When the new coronavirus outbreak shuttered schools, it also cancelled breakfast and lunch for students who live in households that heavily depend on those two meals provided during the school day.

Thanks to an already open heart to serve, and a pre-existing connection with Alpharetta Elementary School, First Baptist Church, Alpharetta, was able to be almost instantaneous in its response to the school’s desire to give grocery gift cards to families with children hit hardest by the school closure.

On Friday March 13, in a matter of hours, Alpharetta Elementary raised almost $11,000 to help those families. First Alpharetta pastor Steve Browning said the church contributed about $1,500 of that total. But more important for than the dollar amount given was the opportunity to join in a larger community effort.

“The cool thing about that story is it wasn’t just us at First Alpharetta,” Steve says. “Several different folks and groups in our community helped to raise that awareness. And on the morning when I got a call that the school was shutting down, the principal said, ‘Your church has said in the past that you’re there for us whenever we need you. We need you more than ever right now.’”

Steve says he was able to reallocate the money from the church’s mission fund toward the gift card outreach. Deana Davis, a church member who’s also heavily involved with Alpharetta Elementary’s PTO, was ecstatic about the quick outpour and is proud her church was involved.

“Love your neighbor. That is what our community did this morning,” Deana wrote in a Facebook response that Friday afternoon. “After posting to Facebook, sending emails and making phone calls, our community raised almost $11,000 to help families in need at our school. We were able to distribute almost all of the gift cards by noon.”

In her list of special recognitions, Deana praised her church for its kindness.

“Pastor Steve Browning and Beth Browning represented the First Baptist Church of Alpharetta, and graciously gave to our school a generous amount of gift cards,” she said.

For Steve, it was just one of what he hopes will become multiple ways his congregation can be the hands and feet of Jesus in a constantly fluid, uncertain and scary situation.

“What we’ve really tried to do is just call everybody who needs help, or whom we think may need our help, and say, ‘Hey, if you need a testing site, use our church. If you need an overflow site, our facility is open. If you need us to come by and love on health care workers, we’re ready to do that too,’” he says.

With the church’s location nestled in the typically bustling and historic downtown Alpharetta area, Steve says he’s had the opportunity to see and hear the impact disruptions to normal life and business rhythms have had on the community.

“I know of one restaurant here that already made the hard decision to close its doors permanently because of all this,” Steve says. “Other restaurants and small businesses are having to make similar decisions, and are doing it in a rushed fashion. The situation is rapidly changing, so if we can help mobilize resources, rally for groceries, or just mobilize toward the needs inside and outside our church in any way, we’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen.”

Steve says the shifts and changes have caused him to reorganize church staff to be more equipped to quickly handle known needs.

“We aren’t a megachurch,” he says. “We’re more mid-sized. So we’ve taken our staff and key leadership and reorganized in to groups: community outreach, inward care, and a next-gen group that ensures we’re still ministering to our youth and students.”

While it’s an exhilarating time for a pastor always looking for ways to make his church more visible in the community, there are also many inconvenient aspects to it, such as the prospect that Easter will likely be “an entirely digital promotion.” But Steve says his focus will be to make sure the good outweighs the bad and that learning more ways to reach people with the love of Jesus remains top priority.

“We have no secret sauce to this,” he says. “We’re building things as it’s happening and learning as we go. In one sense, nobody wants this to happen. But in another sense, we’re so grateful to be able to respond. We just want to be the church right now and reach into darkness with the hope of Jesus for as many people and in as many tangible ways as possible.”

To find other ways to respond to needs in your community check out our COVID-19 response guides.