All congregations and religious communities are made of relational networks of care and concern, but the present pandemic has caused many of those fibers of connection to fray. The April 23 session of ICJS’ ongoing series “Congregational Creativity in a Time of Crisis” explored creative ways congregations are developing new infrastructure to care for and support vulnerable members. Ariana Katz, rabbi at Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebl, and Jim Hamilton, Episcopal priest at Church on the Square and cofounder of Baltimore Neighbors Network (BNN), shared their experiences building support networks during this ongoing season of disruption.
As a religious leader in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore City, Hamilton recognized that a significant elderly population in his community could be disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Concerned about lack of access to food, resources, and senior centers, as well as the psycho-social health of these neighbors, Hamilton worked with his congregation, city councilmembers, and grassroots community organizers to found BNN.
BNN has expanded exponentially since its founding last month, teaming with local organizations to provide training and technology to volunteers; and ensuring food, medications, and resources reach those most in need. There currently are more than 200 volunteers working with BNN, offering inclusive listening, information on elder abuse and suicide, and additional resources through the thousands of calls placed to neighbors throughout the Baltimore area. By creating a new organization that successfully merges civic and religious communities Hamilton and others have been able to offer support when and where it is needed most.
At Hinenu, a synagogue in Charles Village in Baltimore City, Katz serves a primarily young and energetic congregation that has formed minyanim (plural of “minyan”) to provide mutual aid and ensure both the mental and physical health of their congregants and neighbors. While a minyan is generally considered the minimum number of adults needed to hold a communal religious service in Judaism, the meaning is here extended, placing congregational responsibility in the hands of the congregation itself and decentralizing pastoral care. Each improvised, ongoing minyan consists of approximately five to ten households, grouped by neighborhood, who work together to ensure their neighbors are cared for.
The minyanim at Hinenu gather online weekly to determine geographical needs and resource allocation, as well as to empower each other for action. They offer emotional and spiritual support in addition to providing groceries, medications, and supplies. The synagogue also is offering regular online services, as well as collective cooking classes, a 24/7 “schmooze room” online, open mics, and fashion shows to maintain social connections.
Katz emphasized the importance of considering long-term planning in our communities rather than focusing solely on immediate needs. For instance, many of the online and virtual services being innovated now have long been championed by disability justice activists. Making religious spaces more accessible and maintaining an online presence should be continued post-pandemic to ensure that those unable to physically attend can still participate.
The group further considered ways in which connections that happened organically prior to the pandemic can be replicated or created, and how congregations can support the most vulnerable among us. ICJS Justice Leader Fellow Sabrina N’Diaye and Wilmer Eye Institute surgeon Yassine Daoud both discussed ways in which minority communities are being disproportionately affected, and how their respective religious communities are responding. N’Diaye is active in a number of African American and Sufi Muslim communities in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and is the founder of the Heart Nest Center for Peace and Healing in Baltimore. Daoud, an ophthalmologist and lay leader in the Muslim community in Howard County, regularly provides the khutbah (sermon) in services at Hopkins Medical and at the Muslim Family Center. He and others have followed an intercongregational approach, with people from local mosques forming a COVID-19 Health Group and pooling resources and expertise to offer a food pantry, mental health and wellness checks, spiritual comfort, and assistance with economic and financial issues.
Participants confirmed that networks lending support to those in need can be community-based and community-led. “It’s easy to take a risk if you’re taking a risk with someone you trust,” said Katz. From forming new organizations to developing informal alliances, religious communities are using their relationships and solidarity to provide mutual aid when and where it is needed most.
The next ICJS-hosted congregational leaders’ call be held Thursday, April 30, at 1:00 p.m. . Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to request an invitation to join the conversation.