Religious centers step up during holidays despite own pandemic struggles

Temple Beth Hillel invites community to Urban Tilth lecture
Temple Beth Hillel is located at 801 Park Central in Richmond (I-80 Exit /Hilltop Drive).

By Mike Kinney

The unrelenting pandemic has forced religious centers to close their doors to the public, cancel events, transition traditions online and in some cases endure steep declines in donations. Even so, many faith institutions in West Contra Costa County have not slowed efforts to provide physical and spiritual nourishment in their communities during the holiday season.

Hillcrest Baptist Church in El Sobrante, Valley Bible Church in Hercules, Arlington Baptist Church in El Cerrito, Independent Holiness Church in Richmond, and MacArthur Community Baptist Church and Life Changer International of San Pablo are among the region’s religious institutions that recently held Thanksgiving food and/or gift card giveaways at a time of significant need.

While the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases prompted further restrictions on faith organizations, including a renewed ban on indoor worship, Temple Beth Hillel in Richmond is moving forward with its 13th Annual Food 4 Thought program, with a goal of delivering food boxes to 400 families in the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD). Meanwhile, MacArthur Community Baptist Church in San Pablo is set to open its San Pablo Emergency Food Pantry on Dec. 19 (by appointment only), with the aim of serving 100 people turkeys, chickens, or hams with all the fixings and sides. People can register by calling (510) 232-0258.

Yes, times are tough, faith leaders admit, but they also say places of worship exist for times like this. “The church is here for that,” said Ron Hughes, deacon and administrator at Valley Bible Church in Hercules.

With help from aggressive networking and fundraising, collaborations among local organizations and the efforts of countless hard-working volunteers, faith organizations are finding ways to gain nourishment from delivering nourishment. The faith-based Bay Area Rescue Mission, known for serving thousands of local families during the holidays, has an online shopping portal that makes donations to community members in need easier than shopping on Amazon.

“When there are difficult times for us here, we do so much better when we focus on helping others and not worrying about the church,” said Pastor Ted Goslen of Hillcrest Baptist Church in El Sobrante, which gave out 48 boxes of Thanksgiving food to needy families last month. “When you saw the smiles on their faces and when we had alleviated their food insecurity problem, it gave us all hope. Hope is the key for church during difficult times like this.”

When times are tough for the faith community, the faith community assumes times must be even tougher on community members, added San Pablo Councilmember Rich Kinney, founder and director of Apostle City Ministries, which holds a number of fundraisers and donation drives supporting people in need, including wildfire victims.

“With less resources, many churches won’t be able to provide services,” Kinney said. “So, if it is really hard on churches now, it will even be harder for needy people. We must find a way to network and come together. We must leverage the limited resources we do have to make things work for people in need. Hard times brings us together, to find solutions to these problems.”

Temple Beth Hillel marketing/ publicity committee member Audrey Berger echoed that sentiment, saying “we make it through difficult times because we all stick together. We don’t let each other down.”

“Our determination to get the job done even in these difficult times is just incredible,” Berger said, referring to the Temple Beth Hillel’s dedicated members.

It’s that kind of determination that has Hilltop Community Church hosting a food giveaway each Saturday this month through Dec. 26, from 10 a.m. to noon. Each person will receive a Farms to Families box that includes a gallon of milk, chicken or beef and other food stuffs.

“We know in these difficult times that the Law of Harvest must apply to the church and the people we serve here,” Hilltop Community Church Pastor Jim Heden said. “The Law of Harvest is about you will reap more than you sow. By placing sheer trust in God, God will fulfill your needs. We make sacrifices, knowing God will return many blessings to us both in the church and the community we serve.”

Beyond holiday meals, religious centers are playing an important role in checking in on vulnerable congregants who may be feeling lonely and isolated amid the pandemic, and in providing spiritual guidance to members in mental distress.

“When we think we might be experiencing difficult times here at the Foundation, we encourage everyone don’t lose hope!” said Thupten Donyo, founder and former director of Buddhist Gyuto Foundation. “Spiritually I tell people you are still alive and there are many things you can do to help others in need…spirituality moves us forth in difficult times.”