Apart but Together: The unexpected blessings of socially distanced outreach on the Lower East Side

By Caroline Lusk

“People are opening up in ways they hadn’t before,” says Taylor Field, Send Relief’s New York City ministry center director and pastor of Graffiti Church. “It’s an unexpected consequence of what we thought would be such a limitation.”

Before, of course, refers to before the coronavirus swept the world, hitting New York City particularly hard. Per city regulations, the ministry center moved outreach programs online. But closed doors became open windows.

“For some people, this has opened up communication in a brand-new way,” Taylor shares. “The barriers have come down this time.”

Taylor and Graffiti Church have been there for their community through the AIDS Crisis, 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy. And as the coronavirus ushered in a new normal, they have continued doing what they do best—loving, serving, encouraging and providing a lifeline for those who need it.

“The severity of this crisis and the widespread nature differentiate it from past disasters,” says Pastor Field. “Every single person is affected.”

At-home learning in particular has also created new opportunities for outreach and unexpected blessing.

Graffiti Church’s children’s department has actively maintained its outreach efforts. From weekly Zoom calls and Bible lessons to virtual homework help sessions Graffiti Church’s children’s ministry hasn’t missed a beat, and God has blessed in beautifully surprising ways.

“A lot of the families we serve in our after-school program don’t attend church,” explains Tonya Bernard, Graffiti’s children’s ministry director. “We’ve had some parents sitting in on the Zoom Bible story and prayer times.”

Homework help sessions and weekly check-in phone calls have been particularly appreciated by parents.

“Before COVID-19, we would only see a lot of parents in passing,” says Tonya. “Now, a lot of relationships have taken on new depths because of the phone calls. One parent shared some hardships with me. She asked if I would pray with her. Later, I followed up, and she shared that I was the only one she could vent to and open up and cry with.

“During one of the homework help sessions, another mom asked if we could pray together before we were done,” adds Tonya. “Parents are willing to be open and honest and acknowledge the need for prayer.”

With so many people in the city impacted by this illness, the grief is palpable.

“Everyone knows people who have had the coronavirus,” says Pastor Field. “One of our sister churches had done 30 funerals by the end of March…the isolation is so painful.”

As the staff of Graffiti Church continues to alter their lifestyles and outreach to mitigate the spread COVID-19, God continues to reveal light in the darkness and hope in the desperation.

“On Easter Sunday, I was preaching in my four-foot backyard with my wife filming it,” shares Taylor. “We live in a tenement building, and I noticed that the windows of the surrounding buildings started opening up. I was preaching to the whole gallery of tenement residents. That’s something that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

As the nation begins easing restrictions, the epidemic’s peak seems to have passed in New York City. Still, the days and weeks ahead are filled with unknowns.

Though they are waiting, they are still serving. Instead of weekly Wednesday night meals, the church has and will continue to provide meals and groceries to families in need. And they are committed to remaining in contact with kids, parents and families who need to know that they’re not alone.

“I texted a family the other night just to check-in,” Tonya says. “The mom texted back and thanked me for reaching out. She said that her faith in God has grown deeper and that she’d been praying about how she could teach her kids more about God. She said it was a sign that I reached out to help.

“Sometimes, you wonder if you’re making any kind of difference,” she continues. “It’s just really sweet to catch glimpses of God at work. It’s so hard when we can’t meet physically with the kids, but the small things are big.”

“Revival comes in a lot of different ways,” reflects Taylor. “The impact of this disaster has a ripple effect. But we and other churches are here for such a time as this. It’s like the Joseph principle. Joseph couldn’t change the season of famine the world was facing, but he decided to do whatever he could to feed the people. We can’t change the season, but we can do whatever we can to help bless other people in this time.”

Caroline Lusk writes for Send Relief.

Published May 20, 2020