Ypsi-area churches respond to COVID-19 with virtual worship and expanded community outreach

Although Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's recent executive orders have exempted houses of worship from bans on large gatherings, many Ypsilanti-area churches have changed the way they operate during the COVID-19 crisis, from hosting online worship services to ramping up existing programs that help community members in need.


Pastor Willie Powell says "COVID-19 has changed everything" at Grace Fellowship Church, 1301 S. Harris Rd. in Ypsi Township, and the church's nonprofit Community Family Life Center (CFLC), which serves the surrounding Sugarbrook neighborhood.


Powell is using Facebook Live to offer a sermon each Sunday at 11 a.m., as well as bible study from 6:30-7 p.m. on Wednesdays. Congregation members can also dial into a group prayer phone line from 4-5 p.m. Tuesdays or from 10-11 a.m. Saturdays.

Geraldine Powell and Pastor Willie Powell livestream Grace Fellowship Church's Palm Sunday service.

While the church is doing more outreach via technology, it has suspended virtually all the programs it was offering through CFLC. That includes a weekly Youth Enrichment Program, a food pantry, Washtenaw Literacy Lab, and food distribution for Ypsilanti Community Schools.


The church's first lady, Geraldine Powell, says this was in part because of concerns that those programs couldn't be run safely and comply with social distancing recommendations, and also because many of the church's volunteers are in the high-risk age group over 60. She says she looks forward to resuming that programming when the danger has passed.


Jack Radcliffe, pastor of the Ypsilanti Friends Church at 7890 Tuttle Hill Rd. in Ypsi Township, says his church has adopted virtual worship services and ramped up several outreach programs.


"For us, our mission is about making disciples of Jesus. We're learning how to do that without being face to face, and that probably will continue," Radcliffe says.


One unfortunate casualty of the state's social distancing and stay-home directives was the church's recent partnership with Lincoln Consolidated Schools, Brick Elementary in particular. The Ypsilanti Friends congregation was about to start sending volunteers to mentor and tutor pupils there when the state's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" directive came down.


Instead, the congregation has ramped up its food distribution efforts through its Quaker Cupboard. The pantry originally was held on the third Thursday of each month to help area residents who had trouble making ends meet at the end of the month when paychecks or social service supports ran out.

Volunteers at the Ypsilanti Friends Church prepare food for distribution.

"With all of this happening, we knew need was going to increase because we heard food banks are being stretched, so we decided to expand to every other week," Radcliffe says.


The Quaker Cupboard acquires food and personal care items mostly through donations, though there is some church budget set aside for the pantry as well, Radcliffe says. He is hoping community members will step up their donations to meet increased need at this time.


The pantry is operating as safely as possible, following social distancing protocols. Those who want to use the service fill out an order form. Church members go inside the church to shop for the users and then load supplies into the shopper's car.


The pantry operates out of the church from 2-3 p.m. every other Thursday. The next day the program will operate is April 9.


Radcliffe says congregation members have also been volunteering to make grocery and pharmacy runs for those in the area served by the Lincoln Consolidated School District who are vulnerable and don't want to leave their homes. This has been an informal service, circulated by word of mouth, but Radcliffe says that "since we're going to be in this situation for quite a bit longer, we plan on formalizing that process soon."


Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 201 N. River St. in Ypsi, has moved worship to YouTube via livestream every Sunday at 10 a.m., and has started offering additional online programs to combat anxiety in a time of uncertainty. Pastor Alex Clark is offering a "daily non-anxious moment" online at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and "Fireside Chats" via YouTube Live.

Emmanuel Lutheran Church streams its Palm Sunday service.

Clark says the church stayed open for all groups that typically use the building for the first few weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak, but all but two programs have decided to suspend operations for now.


Clark says the church's office closed after the stay-home order came down, and church staff "decided to place a pause on all projects that are not essential" to comply with the order.


Two essential projects are still in operation, though: weekly Hunger Coalition hot meal distributions from 5-6 p.m. Tuesdays, and the church's food pantry, with distribution hours from 3-3:45 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays.


"Both Hunger Coalition and food pantry are drive-through, meaning folks can drive up and have food brought to their cars," Clark says. "Volunteers use the recommended safety precautions from the CDC: to keep a six-foot distance between people, wear gloves, and wash hands frequently when the gloves aren't on."


Clark says he also encourages healthy, young volunteers to continue giving their time to other meal distribution efforts, like those at Hope Clinic and SOS Community Services, and local shelter efforts through the Delonis Center.


Many local churches are assessing the way they provide services to their congregations and the community at large, and may continue some of the changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic.


"I was just on a webinar for churches, and it has become clear that we're being launched into a future where we can't go back to the way we thought or did things before," Radcliffe says. "Every church is going to have to figure out what that's going to mean for them, what that will look like, how they're going to function as a congregation."

For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.


Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of the sources.

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