When states began issuing stay-at-home orders and requiring some businesses to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Pastor Graciela Tijerina called every member of her congregation.
“What are your needs?” she asked.
Tijerina knew her congregation was likely to face financial hardship. She is the pastor of Iglesia Menonita Casa Betania (Bethany House Mennonite Church) in Newton, Kan. The small, mostly Hispanic congregation is part of Western District Conference of Mennonite Church USA.
The church’s 36 members are almost all recent immigrants from Mexico. Many who worked as hotel cleaners or restaurant workers lost their jobs due to shutdowns. With little savings, no documentation and no access to government benefits like food stamps, loss of income could be devastating.
Some church members told Tijerina that while local food banks would ensure they didn’t go hungry, they were concerned about paying rent and getting access to personal hygiene and household items. One mother worried she wouldn’t be able to buy diapers for her 6-year-old son, who suffers from cerebral palsy.
Assistance is on the way for the church, through a grant provided by the COVID-19 Congregational Relief Fund of Mennonite Disaster Service, Everence and Mennonite Central Committee U.S.
In Brownsville, Texas, Pastor Maria Bennett will use the grant to help relieve the “stress and mental anguish” the pandemic has caused undocumented families in Iglesia Menonita Nuevo Amanecer (New Dawn Mennonite Church) of MC USA.
One of these church members, Janira (last name withheld for her security), is a single mother with four children living in a two-room house. Even if she could find work, she has to stay home to watch her children because schools are closed. She struggles to pay rent and utilities.
The pandemic has increased the vulnerability of undocumented people, Bennett said. Lack of income, transportation, education, technology and English language skills leaves them struggling to afford basic necessities and help children with remote learning.
In Hialeah Gardens, Fla., Pastor Elias Jaime said funds may be used to keep leasing the building where his Brethren in Christ congregation, Ministerio Internacionál Fuego en la Palabra (International Fire in the Word Ministry), meets. In April they couldn’t pay the rent.
All 35-50 people who attend have lost their jobs. Although the leasing company waived late fees, the church will be required to pay its rent in full to continue meeting in the building.
Jaime worries the church will no longer be able to afford its ministries and social programs. Before the pandemic, the congregation regularly distributed food, water and hygiene products to homeless people in downtown Miami. The church also had been sending funds to help a church plant in Nicaragua construct a building of its own.
“We definitely need the support,” Jaime said. “I give thanks for this opportunity.”
Hope in a fearful time
For the pastor of two Mennonite Brethren churches in Central California, the grant signifies hope in a fearful time. Cristobal Aleman is pastor of both congregations — Iglesia Hermanos Menonita West Park (West Park Mennonite Brethren Church), with 50-60 members; and Iglesia de la Comunidad (Community Church) in Raisin City, with 35-40 members.
Aleman said fear is one of the pandemic’s biggest effects. Many church members, a number of whom are undocumented, feel deeply insecure after losing jobs because they lack access to government aid or health insurance.
Many members also are afraid of contracting COVID-19, although so far no one has. Aleman said five members have left him instructions, similar to wills, for what to do if they die.
In Aleman’s churches, the grant will be used for providing food and utilities for members, funds for a Raisin City assistant pastor who hasn’t been receiving a salary during the crisis, and social programs such as two food banks run by the churches. The grant also provides intangible benefits like a sense of comfort and community.
“The grant helps pastors emotionally,” he said. “They don’t feel they’re alone. We’re all together, part of a family. The grant brings joy in the middle of the pandemic.”