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In mid-March, as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths began to rise in Michigan, Kato Hart braced himself for a particularly grueling season for his community in Detroit. As the founding pastor of Hold the Light Ministries Church of God in Christ, a tiny storefront church of about 15 members, Hart knew that once again, the disaster would strike hardest the poor and the marginalized like those in his church neighborhood, which is about 94 percent black with a median household income of $20,502.
He was right: Over the next several weeks, Detroit became Michigan’s epicenter for COVID-19 cases and deaths. Although black people account for only 14 percent of Michigan’s population, they currently make up 41 percent of COVID-19-linked deaths in the state. Within Hart’s own social circles, a family friend lost her 5-year-old daughter to COVID-19. His denomination, Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which is the largest African American Pentecostal denomination with an estimated membership of 6.5 million, has reported at least a dozen bishops and clergymen who have died with the coronavirus. That list includes a prominent bishop in Detroit.
The pandemic has upended the economic stability of Hart’s community as well: After Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide lockdown, Hart began receiving phone calls from anxious congregants who lost their minimum-wage jobs or faced significant pay cuts. Many are single mothers who live paycheck to paycheck, and now they have zero income, meager savings, and little social support to pay their rent, bills, and childcare. One church member, for example, takes care of a daughter and grandchildren by herself, and she cannot even afford to fix her furnace.
“We could only pray for her,” Hart recalled. “Our church just doesn’t have the income to go fix things for her and take care of things.” That breaks Hart’s heart: The needs in his community are greater than ever, yet tithing has trickled down to almost zero. Meanwhile, both Hart and his wife live off their Social Security retirement benefits and already give more than they receive.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent shutdowns have impacted millions of Americans across the country, but it has particularly shaken many small, minority churches in low-income neighborhoods. These are churches whose members most likely live in dense, cramped quarters, hold multiple minimum-wage jobs, use public transportation, and lack access to adequate healthcare and healthy food options. In many immigrant churches, members who are not in the country legally cannot apply for public benefits currently available for Americans yet still bear the burden of supporting families back home. Though churches can apply for aid through the CARES Act, the first round of funds ran out quickly and many did not receive the aid.
During this unprecedented season of ministry opportunities, thousands of churches across the nation are struggling to serve their local communities—or even to survive. As one small church pastor put it: “What happens when the help needs help?”
That was a question Justin Giboney, co-founder and president of the And Campaign, pondered after hearing some small church pastors worry out loud about the future of their churches: What if large, wealthier churches sought small minority churches in their area and helped them through the crisis? After discussing this idea with some other Christian group leaders, on April 6, Giboney announced an initiative to help at-risk small churches called the Churches Helping Churches Initiative.
The initiative is two-fold: One, it aims to raise $500,000 for the COVID-19 At-Risk Church Relief Fund, which will be administered by the National Christian Foundation and go directly in $3,000 lump donations to churches that apply and qualify. Two, it tries to encourage more financially stable churches to meet the acute needs of smaller churches in their area. As of May 12, the program has raised more than $467,000 through donations from churches, foundations, and individuals, and has received 1,244 applications from churches across the country. Ninety-three churches have received funds so far.
Giboney said he hopes the initiative will encourage smaller, traditional churches and larger, majority, evangelical churches to create new, lasting relationships that may not have been there before the pandemic: “To me, this is almost a no-brainer. I definitely think this is what the church is about ... churches on the forefront, helping our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Devin and Samantha Westbrook, pastors of The Redemptive Life Church in Memphis, Tenn., were some of the first to receive help from the church relief fund. Samantha remembers lying in bed unable to sleep the night before the application went live. By 4 a.m., she was awake and at her computer to apply. Within a week, after a follow-up phone interview, their church received $3,000. The Westbrooks said the first thing they did with that money was write paychecks for the single fathers on staff, because men tend to receive less in public resources than single mothers.
The Westbrooks started their ministry with a youth summer camp 14 years ago, which in 2014 turned into a community church. The majority of the church’s members are black, and about half have lost their income or had their hours cut since the third week of March, when many cities and counties in Tennessee began issuing strict stay-at-home orders. Among those financially struggling are daycare workers, event planners, truck drivers, hair stylists, filmmakers, and retail workers. Many are self-employed and having trouble accessing unemployment benefits or small business loans.
Devin said the panicked calls from both members and non-members came “immediately” after the shutdown. Altogether, he and his wife received more than 400 pleas for help over the last several weeks: “It was bittersweet. As much as we’ve built a reputation of meeting the needs of the community, now the people who meet the needs are in need. How do you say, ‘We can’t help you right now?’”
For now, the Westbrooks are making sure nobody goes away empty-handed, even if it’s something as simple as connecting them to other resources or offering them prayers. In a season of extreme scarcity, they said they plan to continue to give: “The Bible teaches us that there are always seeds for the sower. … If we’re going to sow, He will give us the seeds to sow—we don’t know where it’s going to come from, how much it’s going to be, and when it’s going to come, but we trust God enough to know that if He has called us to a season like this, He’s already given us a strategy to beat it.”
In Detroit, Pastor Kato Hart is preaching a similar message of trust and faith. On his first livestream Sunday service on Facebook, he told viewers: “We want to let the world know, let our friends know, that God is yet in charge. So we lean not to our own understanding, but to our Lord, our Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Hart too had applied and received money from the church relief fund, which he said came “just in the nick of time” to pay his church’s rent and bills. He says the majority of his ministry now consists of picking up the phone and checking on members in the community, particularly the young boys who have no male figures in their lives, encouraging those who are discouraged, and comforting those who mourn.
Especially during times like these, Hart likes to remind people of how he came to name the church Hold The Light Ministries: When Hart was a young boy, he heard a story on the radio about a father and son who had to walk a long way to town to run some errands. The son got tired, so the father had him sit on a rock, gave him a lit candle, and told him to wait for him. The sun set, terrible darkness washed in, and the boy quaked as he heard the dogs barking and the wolves howling. Holding tight to the lit candle gave him courage and comfort. Then the little boy saw the silhouette of his father returning. Overjoyed, he ran over to hug his father, saying, “I was so scared, but father, I held on to the light.”
That’s his hope for his church, Hart said: “I want the light of God to shine in our community. That no matter what they go through, they hold on to the light.”
As for the future of his church, Hart remembers how God turned a “disaster hole in the wall” building with no carpet, no roof, and ripped walls into a fully renovated church sanctuary with fresh carpets, new chairs, and a furnace. The God who built his church will also take care of it.