The COVID-19 crisis has made the work of United Church-related urban outreach missions more important than ever — and forced them to transform how they operate. Many regular church volunteers, including older people most at risk from COVID-19 infection, are being asked to stay home. But missions say individuals and congregations are finding different ways to help instead.
“The response from the community has been overwhelming,” says Andrea Buttars of Wesley Urban Ministries in Hamilton. An increase in donations helped them scale up from providing 2,100 meals a week in early March to 5,075 by early April.
Without the option of sit-down dining, missions are offering food for takeout or delivery instead. At Brunswick Street Mission in Halifax, for instance, church groups are sending money for supplies instead of preparing and serving meals on Saturdays. A professional cook is making 300 meals a week for local shelters, with the help of younger volunteers in the kitchen.
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Others are getting creative with their space. Moves to slow the spread of the pandemic mean drop-in centres are closed or limiting visitors — on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, First United Community Ministry is using that added space to increase the distance between overnight shelter beds.
Montreal’s St. Columba House stays in touch with its usual visitors by telephone, says interim director Patricia Lisson, and uses Zoom to convene the weekly seniors group. “We can switch around services when the need arises,” she says.
In Winnipeg, church volunteers are sewing protective smocks from bedsheets for front-line staff and volunteers at 1JustCity. The organization also quickly pivoted to keep its overnight winter shelter open in April. That kind of grassroots-level flexibility, says executive director Tessa Blaikie Whitecloud, is “one of the best things about the way that outreach ministry works in the United Church.”
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