Pastor Semmeal Thomas
Church and community have always gone hand-in-hand for Pastor Semmeal J. Thomas of City Covenant Church in Detroit.
He opened the house of worship in 2009 with a mission to become a beacon of light in Brightmoor, the neighborhood the congregation calls home. With multiple programs in place to address food insecurity, education, health, wellbeing and more, Pastor Thomas and the staff felt like they were fulfilling that mission. Then came COVID-19.
“The pandemic hit our church hard,” Pastor Thomas said. “It depleted funds and increased need.”
City Covenant was not alone. Across the region, churches and other faith-based institutions struggled to stay afloat without the in-person worship services that typically help drive revenue. At the same time, more people were turning to these pillars of the community for assistance with basic needs and other services.
To meet the rising demand and help organizations overcome the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of Detroit launched the Faith Forward Fund. Supported by a $250,000 donation from United Way for Southeastern Michigan and $400,000 from other philanthropic partners, the Faith Forward Fund has provided individual grants of up to $20,000 to 50 churches, mosques, synagogues and small non-profit organizations over the past year.
Volunteers at City Covenant Church serve warm, healthy meals.“Not everyone realizes the essential services that faith-based institutions provide in addition to spiritual support,” said Chris Taylor, community engagement and outreach director at United Way for Southeastern Michigan. “United Way has a deep understanding of the need to support the groups that are on the ground doing the work in the community, day-in and day-out. In a lot of cases, that’s the faith-based institutions.”
City Covenant provided hot meals daily for the community before the pandemic. As more families struggled to meet basic needs due to job loss, rising costs and illness, Pastor Thomas estimates they saw a 30 percent increase in the number of individuals and families requesting food.
With the building closed to limit the spread of COVID, staff shifted to a carryout-only model for meals. Eventually, even that model needed to evolve.
“One of our seniors tested positive for COVID and was unable to pick up a meal, so we started delivering to their home,” Pastor Thomas said. “From there, we realized that a large population was missing out on meals simply because they didn’t have transportation to the church, or they were afraid to come out.”
The Faith Forward grant allowed City Covenant to implement daily meal delivery to more than 70 Detroit seniors. Other organizations used the funding to distribute food boxes and meals, reaching nearly 25,000 individuals in Detroit.
The Faith Forward Fund has been “monumental,” Pastor Thomas said. “When an organization like United Way comes alongside a small, under-resourced organization like ours, we can double and triple our impact.”
In addition to funding, United Way provides many organizations with technical support, data tracking, and partnerships that can help to increase their effectiveness in the community.
In the last quarter of 2021, Fraternite Notre Dame, a traditional Catholic religious order, served 4,600 seniors and individuals in need with its mobile food pantry, soup kitchen and home visit program.
“So many people are really hurting,” said Sister Marie Valerie Faustine. “We serve many homeless people. We go to them. Because of people with big hearts like United Way, we’re able to give them food, blankets, hygiene kits, clothes, everything they need.”
Grant dollars were also used to support COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts throughout Detroit.
Organizations such as Holy Redeemer used the funds to provide free transportation to vaccine sites. The parish also started a grief program for people who had lost a loved one due to COVID-19.
Several organizations, including Congregation Beth Shabad, focused their efforts on combatting the mental health impacts of the ongoing pandemic.
The congregation created virtual support groups and implemented socially distanced home-visits to the elderly, college students, and any other individuals struggling with isolation.
“Our impact was especially felt during the high holidays, when we had an impressive turnout of over 500 attendees at our socially distanced meal rotation,” said Rabbi Yudi Mann. “Individuals who otherwise would not have had access to a safe, communal celebration were able to enjoy spiritual connection and a satisfying meal.”
“We were also blessed with the opportunity to visit nursing home residents in person to deliver Chanukah gift bags, light the menorah together and sing Chanukah songs.
“The joy brought to the residents was truly beyond measure, a long-awaited source of light and hope for the most vulnerable among us.”
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