The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been evident in my congregation and my community in Fort Worth, Texas.
Like many houses of worship, Bread Fellowship has canceled in-person worship services to protect our community members, especially the most vulnerable.
We have moved to online worship services while making sure we are reaching out by phone to our congregants and friends who do not have the luxury of internet access or the familiarity with internet tools required for this communication.
We have taken special care to reach out to our elderly community members, and we have found joy in expanding all of our technological capacities.
Canceling in-person worship and adhering to the guidelines laid out by public health officials are a moral necessity for faith leaders in this moment of crisis.
I have been encouraged by the churches, mosques and synagogues who have chosen to protect their congregants by moving to virtual worship experiences.
All across the world, congregational leaders are choosing faith over fear and protecting their congregants through social distancing.
In Fort Worth, like many communities across the U.S., religious services have been included in the stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines.
It is my sincere prayer that Texas, along with other states, will follow suit and no longer exempt religious services from such guidelines.
Not gathering for in-person worship is one way that Christians can “love our neighbor” (Matthew 22) and to “act with justice and righteousness.” (Jeremiah 22)
Although justice and neighbor-love in this moment may mean physical separation, it never means spiritual distancing. The social bonds that tie our communities together are central to Christian ministry.
Churches should use this opportunity to strengthen the relationships that are at the heart of our shared life.
We should pray for one another, reach out to community members by phone (especially the homebound elderly) and find new creative ways to build community.
Chaplains and pastoral care workers are facing challenging times as we find new and transformative ways to be the church together.
Since 2013, the statewide organization I lead, Pastors for Texas Children, has worked to facilitate connections between the neighborhood church and the neighborhood public school. Now more than ever, these connections are crucial.
Like churches, public schools across the nation have closed their brick-and-mortar facilities to protect the health and safety of students, staff, teachers and administrators.
But these schools haven’t stopped their sacred work on behalf of the children they serve.
In an email I recently received, a Texas superintendent shared that their small district has already handed out 2,000 internet hotspots, 12,000 Chromebooks and 39,150 meals to students, as their school counselors work around the clock to address the mental health needs of students.
My local school district, Fort Worth Independent School District, is delivering meals to students at their doors; they have opened over 18 sites for breakfast and lunch meal distribution across the city.
Because 85% of the school district’s students are economically disadvantaged, this program is the only way many students can get their next meal.
Meal programs like this are happening all across the nation, and we should applaud our local school districts for putting the needs of our most at-risk students first.
Even as courageous teachers rebuild lesson plans on the fly, and districts make sure students are provided with laptops for online learning, schools are making sure our precious children are fed. What a blessing to our communities.
Our Savior calls his followers to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty (Matthew 25). At this moment in our history, the best way Christians in the United States can answer this call is by supporting their local public schools.
Here are four ways Christians can act today:
- Pray for your local public school.
In virtual worship services and your personal prayer, uplift the administrators, teachers and support staff who are keeping our children fed and educated during these trying times.
This is a particularly good time to write your local superintendent a prayer message of support. These stalwart leaders are under enormous pressure.
- If you are healthy and able, volunteer responsibly with your local public school’s food distribution programs.
When Pastors for Texas Children asked local churches to participate in Fort Worth Independent School District’s meal distribution program, dozens sprang into action; many of our partners were already delivering meals with the district.
- Reach out to your local school district and ask how you can support their initiatives to keep children safe, fed and educated. Teachers are called to the classroom just like pastors are called to the congregation. To have that experience only through technology challenges and diminishes the faithful execution of their call.
- Don’t let this support end when the crisis has passed.
At the ballot box and in the pubic square, public schools need the support of Christians year-round.
Even after this crisis has passed, public schools will continue to be a lifeline for our nation’s children and communities.
There will be – unbelievably, there already are – privatization forces lined up ready to capitalize on this crisis for their own financial gain. We should keep a watchful eye for private school and virtual voucher bills cropping up like bad weeds in our state legislatures.
We live in uncertain times, and today more than ever, God is calling the Church to act on behalf of the sick, the vulnerable and the marginalized.
By praying for and partnering with their neighborhood public schools to ensure students remain educated, safe, fed and healthy, we can respond to the stirrings of the Spirit in our hearts and our lives.
Charles Foster Johnson is pastor of Bread in Fort Worth, Texas, and founder and executive director of Pastors for Children, a nationwide network of faith leaders mobilized for public education ministry and advocacy.