Rev. Vance Haywood welcomed congregants during a livestreamed service on a Sunday. In a green chasuble, he spoke about the challenges of coming together during a pandemic and welcomed viewers even beyond North Carolina. “We’re in this work together,” he said before sitting quietly, hands crossed at a distance behind Rev. Paully Adams who delivered a sermon about reclaiming the power of prayer.
“Pastor Vance” or just “Vance,” as Haywood prefers, became the fifth pastor of St. John’s MCC in February 2018. He’s never been big on titles. The church, situated in the Southern Gateway of downtown Raleigh, began as a small group in 1976. Across the street, large historically-inspired homes are being built and three bus stops are just a short distance away along Maywood Ave.
As the coronavirus has shuttered shelters throughout Wake County, St. John’s has stepped up their services with their partners at the Love Wins Community Engagement Center. Their mission reads “using a mind, body and spirit approach, we provide day shelter, hot meals and peer support for people experiencing homelessness.” According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 970 people are without a place to sleep on any given night in Wake County. With rising unemployment and limited resources brought on by COVID-19, that number is expected to increase.
Five days a week, the center serves hot meals and keeps its building open for people in need. “The first recommendations early on were to shut down,” says Haywood. “If we shut down then, suddenly, we would stop food services for folks who come up here every week.” The church hoped to fill the gap left by others who had made the decision to close for one reason or another. Many of those locations donated food to St. John’s.
The center follows strict guidelines. With a Coronavirus Task Force in place, they made the decision to take the guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), then amplify them to make sure they were following the best practices and protocols.
“Let’s figure out how we do this and do it the right way,” says Haywood who offers to share what the church has learned to other communities that want to do the same. “I wish we’d had someone to talk to when we started this thing.”
The task force trains all volunteers and staff, and continues to update based on new information. Since the pandemic started, they’ve had to stop dining in options, offering to-go meals instead. They pay close attention to the bus schedule, realizing that people come in for a hot meal and need a place to eat before the next bus arrives. They set up tables outside and volunteers clean them after each use.
Haywood estimates that they are serving about 600 meals every week, with dinner being the busiest time. The numbers have gone down a bit as some people who identify as high risk have been placed in hotels. At one point, they were serving between 70 and 80 people every night. In addition, about 80-90 families receive groceries from a food pantry each week that is meant to provide them with a couple of weeks of food.
Showers and computers are available on an appointment basis. A peer support specialist at the church and volunteers help guide people through the process of accessing services or checking benefits like the federal stimulus program or Supplemental Security Income. After each appointment, they clean the area, wiping down and sanitizing all surfaces to prepare for the next person to come in.
AN LGBTQ CONGREGATION
Metropolitan Community Church, fondly known as MCC, was founded in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Uprising in New York. A series of events in Southern California resulted in the birth of the world’s first church led by and for LGBTQ people, with Rev. Troy Perry at the helm. Today, 43,000 members in almost 300 congregations are a part of MCC in 22 countries.
While St. John’s serves anyone in the community, regardless of their identity, Haywood says that added stressors of the pandemic have caused an increase in the numbers of LGBTQ people they are seeing throughout the day. More than five million LGBTQ people work in jobs that are more likely to have been impacted by COVID-19, according to a policy brief released earlier this year by the Human Rights Campaign. This includes those working in restaurants and food services, hospitals, K-12 and higher education, and retail industries. Even before the pandemic, nearly one in 10 LGBTQ people were reportedly unemployed and the overall LGBTQ population is more likely to live in poverty than straight or cisgender people.
St. John’s MCC has a strong relationship with the LGBT Center of Raleigh because of that need. Case managers and peer supporters help people get housing support when those resources are available, and the two regularly reach out to each other by phone to help members of the community. Transgender people have been especially hit hard by the pandemic. “Our trans community typically gets escalated rather quickly,” says Haywood. “We know, particularly for trans people of color and the numbers who are killed each year for simply being who they are, we have to try to make sure they get what they need.” The church has also recently partnered with another organization that addresses substance abuse to help people who need those services.
They’ve seen an increase from the church side as well, noting that several LGBTQ people have had to return to homes that may not be supportive environments because of lack of income or university and college shutdowns. St. John’s continues to offer pastoral care to people as the need increases. Most of the people connecting with the church for support services are from outlying areas, at least a 40-minute drive outside of Raleigh. For some in outlying rural areas — the church and center are the only lifeline left.
Before COVID-19, Haywood did a survey of individuals based on individual conversations and found that about 67 percent of the people served identified as LGBTQ. “I was absolutely astounded,” says Haywood. “I never would have imagined that it was that high.” On several levels, it makes sense. As Haywood explains, people often go to the first stereotype they hit, in a lot of cases that’s the homeless stereotype. “They didn’t take time to realize this is also someone who is queer,” he says. “That is likely one of the reasons that they are homeless, because they faced great adversity or didn’t have a support system there.” These conversations have enabled him and others at the Center to create a more open dialogue with people throughout the community. “This is something you need to be thinking about,” says Haywood.
St. John’s and Love Wins have recently brought on a volunteer grant writer to seek additional support for their work. While they haven’t received any federal support yet, they did apply for the federal SBA loans once they opened for non-profits. All the support has been from the community and Haywood is centered around that approach to build a different form of support for people.
“We get caught up looking at how much food we give out, or how many meals we serve, but the most important part of all of it, is creating a community and building relationships with people,” he says. “That part is the most critical. By the time people are experiencing homelessness they’ve had all that taken from them.”
According to the church’s website, they’ve served 16,384 meals in 2020, compared to the 8,925 served in all of 2019. As of press time, Congress had yet to approve a second coronavirus relief bill, as enhanced unemployment for millions of jobless Americans expired at the end of July.
This story was produced by the Charlotte Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of six media companies working together in an effort started by the Solutions Journalism Network and funded by The Knight Foundation.