The weight of COVID fell more heavily on some than others in 2020. Homeless populations and addiction communities faced unique challenges brought about by the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns.
In the midst of these trials, two Brethren in Christ U.S. congregations saw this year as an opportunity to share the love of Jesus with those most in need. Valley Chapel BIC and New Life Community Church found themselves uniquely positioned to open their doors and serve forgotten people in the midst of sometimes overwhelming circumstances.
A Pastor with a Vision
Long before she became a BIC pastor, Sue Mathie felt convicted by God that churches should keep their doors open to those in need. God had asked her what she would do if she was sick. “Well, I’d call the doctor,” Sue replied. “He then asked me, ‘what do you do when you’re spiritually in need?’”
Valley Chapel BIC is a small congregation in East Canton, Ohio, that was fortunate to have twelve people in attendance on a Sunday morning before the pandemic. When Sue became its pastor in 2017, she was finally in a position where she could work to make that vision of an open church a reality.
Opening the Doors to the Least of These
In the Fall of 2019, Sue alongside other volunteers, started visiting homeless shelters on Sunday mornings. As people left the shelters, the volunteers invited them to Valley Chapel for breakfast and church services.
The shelters were often full because of the cold weather, and many people took them up on their offer. Sue and her small team filled their personal cars and brought as many people as they could to Valley Chapel each Sunday.
The newcomers brought excitement and new life to the congregation. Then the pandemic hit.
Creating Home for People Who Are Homeless
As lockdowns went into place around the world, many programs that served East Canton’s homeless population closed. “Nobody took any consideration for those who were on the street or in shelters trying to get housing,” Sue explained. “Shelters were not allowing any new residents, and all government help was shut down.”
That was the start of Valley Chapel’s twelve-hour Sundays. Starting at 8:30 a.m., Sue and her volunteers picked people up and brought them back to the church. Throughout the day, they served all three meals, conducted church services as normal, and watched Christian movies in the afternoon. In the evening, they gave people a ride back to the shelter they were staying in.
Valley Chapel continued this pattern through the rest of the year. “We’ve had well over a hundred people come through our doors from the street in 2020,” Sue said. “Those who come on a Sunday from the shelter we may not see again, but they become our family.”
Today, Valley Chapel is still small, but it’s growing. Sunday morning attendance averages thirty – nearly triple what it had been this time last year. At the end of 2020, they were pleased to welcome twelve new members to their congregation.
Because most of the people now attending Valley Chapel are from the shelters and don’t have a stable income, Sue gives all the glory to God for the many ways he has provided for the church and its ministry. Thanks to partnerships with individuals, ministries, and organizations, Valley Chapel has been blessed to “never run short on food,” said Sue.
As for Pastor Sue, she continues to lead the charge, praying for enough energy to keep up and for workers to come alongside her in this ministry. “The harvest truly is ripe.”
Serving the Addiction Community
“Without you, I don’t know where I’d be.” This may sound overdramatic, but Ryan Brown, senior pastor of New Life Community Church in Carlisle, Pa., knows it’s not. “I’ve heard it a lot over the past few months from individuals in our recovery groups,” said Ryan, “and I know it’s true.”
At its core, New Life Community Church is focused on finding unique ways to take Church outside the walls of their building and bring new life to those around them. One specific area of focus for them is addiction recovery. Before the pandemic hit, New Life hosted nine support groups that met regularly in their facilities.
“We want to meet gaps in the community that then become on-ramps for people to come into relationship with Christ,” said Ryan.
This passion and drive for community involvement placed New Life Community at the forefront of Carlisle’s COVID-19 response. As stay-at-home orders went into effect, leaders from Carlisle – including Ryan – started meeting virtually each week to identify the greatest areas of need in the community and discuss how best to respond.
New Life collaborated with a local food bank to purchase produce and made specific efforts to reach out to Spanish-speaking families. They wrote grants to get funding for cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) for local daycares. They partnered with a local college to place orders for PPE at a discounted rate.
As the pandemic dragged on, one group experiencing especially heavy impact emerged – those in the midst of active addiction and recovery.
A Vulnerable Population
The damage and stress of the COVID pandemic has compounded on those who struggle with substance addiction. The American Medical Association reported in October that more than forty states have seen increases in opioid-related mortality in 20201. Carlisle was also seeing this uptick as the police chief told Ryan that they were receiving more calls about overdoses and drunkenness during the day.
Many churches and other facilities in the Carlisle area that hosted Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) groups had closed their doors. Some offered online and virtual opportunities, but that simply wasn’t working for many involved in the programs.
For those who had been winning the battle against their addiction, having their support system yanked out from under them could signal the start of a relapse. According to Ryan, “A lot of them were in need of the in-person community that comes along with AA and NA.”
Opening Doors to the Community
In April 2020, the church started welcoming existing AA and NA groups into their facility. “We didn’t have any in-person services at that time,” Ryan said. “We opened specifically to meet this need.” Before too long, the nine groups they hosted before the pandemic surged to 20 groups meeting each week.
As a result, the lives of many in their community have been directly impacted. Even though AA and NA are organized separately from New Life, many of the groups have leaders and participants who attend the church. Through these connections, several people have rededicated their lives to Jesus, been baptized, and have begun serving at New Life Community.
In the end, Pastor Ryan believes that action and service are intrinsically linked to faith. “We can say a whole lot,” he said, “but really it’s our actions that speak louder than words.”
Love is an Action
In Matthew 25:34-35, the king says to the righteous, “Take your inheritance…. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in…”
Despite the differences in their churches’ sizes, networks, and resources, Sue and Ryan led their congregations to bring the love of Jesus to people around them who were struggling in the midst of the COVID pandemic. In their own unique contexts, Valley Chapel and New Life Community found ways to help their communities and shine the light of the Gospel to those most in need.