“How are we going to survive this pandemic?” That was the question everyone was asking in mid-March. My organization was no exception.
I am the director of a community-engagement initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore called The Center: Mission Outside the Box. We equip people and congregations to get involved in their local communities -- to partner with their neighbors to strengthen the community for everyone who lives and works there.
One way we do that is by hosting church groups of all ages for immersive mission experiences in and around Baltimore in which we teach the theology of missions and the root causes of poverty and racism.
How could we host groups from all over the country in a 40-person dormitory during a pandemic?
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity recognizes institutions that act creatively in the face of challenges while remaining faithful to their mission and convictions. Winners received $10,000 to continue their work.
By mid-April, it had become clear that COVID-19 was not going away. So when our steering committee voted to cancel all our in-person mission weeks, it was not surprising. But the decision felt heavy.
For nine years, since The Center’s founding, summer mission weeks had been among the most intensive, exhausting and yet deeply rewarding parts of our year. And summer program fees had represented between 65% and 70% of our annual revenue -- revenue that was now gone.
But thanks to a successful annual fund campaign in 2019, we had a year of operating funds in our reserves, which would give us time to pivot to new revenue streams. This fall, we will be expanding our pastoral coaching, congregational consulting and curriculum offerings in the hopes that we can build new sources of revenue.
After the vote to cancel our summer programs, one wise member of our steering committee said, “I think we should take a moment to grieve what we just decided. This was a huge decision.”
I felt my eyes well up with tears. There was a long silence as we all absorbed the gravity of what was happening. He was right -- we needed to acknowledge the emotions the decision stirred up. So much was being canceled, postponed or lost.
We had worked for years to build a new way of engaging in short-term mission. Our model had centered on expanding the capacity of local churches to work on special neighborhood initiatives that would benefit from the extra volunteers our visiting groups could provide.
At the same time, the visiting church groups could learn a partnership-based, missio Dei-centered theology of community engagement through a combination of hands-on, relational mission experiences and an in-depth curriculum.
It is a model that works. Over the past nine years, I have witnessed the extraordinary power of relationships to build bridges across cultural, theological, racial and geographic difference; to crack open the deep-rooted assumptions that inform prejudice; to break through fear of the other; to create space for God to draw wide the circle of God’s children.
I have been amazed at the energy and willingness to take risks that is sparked by the offer of a few more volunteers from our visiting church groups.
This summer, none of that was going to be possible.
I was surprised at the deep sense of loss my staff and I felt over the next few weeks. Eventually, though, making the tough decision, grieving it and moving through the loss cleared the way for something new.
We began to think creatively about how to adapt, about new opportunities the pandemic was making possible that we hadn’t seen before. Having a blank slate before us prompted us to be more innovative and to listen differently for the leading of the Holy Spirit.
We began asking ourselves several questions that proved essential as we made the pivot away from in-person summer mission weeks and toward a different way of equipping churches to engage with their communities:
- What were other ways to fulfill our mission to “equip churches and individuals to engage boldly with their neighborhoods -- to get involved where Christ’s love and justice are already at work”?
- Were there new ways that we could support our church and neighborhood partners?
- What did church leaders need right now, and how might we support their ministry?
- Was there a way to offer an online version of our mission experiences?
We started with the central tenet of our curriculum: listening. We got on the phone and talked with our 44 church and neighborhood partners to find out how they were doing and what they needed. We also reached out to the 47 churches and community organizations nationwide who have brought groups through our programs in recent years.
We heard pastors asking for forums where they could find support, as well as brainstorm and problem-solve with colleagues. We heard youth directors desperate for something they could offer their young people. We heard church and neighborhood leaders worried about the widening digital divide exposed by school closures and the switch to online learning. We heard pastors unsure how to respond to the growing needs in their communities during a time when their parishioners and their neighbors also needed to be socially distant.
And we heard a lot about food insecurity -- about families and senior adults who had already been living without enough food and were now even more strapped because of the closure of schools and changes in other vital programs. We heard about gig workers -- a whole neighborhood of artists whose livelihood was not possible during a pandemic -- unsure where they would find enough food to get through.
The stories they told are now reflected in statistics about hunger over the past several months. The Maryland Food Bank reports that nationwide, an additional 17 million people will be food insecure in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we listened, we were able to chart a path forward. While the curriculum we’d normally taught during mission experiences could not be taught in the same way, it could still be a helpful resource for churches who were seeking ways to engage locally.
We could create a landing page on our website connecting people looking for ways to volunteer with churches and community groups working to distribute food. Our staff could help local partners with food distribution and assist urban farm partners with planting, weeding and harvesting produce that would go to local food pantries.
We could offer distance-learning mission weeks, combining live online programs with self-directed activities that would ask participants to get outside and into their communities. We could host online “Community Engagement Conversations” for pastors and lay leaders in our Presbytery -- now offered monthly.
We could expand our community engagement and leadership development consulting with congregations seeking to become more involved with their neighborhoods.
And we could document and lift up the stories of churches who were adapting creatively during a time of crisis. We put together an audio documentary project, “Heeding the Call,” led by Tracy Watts, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based documentarian, and our staff fellow Liv Thomas, who interviewed and recorded 23 church leaders from around the country and created 14 short podcasts.
When asked lately how I am doing, I have used the word “unmoored.” The rhythm that had defined our work is gone, for now, and it is easy to feel as though I am drifting. But there is another side to being unmoored: being freed from the tether that keeps you in the same place.
Our experience of losing the ministry we had worked tirelessly to create, of grieving that loss and of having to find something new in the empty space is exactly what we teach churches to do.
When they are seeking to think in new ways about engaging with their communities, we share with them this wisdom: To make space for something new, you first have to let go of the way things have always been.
It is scary, and it can cause powerful grief. As you drift away from your tether, however, the Holy Spirit will carry you on new currents.
I now realize that our question at the outset of COVID-19 should not have been, “How are we going to survive this pandemic?” but rather, “What new thing is God calling us into?”