Sunday, April 2, 2023

Ministries Find Ways to Collaborate Despite COVID

By Tracy Simmons

A member of Together Chicago’s Violence Reduction Program speaks about gun violence/Contributed

When everything came to a halt due to COVID restrictions starting in 2020, Together Chicago in Illinois and Love Out Loud in North Carolina — two ministries aimed at unifying their communities — had to keep going.

For seven years now, Together Chicago has been working to reduce gun violence and increase community in Chicago by bringing faith groups, businesses and government leaders together. 

Similarly, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Love Out Loud has been connecting ministries and volunteers with the goal of helping the city flourish.

“I do believe Jesus meets all our needs spiritually, but naturally so many people are in different situations. They need to have money so they can get food, have hope so they can walk in dignity and that might be a little challenging,” said Roy Patterson, director of media relations for Together Chicago.

He said the organization does this in a variety of ways, including providing legal help, supporting job and business creation in disinvested communities, forming partnerships with schools and caring for victims of violence.

Pivoting Because of COVID

But when the city shut down because of COVID-19 restrictions in 2020, Together Chicago had to rethink how to do things.

“I’d say in almost every area of our ministry, Zoom was utilized to help,” Patterson said.

This included virtual prayer events and Gospel Justice programming.

One of their programs, though, couldn’t go virtual: the Street Outreach Team.

Together Chicago Co-Founder Michael Allen said when citizens were quarantined and isolated, gun violence managed to rise.

“So we understood that our services were needed more than ever,” Allen said.

Taking it to the Streets

The Street Outreach Team is made of former gang leaders who “survived prison or death.” They still have street cred, Allen said, so go to street corners and talk to current gang members about how they can turn their lives around.

“They have a lot of bullet holes in their bodies; have put a lot of bullet holes in other people’s bodies,” he said. “They’re sick and tired of being sick and tired and want to redeem themselves in the sense of rebuilding communities they once tore down, and we give them an opportunity to do that.”

He said the team took precautions, and hit the streets, hanging out on corners and getting gang members to work with the Together Chicago program through case management. 

Once in the program, he explained, participants get help in a variety of ways including job training, expungement, relocation, funeral expenses, paying bills, etc.

Allen said that during COVID, they had 30 participants any given month.

All Worth It

And, he says, it was worth the risk.

Love Out Loud volunteers assist with food distribution during COVID/Contributed

According to data published on the Together Chicago website, there were 60% fewer homicides and 40% fewer shootings in the Chicago-area between Jan. 1-Sept. 30, 2021.

About 700 miles away, Love Out Loud, a collaboration of about 80 churches and 200 community organizations in the Winston-Salem area, found a way to keep their community fed when local agencies temporarily closed.

Two days after schools and food banks were shut down, the ministry became a ‘disaster relief command center’ organizing alternative ways for people to get fed. 

Executive Director Chuck Spong said they asked themselves, “What is the new network of food distribution and how do we do that in the time of COVID?”

Feeding the Community

This included building a network of 15 food distribution sites across the community as well as recruiting a base of volunteers.

On March 23, 2020, about a week after shutdown, distribution began five days a week. Distribution sites were mainly at churches, but also included two YMCA locations and a local NAACP meeting place.

“Pretty quickly (maybe by the second week), one of our team members developed a passion and burden to supplement the weekday breakfast and lunch that was being provided with a take-home, pop-in-the-oven that would be provided (at just above cost) by a minority business or caterer,” Spong explained.

Love Out Loud was able to do this by working with the director of a shared-use kitchen in a Black business enterprise center.

A few weeks later, Spong said, they expanded their food services by contracting with Black or minority owned restaurants and caterers. 

What the Pandemic Really Revealed

“Part of the impact was a deeper conviction about system change and addressing the equity issue,” he said.

Spong said, perhaps most importantly, the pandemic revealed “enormous inequities” in the community.

In February, the organization brought Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy” to Winston-Salem to discuss justice, equity and race. Spong said 225 stakeholders from churches, community partners joined the conversation. Follow-up discussions from the event will continue into April.

Though both organizations are now focusing on in-person events, hybrid and virtual opportunities are now part of their fabric. Like this upcoming City Wide Prayer Watch, taking place on Zoom, organized by Together Chicago.

For information on virtual and in-person events, visit the Together Chicago and Love out Loud event pages.