Early in 2020, a news headline in an East Asian country reported that a religious community was “actively participating in epidemic prevention and control work.” A portion of the article includes this summary:
“In this time of crisis, Christian believers under the leadership of a local pastor are showing their dedication and love to the people, undertaking the risk of being infected with the virus in order to participate in the first-line prevention and control. The pastor uses the church’s van to transport emergency supplies to those in need. During this city-wide quarantine, when people are under strict isolation rules, Christians showed that though the virus is being isolated, their love is not isolated, giving much needed basic living materials to low-income families in need.”
Indeed! The generous and risky relief response of Christian believers in the region where the world’s first COVID-19 lockdown is newsworthy. It all started with prayer. Unable to leave their houses and check on the vulnerable members of their community, these pastors began to pray together. When a local government official’s car broke down, he called one of these pastors and asked to be driven to his destination. Equipped with a temporary permit and the church van, this pastor stopped at every roadside farm stand, purchased as much produce as the van could hold, and made deliveries to his city’s most vulnerable families. Before long, governing officials had equipped other pastors with vehicle permits, and one of the first COVID-19 food relief projects commenced.
With limited resources, they approached their partners in ministry, Canadian Baptist Ministries, to contribute to their efforts. Together, they responded to four groups of people:
- Group A: The regular group of poor families the church had already been serving. Eighty-seven families each received a pack of rice, a bottle of oil, vegetables, some masks, a heater (for those in need), and some cash.
- Group B: People visiting relatives in the area for Lunar New Year holiday and being confined meant they had run short of money to sustain their daily living. Thirteen families each received rice and oil from church.
- Group C: Fifty poor migrant families and their children were working in construction and restaurants. Their jobs were lost due to the outbreak.
- Group D: Thirty families of pastoral staff in the city and villages all faced financial problems. They were living in the lower income area and received very minimum support from the local church during normal times. Since all churches were closed, very little offering was received. These servants of God received some cash as well as some rice and oil.
This successful initiative drew on the local knowledge of the pastors involved as well as their ability to collaborate with one another, with local governing officials and with international partners eager to provide support. In addition to that, it drew on their faith in God’s action and invitation to mission. This prayerful approach, combined with contextual knowledge and a collaborative spirit, made for an impactful emergency response. By the end of this project, 270 families were fed and kept safe while 43 people came to the faith for the first time.
The response of this faith community highlights the strategic place of the local church in global relief. As churches grow in their understanding of integral mission, merging their spiritual care with care for the whole person and community, they set themselves up for rapid response in times of crisis. Agencies and denominations can begin by encouraging the development of a holistic theology of the mission of God.
Secondly, the response also reveals that capacity building for relief and development can and should happen at the local church level as well as the denominational or agency level. At Canadian Baptist Ministries, we observed that during the lockdowns, our smaller, volunteer-led denominations responded more rapidly and with greater flexibility than our larger partners with relief and development offices.These local churches were already used to hands-on participation in the denomination’s activities and were quickly dispatched and equipped for pandemic relief.
And finally, their response highlights the importance of fostering opportunities for collaboration and networking. Global networks such as the Baptist Forum for Aid and Development (BFAD) provide opportunities for agencies around the world to coordinate their efforts and ensure local churches are supported in their relief efforts. This not only avoids overlap, but it also provides opportunities for local churches to learn from new relationships and locate their efforts in a global context.
The local church, equipped and called by Christ to participate in the in-breaking Kingdom, is uniquely placed to respond to our world’s largest crises. We have seen this during the COVID-19 pandemic as local churches responded with prayerful, contextual, and collaborative relief. By supporting practical capacity building at a local church level, as well as providing continued opportunities for international collaboration, local churches around the world will be well-equipped to respond in times of great need.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. The church leaders of this faith community had a relationship with government officials prior to the crisis, one that allowed for contact to be initiated during a vehicle break-down. Would the government officials in your area consider your community as a source of assistance? Why or why not?
2. Do you agree that all three elements listed are required for effective emergency response: “This prayerful approach, combined with contextual knowledge and a collaborative spirit, made for an impactful emergency response?” Are there additional elements that ought to be considered?
3. The Baptist COVID-19 response strategy describes the church as “locally led activist communities” uniquely positioned to provide transformative global relief (Baptist Forum for Aid and Development, “Global Baptist Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response Strategy 1.0” April 22, 2020, Page 2). Would you or would you not describe your church as a “locally led activist community?” Why or why not?
4. The Baptist World Alliance’s Commission on Mission desires to nurture “a passionate commitment to Gospel witness within the BWA and among Baptists worldwide. It identifies, discusses, and shares available analysis of the ever-deepening understandings of the mission of the church in the world today in obedience to the Word of God.” How does this story of the response of this faith community meet the commission’s objective?