Thursday, March 12, 2020, Neighborhood Church lead pastor Forrest Jenan awoke to news that California governor Gavin Newsom had limited gatherings to 250 people as a result of the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease it causes.
The day before, the COVID-19 outbreak had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, causing a chain reaction of cancellations, closures and social distancing practices across the United States affecting everything from sporting events to church gatherings.
Jenan instinctively knew that Neighborhood Church (NC), a USMB congregation in Visalia, Calif., whose average attendance in 2019 was more than 1,900 people, would move entirely online. That first decision made, Jenan says his thoughts went immediately to helping the Visalia community.
“Our general posture as a church is, ‘How can we add value to the place that we call home?’” Jenan says.
Out of this posture of being “for” its community, Neighborhood Church developed a plan of action to respond with love and aid during the pandemic, which sprouted a collaborative effort with another U.S. Mennonite Brethren church.
Devising a plan
In light of the restrictions, Jenan called a “war room gathering” with the NC directional team to outline a framework for the church’s response to what was a rapidly evolving situation.
Because NC already streams its services online and offers a podcast, the church was well-equipped with audio and video technology to transition to an online-only format, Jenan says, which freed the team to find unique ways of meeting needs in the community.
“There were really two conversations,” Jenan says. “We weren’t really going to talk about us going online—that was going to happen already. We were really just asking the question, ‘How can we help?’”
By communicating with NC’s network of community leaders and friends, Jenan and the NC directional team learned of immediate needs in Visalia and developed a three-part response seeking to add value to their city during the pandemic.
First, knowing some parents would still need to work outside the home, NC developed a plan to provide a kids’ day camp for children of essential personnel, including hospital staff, doctors and first responders.
Working together with the public health department in Tulare County, NC and its facility team takes every precaution to limit health risks. For example, nurses perform temperature checks when children are dropped off, children wash their hands every hour, the team wipes down the campus throughout the day and the facility is fumigated at night. The camp is held in open air spaces as much as possible.
A combination of NC staff, college interns who had been sent home from their respective universities because of COVID-19 and volunteers staff the day camp.
Community members sent money to NC to be used for scholarships, Jenan says. The goal is to provide cost-effective childcare—$60 per week for full-day camp from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., with half-day options available as well.
While NC initially planned to offer the day camp for three weeks, the NC team decided March 25 to continue the day camp for as long as California’s state-wide “stay-at-home” order is in place. The order went into effect March 19, 2020, limiting business operations to essential services such as pharmacies and grocery stores, among other things, and will remain in effect until further notice.
Food, fun for families
Second, in order to reach out to a nearby low-income neighborhood, the church prepares and distributes Weekend To-Go Bags with groceries for those struggling to feed their families over the weekend.
Recognizing that schools only provide meals for children during the week and knowing that some parents might be faced with unemployment, NC fills bags with breakfast and lunch items for those needing help. The congregation is encouraged to donate items from a designated list or to make a monetary donation.
Third, NC began distributing Drive-Thru Family Fun Packs each Tuesday, which includes things related to a common theme like card games, family devotions, postcards and stamps, hike ideas, sunscreen, trail mix and coloring pages. Families simply drive to the church during two, one-hour designated time slots, and NC delivers the packs through vehicle windows. The first day, Jenan says the church ran out of supplies after distributing 150 bags.
Creating “touch points”
NC also formulated a response for its own congregation and others connecting online. That response included moving both its small groups and peer counseling services online and providing a daily devotional on social media.
At the end of March, the church began posting a weekly invitation on social media with a specific way people could serve their community. For example, a March 27 post encouraged people to send digital gift cards to teachers, first responders or healthcare workers.
“The best way for us to tell people about Jesus is by modeling that Jesus is for them,” Jenan says. “We do that best by us being for them. Obviously that same posture has driven every decision we’ve made over the last couple of weeks. Our staff is just so creative.”
The goal of NC’s response is to create “touch points” of connection, Jenan says, adding that with a fluid and potentially drawn-out situation, the challenge became finding healthy rhythms for the NC team and a balance between providing enough online resources without flooding people’s feeds.
“We definitely see it as an opportunity,” Jenan says. “In fact, our reach has grown since we’ve gone all digital. We’re reaching more people every week than we have been. That’s a good thing.”
According to Sarah Ledgerwood, NC office manager, data integrity manager and family ministry events coordinator, the church seeks to remain available, constant and encouraging.
“People look to their familiar faces and places when reacting to situations like this that are huge, scary and unknown,” Ledgerwood says. “Providing so many resources and encouraging a sense of routine and normalcy is very comforting, and we are striving to be that place for people.”
A unique collaboration
COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity for collaboration as churches nationwide are finding new and creative ways of doing and being the church. Some of NC’s ideas are being implemented elsewhere, including among the USMB family.
Mark Isaac is lead pastor at New Life Community (NLC), formerly Dinuba MB Church, just 27 miles from Visalia. Dinuba MB planted Neighborhood Church—then Visalia MB—in 1960.
As a result of a variety of connections—Isaac’s family formerly attended NC, and he and Jenan live in the same Visalia neighborhood—the door has always been open for collaboration, Isaac says.
So, during a March 18 webinar co-sponsored by Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary’s Center for Anabaptist Studies and USMB, Jenan shared about NC’s response, which led to a conversation between Isaac and Jenan.
“Mark heard me talking and shot me a private message and said, ‘Can my people call your people?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Jenan says. “Thus began a conversation. That’s really our heart, too. We want to be able to help and resource and brainstorm with other churches as much as we can.”
The two pastors connected staff members Cece Olea, NLC’s new community strategist, with Ari Parsons, NC’s Chief Party Thrower.
“The two got on the phone as Forrest and I were still on the web conference, sharing ideas that Cece began to implement with our staff,” Isaac says.
As a result, staff at NLC met to decide which ideas to implement.
In response, NLC refreshed its online presence on Facebook, actively engaging people with video devotionals, questions and worship. NLC also began providing online content for children and families. On its children’s ministry Facebook page, NLC began offering Sunday school curriculum with activity sheets and videos, as well as cooking and activity videos for families, Isaac says.
NLC packaged and mailed materials to families without an Internet connection.
For Easter, NLC distributed, via drive-thru, “Easter boxes” containing activity resources for families in the church and the community, Isaac says.
“When Forrest said that they had reached more people on the first Sunday of cancelled services than they would normally have reached when they gathered in their facility, I wondered if that would be true for us,” Isaac says. “It has been, and that’s changing our mindset and expectations going forward, beyond COVID-19. Isaiah wrote, ‘and a child shall lead them.’ In this case, our daughter church has inspired us as we re-engineer our ministries for transformational community impact.”
Listening in order to love
Asked what message he would give to churches looking to serve their communities during the pandemic, Jenan says there are no bad ideas. He emphasizes a posture of listening when formulating responses, not only during COVID-19 but all the time.
“I think the church has made a mistake over the years in just assuming we know what people need, rather than taking the time to listen, hearing people’s hearts, hearing their angst and letting them tell you what they need and then coming up with creative ways that we can partner with our communities,” Jenan says.
As its focus has been all along, and continued through the pandemic, NC aims to love its community well.
“The thing I keep telling our staff is, ‘What are we going to be remembered for in all of this?’” Jenan says. “Are we going to choose generosity over fear? Are we going to adapt to change? Are we going to keep loving our neighbors? Are we going to keep helping our people love our neighbors?”
Janae Rempel Shafer is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Shafer is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Shafer graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She and her husband, Austin, attend Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas.