Urban Mission Ministering to More Families during Worldwide Health Crisis

By Rev. Ashley Steele*

When the coronavirus was first detected in the United States, the Urban Mission (Ohio Valley District) in Steubenville began preparing for various scenarios at our ministry sites. Knowing that our food pantry, Unity Kitchen, and homeless shelters would be the most susceptible to an outbreak, due to the large number of people who visit these sites each day, we knew we had to act fast and set up a series of precautions to provide a safe place for already vulnerable members of our community. We began working closely with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank for our food related programming and with the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness for our shelters. Each organization was proactive in helping places like ours to prepare or at least know how to respond in the event something of significance would happen in our location.

As with so many other entities – churches, non-profits, and businesses – the Urban Mission has had to adjust the ways in which we operate. Our choice food pantry quickly converted to a drive-through food pantry. Pantry customers now drive around the perimeter of our food warehouse where they are greeted by a gloved Urban Mission staff member who checks them in and places a bag of groceries in their car. Our Unity Kitchen began serving take-out meals out of the back of our church building. At our shelters, we increased our cleaning efforts, separated people and beds as best as possible and began working with our local health department to coordinate efforts for healthcare for our shelter guests. We are currently on stand-by as we await a call from our county Health Commissioner in the event that a larger need arises.

As we have learned throughout the past few weeks, as other places shut down, the Urban Mission’s efforts must ramp up. Already this month, we have served 1,071 families through our food pantry. Of those families, 139 families visited the Urban Mission seeking food assistance for the first time. We expect our numbers will continue to rise as food options – especially fresh produce – become scarce in our local grocery stores. We are prepared to serve more families this month, but we are unsure how long we can continue at this pace. What we are finding is that our typical supply of donated food through local grocery stores has decreased significantly since most grocery stores cannot keep up with their own supply and demand. As an alternative, we began ordering additional food through the Foodbank as one way to provide reliable food assistance for families in the months to come.

At our shelters, we are currently operating at capacity, but have found ways to house additional guests by bringing out cots. Right now, we are preparing to open up a third, temporary, shelter to expand our operations. Not only will this allow our shelter guests to practice social distancing, but in the event that someone would become sick, we could quarantine and care for them, without interrupting the normal operations of our shelter.

As one can imagine, all of this requires additional staff time, more resources, and lots of prayer. On March 20, members of the Urban Mission staff gathered in the sanctuary of our church to decompress and refocus. As each member sat in a different pew, we collectively sang, prayed, focused on our breathing, reflected on what is happening around us, and reminded ourselves that God remains at the center of our lives, our ministry, and our community.

I acknowledged the fact that our staff are living lives in tension right now – a tension between our desire to serve others and live out our callings but also our need and desire to be home with our families, caring for and protecting them. Each day as we travel home, we wonder what we are bringing with us. No shower or washing machine, or even disinfectant spray, can stop the 3:00 a.m. thoughts and worries that we carry. But we know we are not alone in this. We know of so many who are giving their time, talents, and even lives to save others. While we may not be on the front lines as it relates to health care, we do count it a privilege to even be included as an “essential service” to the public.

There will be many opportunities in the future to reflect on this time we find ourselves in, but for now the following continues to come to the surface in my devotions and my cries out to God.

Inequity – Anytime there is natural disaster, light is shed on the inequities of our world and its systems therein. Seeing this pandemic run through our country we are quickly learning where the gaps in service, pay, respect and understanding lie. We are learning what really matters in life and seeing in real time the people around us who don’t even have access to even the most basic things. The struggle now is to determine how to amplify these voices in the midst of the panic and keep those voices strong months after this is over.

Abundance and scarcity – It only takes one trip to the grocery store to realize we are a society that struggles with a scarcity mentality – even in times of abundance.  The carts full of toilet paper and sanitizer remind me of the pockets full of food people leave with from our Unity Kitchen each day. When the future is uncertain, we do desperate things. But to some, this is normal life.

Interconnectedness – Every year the Urban Mission comes up with a theme to guide our ministry. Every year, we strive to live into that theme. This year, it is not hard to do that. Our 2020 theme is focused on being “connected.” The Urban Mission could not do the ministry we do without the support of so many others. We are all connected – individuals, churches, conferences, and the global body. To explain it a different way, we refer to the South African word, “Ubuntu” – which simply means, “I am because we are.” If one of us struggles, we all struggle. If one succeeds, we all succeed.

While watching a late night talk show the other night, a guest on the show shared how important it is right now to know that our actions will likely have an impact on someone else – that we are interconnected and whatever we do will directly or indirectly affect so many others. I was convicted when I realized it took a late-night talk show to speak the words of Christ and His Church. For me, conviction only means as much as it is tied to action. The challenge I have set forth for myself and our ministry team is to live into this Ubuntu mentality each and every day – relying on God and on each other, to make it through (and we will).

Reading Bishop Malone’s heartfelt message that “we have been training our entire Christian lives for such a time as this: to put others before ourselves, to decide and act with compassion for the vulnerable, to testify to God as our Rock and Redeemer, to lift up the promise of resurrection, and to live as though we do indeed believe Christ is with us in this as in all things” has served as my mantra during this time. Are we comfortable at the Urban Mission right now? Not exactly. Our budget will be impacted, our staff will get sick, our volunteers will decrease in number, and the needs of the community may rise. But as Bishop Malone reminded us, Jesus never asked, “What makes me the most comfortable?”

Would it be more comfortable to sleep well at night, not staying up planning and preparing and praying for the next day’s event? Yes, but it is also presents a wonderful opportunity for me to connect with God in the throngs of worry and doubt and come out of my prayer time with the reassurance that God is in control.

Would it be more comfortable for our ministry team to do its typical 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. duties and leave for the day? Yes, but the opportunities we’ve had to cross train and serve in different capacities has helped each member develop a new-found respect and appreciation and love for the other.

Would it be more comfortable to let this global health crisis limit our efforts in advocacy and justice work? Yes, but this is a unique time for the Church to shed light on the work that has yet to be done.

Like many others, this new reality we are living in, is not one we wish to stay in long. “Normal” will feel good. However, as we navigate through these unchartered waters, we are reminded by author Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. that there “have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.”

As we have come to learn this past month, with God and with each other, we will see the end of this crisis. And we will do so together.

EDITOR’S UPDATE: On Wednesday, March 25 the Rev. Ashley Steele reported, “Today we served an additional 307 families – the most we’ve ever served in one day.”

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*Rev. Ashley Steele is the executive director of Urban Mission Ministries.