When the Smithfield Foods pork-processing plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, closed in mid-April after becoming one of the nation’s largest COVID-19 hotspots, New Jerusalem Temple, a USMB congregation in Sioux Falls that is comprised of immigrants from DR Congo, drew on its cash reserves to buy groceries and other essentials and to make rent payments for 11 families laid off due to the closure.
“Some of the families are struggling to get food, groceries and house rent,” says Claude Tambatamba, New Jerusalem Temple pastor.
Applying for government assistance is already a challenge for newcomers dealing with a steep learning curve when it comes to language, governmental systems and technology. That application process is now further complicated, says Eshbaugh, by the fact that services usually accessed by visiting government offices, closed due to the pandemic, are now only available online and few Congolese have computers and Internet access.
“The pastors are helping people as best they can to apply for unemployment,” says Rick Eshbaugh, Central District Conference minister in an email interview. “Help may be coming if they get things sorted, but for now the church community has been their lifeline.”
But in this unprecedented crisis, local churches have limited resources and they too need a lifeline. By giving to the COVID-19 Church Relief Fund, established by MB Foundation, the USMB family can provide that support.
But in this unprecedented crisis, local churches have limited resources and they too need a lifeline. By giving to the COVID-19 Church Relief Fund, established by MB Foundation, the USMB family can provide that support. MB Foundation, the stewardship ministry that serves U.S. Mennonite Brethren, has designated May 5 as a special day of giving to that fund.
“Immediately after churches were being told to not gather together in large groups, we knew this would present a financial hardship for most, if not all, of our churches,” says Jon Wiebe, president and CEO of MB Foundation.
“MB Foundation wants to serve our churches and help strengthen those that are on the frontlines of ministry,” Wiebe says. “We feel like we are properly positioned to lead this national campaign to raise money for these churches, creating an avenue to link arms across our national constituency so that those with a storehouse might assist those that do not.”
Don Morris, USMB national director, and the five district ministers are administering the funds. Applications are available in English and Spanish.
“Any church that is struggling financially or whose people are struggling can apply,” says Morris.
Funds are running low
Twenty churches have already either received or will soon receive funds, says Morris. Most of the applications come from churches serving racially or ethnically diverse communities and congregations whose needs center around lost jobs and income in underserved communities. Church plants have also applied.
“Funds are being used to pay rent on church facilities, utility bills and pastor support and much is being used to help congregants/families with basic needs such as food and rent,” Morris says. “We expect more applications to come in. At this point, there would not be sufficient funds to fulfill those applications. We need more donors to help with this crucial need.”
While donations are welcome anytime, MB Foundation and USMB are inviting individual donors, groups of supporters, congregations and other ministries to help refill the coffers as part of Giving Tuesday Now, a global day of giving slated for May 5, 2020. Donations can be made online and $60,000 has been pledged in matching funds.
“MB Foundation’s decision to create a fund, and with significant matching dollars, was a very good, generous decision and a way to directly help churches that have been impacted by COVID-19,” says USMB’s Morris.
The fund was established through the generosity of a donor and a matched gift by MB Foundation, for a total of $50,000. A gift from the Southern District Conference brought the matching fund to $60,000.
As of April 30, donations from individuals, churches and the Pacific District Conference combined with the matched gifts totaled $77,000.
“MB Foundation established the COVID-19 Church Relief Fund with the expectation that churches would be hit hard financially by COVID-19 and that many of them would not be eligible for any government assistance,” Morris says.
Churches struggling to pay bills, support families
Many USMB Hispanic congregations are ineligible for the Payroll Protections Program (PPP) under the federal CARES Act because they are led by bi-vocational pastors. These churches also typically take cash offerings for church expenses and are not inclined or equipped to move ministries online, including church giving.
These congregations report needing help paying the light bill and rent—“just basic needs that we as an MB family can help to fill and keep these churches going through this crisis,” says Wiebe of MB Foundation.
Many small ethnic churches that minister with few dollars to spare in the best of times are certainly struggling now during the coronavirus pandemic as many of their members are employed in sectors hard hit by COVID-19.
While some employees have been laid-off, others have quit. One Congolese pastor, whose uncle and nephew were diagnosed with COVID-19, says some women who are pregnant have left their jobs because of fears they might be exposed to the coronavirus. Others have left because schools are closed, and childcare is not available.
“The funds we send to these churches from the Church Relief Fund will replenish their depleted accounts so they can continue to support their community,” says CDC minister Eshbaugh.
Immigrants face challenges
The challenges faced by the Sioux Falls Congolese congregation are typical of immigrant groups, Eshbaugh says.
Many members of immigrant churches are working in entry level jobs and sending money to family members in their country of origin, resulting in limited personal cash reserves. They are also supporting family members who have recently arrived in the U.S. while they are getting their documents in order so that they can join the work force.
Even with the support of more experienced immigrants, newcomers often struggle with the English language and accessing resources available to them, Eshbaugh says.
Eshbaugh recalls a recent conversation he had with Emmanuel Musinga, pastor of Grace Tabernacle Ministries, a Congolese congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana, that is in the process of joining the CDC, about the challenges of adjusting to life in the U.S.
“Some were in a refugee camp less than three years ago—without hygiene, electricity or Internet,” Eshbaugh quotes Musinga as saying. “They have survived war, famine, hunger and death. Now that they are in America, they rely on the church community to explain and connect them with resources.”
And Morris is calling on the USMB community to be part of that support system. “Many of the Congolese churches now in the U.S. have ties to our MB churches in DR Congo,” Morris says. “They are our family—Mennonite Brethren. We need to take care of our family.”