The idea to set up the Church Engagement Fund arose from several conversations Colin Watson, Sr., had with pastors of smaller and emerging churches around the U.S. about challenges they were facing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In some cases,” said Watson, acting executive director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, “weekly giving was significantly diminished because of high layoffs in the congregations. In other cases, lack of access to technology limited the ability of the church to easily connect with members. In addition, many communities had increased needs because of the economic impact of stay-at-home orders.”
After bringing the matter to the senior leadership team, Watson was heartened by the response of the CRC Loan Fund, Resonate Global Mission, and Back to God Ministries International for their participation in helping churches at this difficult time.
Currently, Watson added, “We are also inviting churches to contribute to this fund as they are able.”
As a result, over the past several weeks the CRCNA has distributed amounts totaling nearly $1 million in aid to more than 125 churches and ministries across the CRC in the U.S. and Canada.
These grants have helped to fund food banks, outreach in neighborhoods, shelter for the homeless, pastors’ salaries, online worship services, and, in one case, funeral expenses.
As part of the effort to help churches and ministries, World Renew launched a grant process of its own.
“I think these efforts show why individual churches may want to be part of a larger group of churches and get help when they need it,” said Jeff Bolt, a member of the senior leadership team. “This has been our chance to help one another at a very difficult time.”
The initial grant for setting up the Church Engagement Fund — some $500,000 — came from the Loan Fund, which has always had the purpose of helping churches, said John Bolt, the CRCNA’s director of finance. Soon afterward, Resonate Global Mission and Back to God Ministries International joined in the effort.
Fund Reaches Out
Jose Figueiredo, a deacon at One Hope Community Church in northern Philadelphia, said unemployment skyrocketed in his church after the virus hit and stay-at-home orders were put in place.
With help from a denominational grant from the Loan Fund, One Hope was able to help unemployed people obtain food.
“Within a few weeks, we went from four families [that One Hope was helping] to about 25. Today,” he added, “we’re serving roughly 85 families weekly.”
At the same time, church income was dropping, making it a challenge for One Hope to meet its financial responsibilities while serving people who were seeking the church’s help.
“The CRC grant has made it possible to take care of general operating expenses, gas for vehicles, and supplies like bags, gloves, wipes, and food to supplement what we’re able to get through local partnerships,” said Figueiredo.
“Truth be told, the grant not only helped us financially, but the encouragement from the denomination‘s generosity has also been invaluable during these turbulent times. We appreciate the denomination standing with us.”
World Renew Launches Grant Process
World Renew began offering grants through a pair of funding sources. First, World Renew and Diaconal Ministries Canada offered assistance to cover basic needs in churches, said Jodi Koeman, coordinator of the grants programs for World Renew.
The grants were geared to mobilize congregations to work with their communities. Funds were made available to “encourage congregations to be missional and to live out a mission that effectively addresses the short- and long-term needs of people living in situations of poverty, injustice, and/or crisis.”
One church to receive a World Renew/Diaconal Ministries grant was River City Church in Cambridge, Ont. Nicole Perreia, a member of the church, was able, with the grant’s help, to hold a creative T-shirt sale.
In turn, River City sent support to charities in downtown Cambridge with proceeds from the sale. (See Local Ministry Grants Help Churches Respond to Community COVID-19 Needs in The Banner.)
In the United States, World Renew grants were made available to both CRC and Reformed Church in America congregations across North America.
“The grant money from World Renew has allowed us to provide weekly meals for hundreds of neighbors experiencing homelessness and others who were either quarantined or unable to go to downtown food distribution centers due to COVID-19 concerns,” said Joe Paravisini, church planter for The Neighborhood in Providence, R.I.
“It has been absolutely crucial in our ability to serve one of the most vulnerable and negatively affected populations in our city.”
Paul Glover, pastor at Flatlands Reformed Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., said his church is grateful for a $5,000 grant from World Renew.
“We've used the money to provide meals for first responders and essential workers, and to purchase groceries for families and people who are most vulnerable,” said Glover.
“We also used the money to support collaborative work with our community partners, including the mayor's office, to set up an emergency food distribution pantry as well as mask-and-face covering giveaways in our neighborhood and borough.”
Mark Van Andel, pastor of Hesed Community Church in Detroit, Michigan’s Brightmoor neighborhood, said they have already received a grant from World Renew and from Resonate. Hesed had just applied to be considered in the next round of grants from the denomination.
