
Last March, at the start of the pandemic, “we immediately ended our in-person gatherings. That happened very fast.” And the months since then have brought a series of changes: including a burst of online anti-racism training and explorations of ways to connect online, through yoga classes, Monday night prayer gatherings and outdoor prayer stations and art walks. Zoom dinner together was a no-go – they tried it, Pickrell said, but found people turned off their cameras when it came time to chew.
With grant funding, The Open Table already had trained cohorts of leaders to do anti-racism training. After the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “we saw a massive increase in folks asking for training,” from sports teams to schools to nonprofit groups such as Engineers Without Borders — all done virtually because of COVID-19, Pickrell said.
Despite that, the pandemic has undermined the community’s finances — hitting hard enough that in October, The Open Table cut back its paid leadership, with curator and co-pastor Wendie Brockhaus departing. “It’s been really hard,” Pickrell said. “Our community is grieving. … We took a financial hit, but we’re finding ways to work it out.”
Navigating the financial losses has been particularly difficult for new worshipping communities that rely on events for fundraising — from dinners to concerts and auctions, Collins said. About 550 of the 650 new worshipping communities the program has supported since its launch in 2021 are still active, she said.
“There are some that won’t make it through this,” she said. “For many of them, that was already on the horizon anyway.”
During the pandemic, the PC(USA)’s 1001 program has taken funds that were budgeted for events and used that money to provide about 150 pivot grants of $1,000 each, mostly going to communities helping people struggling with the impact of the pandemic or serving immigrants or communities of color.
Training has shifted online — which means that some bivocational pastors who didn’t have the time or money to travel to a conference have been able to participate.
For a virtual retreat in October (a gathering originally scheduled to be held at Montreat Conference Center), the leaders mailed each participant a kit with snacks, a finger labyrinth and art supplies. They gathered for evening prayer on Zoom, then – instead of requiring more time online – asked participants to go off on their own for 24 to 48 hours for a sort of private retreat, even if it was on the back deck or a corner of a bedroom. Periodically each would open an envelope with a prompt for journaling, prayer or reflection. They gathered early for morning prayer and in the evening for a virtual campfire — the snacks included s’more kits. The final activity: craft a spiritual self-care plan for the months to come.
Collins also is seeing creativity at work about online ministry — including from Christopher Benek, pastor of First Miami Presbyterian Church in Florida, who is also the founding pastor of CoCreators, which is exploring the potential of a virtual reality platform for ministry.
In Clarkston, at Shalom International Ministry, “when COVID hit we had to social distance and figure out ways we can still be church, still be a community,” Mpoyo said. Much has moved online, but some immigrants have “issues of internet access and even the speed of the internet,” he said.
Shalom’s after-school tutoring program has shifted online, and Shalom has worked to be a liaison between students studying remotely and their schools, Mpoyo said. “It has been a challenge, because the students stay home and most of their parents go out to work, like in a chicken processing plant,” he said. Many older children are responsible for taking care of younger siblings. So Shalom volunteers and staff communicate with the schools, helping the students navigate their classes and homework. Each week the church sends food boxes to students’ homes to help address food insecurity.
Early in the pandemic, some immigrants who worship at Shalom lost their jobs when companies shut down or were limiting in-person operations, Mpoyo said. Shalom started a COVID-19 fund to help families pay for food, rent and utilities. Since those early months, many have returned to work, Mpoyo said, although some who had jobs at restaurants or hotels are still looking for work.
Having shifted to online worship last March, Mpoyo has led sessions on technology for other new worshipping communities both in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta and at greater distance — helping, for example, a new immigrant fellowship in North Carolina that was trying to learn how to use Zoom and Facebook for online worship.
Shalom conducts its services in English, but often includes Scripture passages or hymns in other languages. During the pandemic, “we are reaching a lot of people,” Mpoyo said — such as a Nigerian from Texas who watched online, and then sent a note saying, “really, you made my day. When I listened to that song, it reminded me of home and family. Just hearing that song in my language made a difference.” Moving online has meant that immigrants across the country now are joining Shalom for worship.
For international students in college whose parents live outside the United States, the pandemic was particularly difficult last spring when their campuses closed abruptly, Mpoyo said. Some didn’t have a place to stay, so they came to Mpoyo’s house — some traveling from far away. Those students helped with the transition to online ministry.
“Literally, we started doing church in our home,” Mpoyo said — with each student contributing gifts of singing, of prayer, of tech support. At one point, he had 14 people in the house, and “we used every space,” he said. “It was like an intentional community.”
Before the pandemic, Shalom had planned a fundraising concert and fashion show featuring clothing from a variety of cultures. That was cancelled. But in November, about 500 people watched an online fundraising concert in honor of Shalom’s ninth anniversary, and the financial response with gifts and pledges “was really good,” Mpoyo said.
He reminds his community to “continue to trust in God,” leaning on a passage from Jeremiah 29 in which the prophet instructs the exiles in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city in which they were living. “When we look at the context, they were in exile,” Mpoyo said. In the pandemic, “this seems like another form of exile, where we are away from home and from one another, but at the same time we are called to seek the well-being of our community by showing hospitality.”
So he tells his people: call or text one another, pray for each other, show hospitality by remembering birthdays and life events, “even thought we cannot be together physically.”
Also, tap into resilience. “I’ve been reminding the community we are resilient people. We left our countries. We stayed in places like refugee camps. We kept holding onto our faith. Even in this time of pandemic, let’s keep holding onto our faith and trusting God to heal. This will have an end.”