Oconee Street church stays connected through pandemic

With the recent outbreak of COVID-19, people all over the world are reshaping their daily lives. Many churches have stopped in-person services to prevent the spread of the virus, getting creative with how to keep congregations connected without meeting in person. Oconee Street United Methodist Church has created online social groups as a way for people to stay in touch through email when stuck at home.

“We started using our listserv to divide people up into nine groups to email each other, and use online conferencing, like Zoom, so that people could see each other face to face in ways that they normally would be in the same room,” OSUMC Coordinator of Youth Programs Allison Floyd said.

The social group’s goals are to help the church family talk to one another, whether it’s venting or just talking about what people had for breakfast. 

“If I’m upset about something or need some guidance, a 65 or 70-year-old member of the church may have been through a similar situation in the past and can help me. Or if a young parent needs help with something, then they can turn to me because I’m older, so we tried to make diverse groups so that people could support and help each other,” Floyd said.

OSUMC works with Our Daily Bread, a food program for those in need at First Baptist Church in downtown Athens. The program uses volunteers to cook and prepare meals, and with new precautions in place, Our Daily Bread has turned to a new way to provide food.

PUSHING FORWARD: Our Daily Bread was originally held at OSUMC but had to be relocated due to a fire in 2013. “It used to be that way used to be at Oconee Street. Now, they come to First Baptist Church downtown since Oconee Street burned a few years ago. In normal times, they would come to First Baptist, sit down in the fellowship hall and go through the kitchen and collect a plate as you would in the cafeteria, but now that people are not gathering there, they have takeaway meals,” Floyd said.

“Our Daily Bread can’t use volunteers right now to prepare the meals, so instead what they’re doing is buying meals prepared by a couple of local restaurants like Taziki’s and Akademia Brewery. So that is a really good solution because those restaurants need the business anyway. They’re struggling to have enough business to keep their employees working and not have to lay them off,” Floyd said. 

OSUMC also works with U-Lead Athens, a mentor program for undocumented students. Church members and mentors have been conducting digital meetings with students preparing to graduate so they can be ready for college. This time can be especially hard on immigrants who cannot travel home or benefit from financial help from the government. 

“Our college students who are undocumented can’t fly because they don’t have an ID, and driving is also precarious for some of them. Most of them are home now, and most of them have online courses to finish out the semester. But now those who are on a scholarship don’t have dorm rooms so they don’t have any housing,” U-Lead co-director Dr. JoBeth Allen said.

LEADING THE WAY: Without the ability of OSUMC to host meetings for U-Lead, they are having to find other ways to stay connected. “We’re having a Google meeting on Thursday with all of our high school seniors, to talk with them about what their next steps are and how we are still there for them,” co-director JoBeth Allen said.

“On top of that most of their parents have lost their jobs, so there’s incredible food insecurity and financial insecurity in the undocumented community, especially because they don’t qualify for unemployment insurance. If there is a government bailout, people who are undocumented won’t get a penny,” Allen said.

School being out does not mean early summer for some students. The stress of holding jobs and managing digital school work can be more taxing than regular school hours.

“It’s actually affecting me a lot. My parents, they’ve been having to work double shifts because we don’t want to run out of food. I have three other siblings who have online work. So all of that has had to be set up by me and I already have seven classes to take care of, along with three other siblings’ homework to take care of as well. I consider myself like a guardian because I’m the oldest and I take care of them most of the time,” said an undocumented U-Lead high school student who wishes to remain unnamed. 

With the future of the COVID-19 pandemic uncertain and no end in sight to the need for social isolation, the need for community groups to provide support and connection will remain for the months to come.

“I think one thing that’s very important for us to remember is that when we have a community, there are going to be days when we’re just not coping as well as we cope on other days, and that’s okay because we’re human beings. We’re normal and we are not going to be able to be Superman through this,” OCUMC Pastor Elaine Puckett said.