“We are attempting to meet tangible needs of families in the Detroit neighborhoods of Brightmoor, Piety Hill, and Morningside who are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Van Andel. “Many of the families in our city have been severely hit by the coronavirus through sickness, death, and economic challenges such as unemployment or underemployment.”
Located in one of the cities hardest hit by COVID-19 in the U.S., Hesed is seeking to expand its work beyond giving immediate assistance to its neighbors. “A lot of people are experiencing trauma and grief, and we want to get them connected to counseling,” said Van Andel.
In a situation unrelated to COVID-19, Hesed was also able to coordinate an outdoor memorial service and help with expenses for a local man who died in a house fire. The man had been homeless and had moved into one of the many abandoned homes in the Brightmoor neighborhood.
“With these grants, it feels like we in Detroit are being seen — that our brothers and sisters have seen the value of what we are doing and want to be part of this,” said Van Andel.
Resonate and BTGMI Work in Tandem
David Morgan, chief operating officer for Resonate Global Mission, said the ministry contributed $250,000 to the Church Engagement Fund. Many grants coming from that fund have focused on church plants, recently emerged congregations, campus ministries, and churches that are seeking relief funds specifically to use in mission or community engagement.
In the first phase of the grant program, Resonate, said Morgan, disbursed about 35 grants totaling $108,000 and is now working on round two, with more than 20 applications in the pipeline. Recently the Church Engagement Fund sent out information to churches to ask those who can afford it to contribute to the fund.
“By the end of June we hope to have disbursed all of the $250,000, and, depending on how much more the CRCNA raises for this fund, hopefully we'll be able to grant more than that amount. Of the 50 or so churches we have approved for grants so far, most are ethnic-minority churches, and most have been planted in the past five years,” said Morgan.
Louise Wing, director of administration for Back to God Ministries International, said her agency has primarily been involved in distributing grants in the area of technology resources. Wing and Morgan are a part of the committee reviewing grant proposals.
“After the grant amount is determined for general needs [assistance with operating expenses], churches that have expressed needs that align with agency missions [community development and missional work for Resonate; technology needs for BTGMI], we contact those churches to better understand their needs,” Wing said.
Though the grants are distributed in the form of separate checks, they are associated with the Church Engagement Fund, and requests come through the CEF applications.
Bridge Church, a new CRC church plant in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., didn’t have the equipment to help the church go online when COVID-19 closings came on. But then Pastor Ryan Pedde and his team received an email from Resonate Global Mission offering grants for technology support for church plants throughout Canada and the United States.
“We needed to upgrade our technology to engage people in the middle of COVID-19,” said Pedde.
But like many CRC church plants, Bridge Church works with limited finances. The unexpected shift to conduct worship services online was not in the budget.
Trusting that they would be able to pay for equipment someday, somehow, Pedde and his team purchased a camera, audio gear, and a license for an online video platform.
Then, just a few days later, the church plant received an email from Resonate’s church-planting team with a list of CRCNA resources available to help support church plants during the pandemic—including a “COVID-19 Support Grant” offering up to $1,200 for equipment that would help keep church plants connected during the pandemic. (See also Alberta Church Hosts Historic Drive-in Easter Service in The Banner.)
“Talk about a God thing!” said Pedde. “[Financial giving in our church plant] is uncertain, and to have this cost taken care of by Resonate is a big deal.”
Resonate staff and the CRCNA continue working hard to support CRC church plants during COVID-19 as they support their own communities.
Mirtha Villafane, a local mission leader in the greater Los Angeles area, said a grant from Resonate has helped her small congregation, the Latin America Church, make it through this difficult time.
“The Latin America CRC is a small congregation with 70-80 [mostly first-generation] Latinos who attend every Sunday. We have been facing financial struggles for a long time, but with Covid-19, of course, that increased.
“We applied for government funds but weren’t approved. . . . But we prayed, and our Almighty God answered our prayers through our denomination. Thank you, Resonate Global Mission, for your financial support; thank you for your partnership; and thank you for your prayer.”
The church, she said, “used the grant from Resonate for general church operations and to purchase a video camera to improve online broadcasts. [And now] we have a large percentage of people watching us on Sundays and Fridays.”