Churches across the country have looked for innovative ways to help their communities while remaining isolated during the spread of the coronavirus. Many have extended the use of their buildings as day cares for the children of health-care workers, while some have used parking lots for testing or blood drives.
Ahead of Easter, a local pastor contacted Tim Bess, executive vice president of operations of Bluefield Regional Medical Center, to ask whether he needed PPE in case the coronavirus were to spread in Mercer County, an economically depressed area of West Virginia that has struggled with the opioid epidemic.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This is unbelievable,’” Bess said. “We need these desperately.”
The 93-bed hospital could serve up to 40,000 people in the surrounding area. On Friday, the county had four positive covid-19 cases with one patient in the hospital, according to Bess, and no one knows when cases will peak in the region or how much equipment the hospital will need.
“The compounding factor for those of us in West Virginia is, we have pretty poor habits related to health,” Bess said. “We enjoy our tobacco too much, we eat a little more than we should. Those things make it more difficult to manage the virus that’s hitting the world right now.”
Bess had contacted Crossroads Church Pastor Travis Lowe a year ago when he decided to start a ministerial association to get clergy to help patients.
Lowe, the pastor of the small Pentecostal church, said someone in the faith-based office from the Department of Health and Human Services told him about an organization in Ohio that was having families volunteer safely during the pandemic. She told him government officials are starting to see the mental health effects of people staying isolated, and volunteering can give them a way to get out of the house.
On Sunday, each of the 25 volunteer groups were family units already in quarantine together. The facility was sanitized on Saturday, and everyone entering the facility put on gloves and a mask. When their shift was over, stations were sanitized before the next group took over.
The church made sure the designs for the PPE met the hospital’s needs and government guidelines. Families took one-hour shifts to produce hundreds of masks, gowns and face shields and plan to deliver the finished products to the hospital on Monday.
The families produced the PPE inside a local makerspace, a community-operated space that houses 3-D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines and vinyl cutters, many of which were donated by church members.
Lowe and another local pastor, Robbie Gaines, opened Crea Company in an old freight station in November as part of a larger local government effort to revitalize the area. The company sells memberships to people who want to use the space for prototyping or crafting. It has 20 members so far, including a graphic artist, who printed six-inch prototypes of seats planned for the renovation of a local theater.
Lowe, who considers himself “pretty good at the computer but not artistic,” said he got into the makerspace business because he thought it would be a good way to help the local economy. The idea, he said, is to ultimately help other businesses get off the ground.
But the growing need for gear for health-care workers opened up a new opportunity for the facility. Lowe said he started making masks when he saw people who also have makerspaces were making them all over the country.
“I would print out a couple masks and give them to people I knew,” he said “We never imagined this, and then we were positioned pretty well.”
Normally hospitals order PPE from a vendor in a group of 200-some hospitals, but since every hospital is searching for the same equipment, the supply has been drained. A friend of Lowe’s also recently used the makerspace to make hospital intubation boxes that protect health-care workers from the spread of the coronavirus.
Crossroads member Kerri Parris said volunteering on Sunday was an ideal outing for her husband and three children on Easter morning. Her two boys, who would normally be traveling for sports, are spending their days mostly playing Fortnite. On Sunday, though, they helped make masks and shields.
Parris’s 77-year-old mother, who lives with her family, has long been a seamstress and she used a sewing machine to sew masks together. Parris cut the material while her 12-year-old traced the pattern. Volunteering, she said, was a way to give back to the community.
“You can tell there’s fear in the community; you can feel it in the air,” she said. “You go on walks and treat everybody like they have a disease, it feels. This is Easter in a different kind of way.”
Many pastors want to serve their local communities, but face some limits as people are being told to stay home and many church buildings have pews or stadium-like seats that can’t be removed for something else. The fact that many clergy have not been able to offer hands-on services to the community weighs heavily on many pastors, said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism at Wheaton College, which is providing free housing to local first responders in the suburbs of Chicago.
“I think everybody would love to be playing a part in saving lives,” Stetzer said. “It would give relief to an emptiness many feel.”