“I learned that people forget what you said, what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel,” reflected American writer Maya Angelou. How did the Adventist Church make people feel during the pandemic? For more than 4 million people in South America, it was essential for them to feel comfort in one of the most challenging times of their lives.
This is what the institution's report points out on the assistance impact on communities to take care of varied needs, from food insecurity to mental health. Particularly, I had the opportunity to follow several moments of similar actions, making a difference in people's lives.
Present in the life of the population in the most difficult periods of the last two years, the church, like any human organization, faces the challenge of looking to the future and imagining the post-pandemic world, insofar as solutions for facing this health crisis help humanity to coexist with the virus.
Especially in the most vulnerable populations, what lies ahead are social, economic, emotional, and spiritual adversities that have been driven by the effects of COVID-19. And the question arises: How can the Adventist Church, so active in mobilizing volunteers as reported above, now inspire local churches, which are slowly returning to face-to-face activities, so that they make a difference in responding to the needs of the people around them?
Known and admired by many religious leaders in Brazil, Pastor Thom S. Rainer, author of the book Igreja Simples, points out ways to answer this question in his new work, A Igreja Pós-Quarentena. Rainer outlines six post-pandemic challenges that translate into opportunities for the church to be more relevant in its mission goals. Among them is expanding the reception to communities. In many of them, says Rainer, the local church is the closest thing to a community center for many families. And he makes the suggestion that it's time for each church to reevaluate the use of its facilities to boost assistance to vulnerable families in the community, beyond congregational members.
Churches at the Service of the Community
Rainer reflects on the unintended consequences of a member-only local church focused almost exclusively on its calendar. “Some members were so busy 'going to church' that they were unable to be on mission in their community,” he writes. He warns of one reality: church facilities are idle most of the time.
Faced with post-pandemic community needs, Rainer imagines that these facilities could be used to assist vulnerable families in a variety of ways. To do so, it is necessary to change the mindset and include the community in planning the use of church facilities. He reasons, “What if we asked the community how our church facilities could better serve them? What if we turn the purpose of our buildings upside down? What if the facility became a place for the community as well as a place in the community?” (emphasis added). These are provocative statements.
The book provides some examples. A church opened its facilities to hold birthday parties for community residents. Another, in a rural area, functioned during idle periods as a kind of community center, given the lack of a structure like this to carry out registration of public services, health care, and adult literacy classes.
In Salvador, Bahia, I saw something similar happen before the pandemic. More than 6,000 people were served in Adventist churches in the suburbs of the state capital, with professional courses that ranged from baking and sewing to party decoration. I interviewed a young woman in her 20s, happy that she got her first job after taking a course in party decoration at an Adventist church.
It was an initiative of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), in partnership with the National Commercial Learning Service (Senac). In the downtime, the churches in these communities were open and evangelizing with the message of love and compassion. In these places, if it ceased to exist, the residents would feel sadness.
Sensitivity in the Face of Adversity
The challenges faced by communities have magnified during the pandemic and remain. In Latin American and Caribbean countries, 86 million people live in extreme poverty.1 In Brazil's favelas and peripheries, 71% of families lost half of their income. Almost 70% of favela residents lacked money to buy food.2 Social inequality has widened. The ten richest men in the world doubled their fortunes during the pandemic, while the income of 99% of humanity fell.3 The pandemic left 244,000 Brazilian children and young people out of school.4 Due to a lack of sanitary pads, one in five young people missed school.5 Children aged 6 to 10 were the most affected by school exclusion during the pandemic, according to Unicef alert.6
Churches that manage to adjust their activities to occupy idle periods in favor of assisting these needs will have relevance capable of attracting people's attention to the gospel they need to communicate. In the face of so much adversity, it is a good time to be a church, as Tim Keel wrote: “In post-Christendom, the church is that community of people who seek to discover what God is actively doing in the world around them and then join this job. The church is that community of people gathered around Jesus Christ to participate in his life and incarnate it in the context in which he placed them.”7
Even Ellen White advised, in an inspiring message to the church at a time when she herself was sick, to draw attention to the Christian commitment to the most vulnerable. She wrote on March 20, 1891, “It has become fashionable to look down upon the poor, and upon the colored race in particular. But Jesus, the Master, was poor, and He sympathizes with the poor, the discarded, the oppressed, and declares that every insult shown to them is as if shown to Himself. I am more and more surprised as I see those who claim to be children of God possessing so little of the sympathy, tenderness, and love which actuated Christ. Would that every church, north and south, were imbued with the spirit of our Lord's teaching.”8
These are words that encourage churches to expand the reach of their mission in communities with the practice of the gospel through actions of love and compassion.
1) ECLAC. Extreme poverty in the region rises to 86 million in 2021 as a result of the deepening social and health crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. https://www.cepal.org/pt-br/comunicados/pobreza-extrema-regiao-sobe-86-milhoes-2021-como-consequencia-adepthamento-crise. Published January 25, 2022.
2) CNN Brasil. In the pandemic, 71% of families living in favelas lost half of their income. https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/business/na-pandemia-71-das-familias-moradoras-de-favelas-perderam-metade-da-renda/. Published March 28, 2021.
3) Oxfam Brazil. A new billionaire emerged every 26 hours during the pandemic, while inequality contributed to the death of one person every four seconds. https://www.oxfam.org.br/noticias/um-novo-bilionario-surgiu-a-cada-26-horas-durante-a-pandemia-enquanto-a-desigualdade-contribuiu-para-a-morte- one-person-every-four-seconds/ . Published January 16, 2022.
4) Portal R7. Pandemic leaves 244,000 Brazilian children and young people out of school. https://noticias.r7.com/educacao/pandemia-deixa-244-mil-criancas-e-jovens-brasileiros-fora-da-escola-02122021. Published December 02, 2021.
5) Portal Uol. Due to lack of sanitary pads, one in 5 young people miss school, says study. https://educacao.uol.com.br/noticias/2022/02/06/jovens-pobreza-menstrual-falta-absorvente.htm . Published Feb 06, 2022.
6) Unicef Brazil. Children aged 6 to 10 are the most affected by school exclusion in the pandemic, warn UNICEF and Cenpec Educação. https://www.unicef.org/brazil/comunicados-de-imprensa/criancas-de-6-10-anos-sao-mais-afetadas-pela-exclusao-escolar-na-pandemia. Published April 29, 2021.
7) KEEL. Tim. Intuitive Leadership. Embracing a Paradigm of Narrative, Metaphor, and Chaos. Baker Books. 2007.
8) WHITE, Ellen. The Southern Work. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing
Association, 1966, p. 10.