By Jennifer Jones Austin
CEO and Executive Director, FPWA
Growing up a preacher’s kid in Brooklyn, New York, there seemed to be no issues impacting communities of color that my father, the late Reverend Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., considered off-limits. Whether he was fighting against discrimination and disparities in hiring practices of institutions profiting off black and brown persons, standing up for people wrongfully accused of crimes, or ensuring people in need of safe and affordable housing secured stable homes, Dad did all he could to make sure no one in need was left to fend for themselves. For him, his congregation extended well beyond the physical walls of Bethany Baptist Church; the community at large was the flock over which he was shepherd.
By many accounts Dad was extraordinary, but he wasn’t alone. Faith leaders and organizations have been vibrant influences on the civic life of cities, towns, and rural and suburban counties since the founding of America. It’s impossible to imagine what our country would be like without them. Yet, sometimes it takes a crisis like COVID-19 to illuminate the depth and breadth of the contribution of our faith communities. Faith organizations large and small in this country and around the world have taken on the vital and life-saving role of first responders in their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. As trusted leaders and moral guides, they are laboring tirelessly to meet the spiritual, financial, and health needs of their communities through innovative methods.
Across America, faith leaders are working on overdrive to provide the urgent safety net our communities need as unemployment skyrockets and the health system is overwhelmed. They’re fundraising to provide direct funds and prepaid cards to families and individuals in need. They’re distributing food to children who have lost access to school breakfasts and lunches because of coronavirus-related closures, as well as to the elderly and unemployed. Some houses of worship are hosting drive through COVID 19 testing sites. These are just a few examples of the community support faith organizations are providing during these challenging times. They’ve also taken the unprecedented step of closing their doors to reinforce the life-saving message of social distancing, not to mention endless handwashing.
Religion often is the most important source of solace for millions of Americans in times of confusion and fear, and our faith leaders have risen to the challenge by taking their messages and support into the digital realm, through the telephone, by email, and other methods to keep the web of community connection strong. All of these efforts take money, and it’s a challenging time to raise funds from individuals and other routine sources of income. That’s why all of us at FPWA work intensely at the city and state level to ensure that as coronavirus funding initiatives are passed, the vital work of our faith groups are not forgotten. A good first step was the inclusion of faith organizations in the CARES Act. However, we know now that many small and medium sized faith organizations weren’t able to access the Paycheck Protection Program funds because they didn’t have standing relationships with approved banks and because the program was underfunded. We’re working on getting this addressed in the next federal stimulus package that’s being negotiated as we speak. It won’t happen, though, without advocacy from every faith community. It’s the best way to ensure carve-outs for faith institutions and nonprofits in the next stimulus, and the one after that.
FPWA, along with our many coalition partners, is engaged every, single day in the fight to obtain this funding. We’re using our deep connections with both established foundations and the many new funding streams that have been launched specifically to support the fight against COVID-19, spreading the word about the value of faith institutions as they work to support the communities most vulnerable to the coronavirus and its repercussions.
Lastly, faith leaders must continue their outreach to private institutions and tap into the expertise, goods, and funds they can contribute to support our neighborhoods during and after the pandemic. FPWA was founded over 100 years ago to support Protestants throughout New York City and beyond as they struggled and strived to achieve their goals. Today, we’re still guided by the same moral compass. You can count on us to continue the fight to ensure all communities and people who are on the frontlines fighting this pandemic are not forgotten.