In late June we got a call from someone at the Cone Health Community Wellness Center, a branch of our area’s heath system, asking if we could partner with them to offer our church’s site for free community covid19 testing.
Abundant Life’s goal of increasing community health access and promoting healing and justice make us a natural potential partner. She said that our site located in a part of the city where low-income front-line workers live, and getting them access to free testing is critical. Not only this, but the health system is having a hard time reaching Latino immigrants, who are vulnerable to infection and then disproportionately suffering severe symptoms, and she had heard we’ve been developing trusting relationships among our immigrant neighbors.
To make a long story short, we said “Yes.” Over the course of 2 weeks in July, we held 2 testing events in partnership with Cone Health at the site of Church of the Holy Spirit, where Abundant Life ministries has it’s “base.”
With hopes that this help other faith communities discern a role in community health partnerships during this pandemic – here are some things we learned:
1. Make plans, and expect to be flexible
Our agreement with the partners was that this would be an experimental “closed” site, where pre-registration (online, and free) would be required to receive a test. No insurance or Medicaid was required, and the tests were open to everyone regardless of immigration status or symptoms displayed. The goal was to spend our energies reaching out to this particular community and take into account the small size of our parking lot that wouldn’t be able to accommodate 100-200 vehicles like other larger churches were seeing at their testing events.
What actually happened was that somehow word got out that free tests were being offered at our site, North Carolina DHHS posted it on their website, and doctors started sending their patients with symptoms to us a day early. An hour before the testing was to begin, even before the testing team arrived, half our parking lot was full of cars and people looking for tests. This caused not a little confusion, and stress.
The first week we had to turn dozens of people away because the testing team simply had not brought enough extra tests for people who had not pre-registered. The second week they brought 60 extra tests, and we were able to get almost everyone who showed up tested.
The parking lot was a mess, traffic was backed up on the street we’re located on (not good, of course), and volunteers showed up at the same time as people arriving early hoping for a test… but the goal was to reach people in our city who didn’t have insurance and access to testing, and together we did!
2. People need tests, and compassion
Those of us charged with “directing traffic” had time to chat through car windows while people waited. People who arrived told stories of not having a primary doctor because no insurance, or needing a test in order to go back to work but being turned away at other sites, or being grateful to have work but not having protective gear or ability to distance from others at work. Being able to come and get a test gave them some peace of mind, no matter what the result might be.
People also talked about their worries for family members who were vulnerable, stress and anxiety about the demonstrations around the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many other Black people. We prayed. We shared our concerns, our hopes, our despairs. We took breaths together.
It was clear that while the primary purpose of the event was to offer covid19 tests, as church and people of faith, by opening our site to the community we were positioned to offer care and connection in the midst of a pandemic that’s disrupted our social and emotional lives.
3. Take advantage of the gathering
In a time when most of us have fewer chances to gather in public for any reason, we also found an event like this to be a great forum for sharing key information. The public health workers noticed on our first day that some people still weren’t using masks and the next week were prepared with extra information sheets and entertaining reminders to help disseminate public health guidance.
While we didn’t have the information available in July, providing Voter registration and Absentee Ballot requests would be a fantastic thing churches could offer for people while they wait.
Even just asking “How did you hear about this?” opened up conversations that showed us the range of networks operating in our community, especially among people without access to reliable internet.
We hope to use everything we’ve learned as we continue to move through this pandemic.