As people around the world adjust to the “new normal” brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an increased focus on caring for the most vulnerable people in our society. For many, this has brought a renewed emphasis on the importance of community amid hardship. For James Pike, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Huntington Beach, Calif., the pandemic provides an opportunity for the community to come together in support of the city’s senior citizen population.
Before the pandemic hit California, Huntington Beach had planned an interfaith day of service with Pike as its coordinator. But as COVID-19 spread, the city shut down. City officials recognized they had a plethora of demands, but they didn’t have the resources to respond to all of them. They turned to Pike to coordinate efforts for one of those needs: care for the city’s elderly population.
Waste Not OC, a nonprofit that partners with grocery stores and restaurants to use their excess food to prepare and package meals, was already willing to be involved. The city asked Pike to organize the distribution of these meals to homebound senior citizens.
Fortunately, Pike had a valuable partner in Care Connections Network (CCN), a nonprofit centered on empowering older adults to age confidently in their own homes. CCN was launched in 2012 by members of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection who saw the need for a ministry for seniors. The nonprofit incorporates education, social programming and creation of intentional community into its work, empowering its clients and preventing social isolation as they age.
With grants from Lutheran Disaster Response and other organizations, CCN and Resurrection began a program to distribute food and other essential products to homebound older adults.
Once a week, program participants receive a box of 10 professionally prepared and packaged meals and paper products such as toilet paper. Volunteers drop off the boxes at the front doors of recipients, then call to let them know their meals have arrived. During the first four weeks of the program, over 2,220 meals were delivered.
The program is also serving homeless seniors who have been referred to them by the Huntington Beach Police Department’s Homeless Task Force. Other partners now include the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, the local Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs, and other Lutheran congregations in the area.
“The number-one rule of establishing an effective network like this is you just have to keep showing up to stuff so people know who you are, and then you can have those relationships when you need them,” said Pike. “A lot of this has happened because there were existing relationships that we could use during this time.”
During the first four weeks of the program, over 2,220 meals were delivered.
“A way for us to worship our God”
CCN also prioritizes wellness checks, a valuable element of the program. Volunteers call clients on a weekly basis to check in and provide a moment of socialization for those who may feel isolated. More than 420 wellness calls have been made to 119 older adults. Many times, recipients reach out to CCN to express their gratitude for the care given to them. These phone calls are especially meaningful to Carolyn Ross, executive director of CCN.
“I think for me it was that first phone call I got, that first lady that called,” said Ross. “She was almost in tears, but they were just tears of being grateful. I could tell she was really lonely. We talked for about 15 minutes, and it just meant so much to me that she took the time to call, and to express, with such genuine emotion, how she felt.”
The food distribution project has also provided an opportunity for young adult leadership in the church. Young adults have taken over management of many elements of the program, administering an on-the-ground lesson in civic engagement. They are reading a text together, discussing questions of faith and life and applying their discussions to the current circumstances.
But a project of this size hasn’t come without challenges. As the pandemic intensifies and the demand for services rapidly increases, Pike explained, they’ve struggled to keep up with the program’s quick growth, especially regarding communication between the multiple groups involved.
“The challenges we have encountered, it just shows me how God’s hand is in our work, because we do overcome them, and we overcome them without a lot of strife,” Ross said. “It just seems to happen. This is just meant to be.”
Ross sees the strengthening of relationships among the partners as one of the biggest rewards of the program, highlighting their commitment to helping the community.
“As a Christian, I see God in the people we’re serving. This is a way for us to worship our God through loving our neighbor—God among the poor, God isolated, God in an older person in a mobile home, God as a senior in an apartment with a pet bird, God who doesn’t like spicy food, God who wants a roll of toilet paper. The very common work that we’re doing is exactly the kind of thing that Jesus means when he said, ‘If you do this for them, you do it for me.’”