Although it’s been more than a year since COVID physically closed the doors to his church, Pastor Walter Thomas Jr., says the pandemic opened many other doors for his church’s mission ministry.
“We learned in this season of ministry, you can’t just start something and stay there. One of our primary goals when the pandemic first started was to further our mission and outreach efforts.”
In a year filled with uncertainty, First Baptist Church of Steelton provided hope to both its congregation and its community.
Mission Ministry: Bring Fresh Food to a Desert
First Baptist sits in Pennsylvania’s state capital of Harrisburg, but is named for the nearby community of Steelton. The area is known as the home of America’s first steel company. At its height, the area was bustling and active, but those days are long gone. Currently, it’s a mostly blue collar community of about six thousand people.
“We are in the middle of a food dessert,” Thomas explains. “There is no grocery store in our community. There are only convenience stores or corner stores. They don’t sell healthy, fresh food that you can prepare at home.”
When the pandemic suddenly closed schools, Thomas and others worried about children who relied on school lunch programs. First Baptist immediately partnered with other churches, organizations and elected officials to make meals easily accessible for these students.
“We had churches where students could walk in and get their lunches.” The convenience and safety of these pick-up locations was key, says Thomas, because many parents were essential workers and unable to work from home.
“A lot of these kids found themselves having to hold it down and make it happen for themselves,” he says. Thomas knew there was more First Baptist could be doing for the families struggling with food insecurity. The church became an emergency food distribution site for six months at the height of the pandemic.
“We were able to distribute more than 800 boxes and bless over two thousand individuals,” says Thomas. “We began to see families coming for themselves and for loved ones who couldn’t get out of the house. Steelton in a lot of ways gets overlooked. A lot of people were grateful to have the church making this available for them.”
Mission Ministry: Supporting Community Classrooms
As fall approached, First Baptist’s food distribution program began to wind down, and the church was looking for other ways to serve families in the community. A new school year was about to begin, but COVID would prevent students from gathering in school buildings.
Virtual learning would be the only option for students. Also, in the Harrisburg community, with a high population of working parents, many students would be home alone.
“One of the representatives in our area, (State Rep.) Patty Kim (D), worked with community leaders, including one of our members, to set up community classrooms, where children could come and do virtual learning together.”
First Baptist Church adopted several community classrooms and provided book bags and school supplies for all the participating students. A couple months later, when the chill of winter began to set in, the church purchased coats for community classroom students who were in need.
Plans for the Future
While it’s been a challenging year, Thomas is grateful that God allowed First Baptist to be a beacon of hope during this time. “It was interesting because before the pandemic, we would continue to run into a brick wall with a lot of the missions and outreach efforts we would try to do,” he says.
“But when the pandemic hit, it seemed as if all the walls fell, and we were able to make things happen. God said, ‘Now, I’m going to let them see the light I’ve placed in you all and the love I’ve placed in you all, that they need at this time.”
Most recently, First Baptist held a drive through food pantry event as part of its Easter celebration. Based on the community response to all of these events, Thomas says the church is working toward becoming a permanent food distribution site.
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