Groups respond to pandemic’s fiscal challenges

Apr 27, 2020 by and

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Less than a month after the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellations and closures in communities big and small, Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA established a “Hope Fund” to help congregations respond to the impacts of coronavirus.

It is just one of many ways Mennonite congregations, conferences and agencies are responding to economic challenges affecting millions of households.

Western District’s Hope Fund was announced April 6, and conference minister Heidi Regier Kreider said contributions began coming in immediately.

“We wanted a mechanism for resources to pass on to congregations, because we have people who want to help,” she said.

People have contacted Western District asking if they can share their unneeded Economic Impact Payment stimulus money with others in need.

Kreider’s answer: “Definitely. We can contribute it to congregations that need it more.”

Kreider was inspired by the Shalom Fund of Franconia/Eastern District Conference, which by April 28 had raised $66,000 toward its goal of $100,000.

“I see pastoral leaders reaching out to connect with as many resources as they can to help their members, including the resources of prayer and communication,” she said. “One pastor is buying groceries and sharing with members who can’t afford that.”

Franconia/Eastern District executive minister Stephen Kriss said several congregations are responding to meeting food needs.

“We’ve been privileged to have good partners — farmers who donated a ton of potatoes, business owners who have been happy collaborators, church members who have taken hold of the ministry of sharing resources,” he said.

Churches in hard-hit Pennsylvania communities like Philadelphia and Allentown, along with others in Tampa, Fla., are working together to become food distribution centers.

In the cases of at least two pairs of Western District churches, one is helping another because of relationships already in place between pastors and awareness of need.

“I’m really pleased to see that kind of direct response,” Kreider said. “The more local and closer to the ground it is, the easier it can be due to less bureaucracy.”

‘Grants are a lifeline’

At a broader level, a $550,000 COVID-19 Congregational Relief Fund established by Everence, Mennonite Disaster Service and Mennonite Central Committee U.S. quickly received hundreds of requests for more than double the beginning funds. MDS Canada’s board approved a similar $100,000 Canadian fund.

Within a week of the launch on April 13, Everence had received more than 150 applications requesting up to $5,000. By April 27, 252 applications requesting more than $1.2 million had been received. Eighty grants for $371,810 had been approved. A great majority of applications come from churches serving racially or ethnically diverse communities with needs centering on lost jobs and income, bringing ministry to a standstill.

An April 28 joint release included an urgent call for additional charitable donations at mds.mennonite.net/covid-19-donations.

“These grants are a lifeline for many churches that serve the most vulnerable in these economic crises,” said Dina Gonzalez-Pina, MCC ethnicity and gender equity specialist. “We are one body. Let our generosity resource the members who need it most.”

MB relief fund

The U.S. Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches established a COVID-19 Church Relief Fund to assist MB churches facing financial crisis. MB Foun­dation started the fund with $60,000 and invited donors to match it. As of April 24, $41,805 was pledged.

In addition, USMB national director Don Morris invited congregations to join him in a 24-hour period of prayer and fasting April 21-22.

“Although we might humbly ask God to heal our land, to protect our loved ones and to allow us to use the events of COVID-19 for enhanced evangelism and connection with people, I’d like to encourage us to use the time to truly listen to the Holy Spirit, to be in God’s Word and to spend time in worship and praise to the One who loves us and has given us life,” Morris wrote in the invitation. “It’s a time to humble ourselves before God and to be on our knees together.”

Federal forgivable loans

Congregations, conferences and church agencies are also humbling themselves by applying for Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program loans. Western District is one of several MC USA conferences that applied for the loans, which can be forgiven if used for payroll and mortgage costs.

In California and Arizona, Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference applied for a federal payroll protection loan, but executive conference minister Clare Ann Ruth-Heffelbower said the program ran out of money before the conference’s bank processed the application. Some hope was restored April 23 when Congress authorized an additional $321 billion for small businesses.

PSMC’s finances have been particularly impacted by pandemic store closures.

Full Circle Thrift Store in Altadena, Calif., provides all support for the conference’s mission and resource activities. The store closed on March 19, just before state and county authorities issued stay-at-home orders.

“With one quarter left in the fiscal year in which the store will likely have no or very little revenue, the issue is not only staff­ing questions and what we can’t do programmatically but also how much of PSMC’s cash can or should be spent to keep the store in a position to reopen,” Ruth-Heffelbower wrote by email. “There isn’t a lot to work with.”

Few theological qualms

Michael Danner, MC USA associate executive director for church vitality and engagement, said nearly every conference applied for federal loans, as did MC USA itself.

While some congregations are taking their time to consider the implications of accepting government assistance, Danner isn’t hearing doubts from conference ministers.

“I asked if there’s any theological pushback, and I haven’t found any,” he said. “. . . I think there’s a shift in our understanding of government relative to social programming. Our churches are full of public school teachers and public sector workers. The government does a lot of things we don’t like with the military and violence, but there are also social goods.”

Kreider said COVID-19 is a unique situation, and the church’s relationship with the government can’t be compared to times when the public has been pushed to galvanize around something like a war effort.

“Participating in the common good and helping move resources to where they can continue to do good for the broader constituency was my motivation,” she said. “The thought didn’t occur to me that there would be a problem initially. . . . I have not heard any critiques of us taking out a loan.”

Concerns have also likely been mitigated by church funds’ focus on supporting vulnerable populations on the margins. If the government can help churches pay pastors for a few months, they can provide local services far more directly than any federal program.

“The economic inequality we see in the nation at large is also present in the churches,” Danner said. “So churches with people in professional jobs who can still work from home rather than service industry sectors aren’t as hurt by this.”

Economic challenges are often most pronounced in congregations where pastors are bivocational and a job they depended on has evaporated.

Kreider said that while everyone across North America is affected by the pandemic, experiences vary greatly. One farmer she spoke with said 95 of his work has been unaffected — the only difference being the truck driver who picks up hogs wears a mask — whereas someone who makes and sells tamales on the street or to restaurants has an immediate loss of income.

“Feeling bored in your stay-at-home set-up is stressful,” she said. “But it’s not like not knowing how you will pay for your food and rent.”


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