COVID-19 in El Paso and the Pecos Valley: churches distribute food and hope

EL PASOEven as COVID-19 cases surge in El Paso, Immanuel Church and other congregations serve communities with food distribution while reopening for socially-distanced worship.

“Our economy was rising for 34 straight months. Skyscrapers were going up. Then this hit. It’s been hard on every city,” Immanuel pastor J.C. Rico told the TEXAN.

“Mother’s Day, protests, we’ll find out in a few weeks if any of that affected any kind of spike,” Rico added, noting that El Paso’s proximity to the Texas border presents further challenges as the virus spreads through South and Central America.

El Paso’s COVID-19 numbers have indeed spiked. The week ending June 27 saw the city add 990 cases—its largest single-week tally yet—El Paso’s ABC7 reported. The city’s uptick is mirrored across Texas, prompting Gov. Greg Abbott to pause reopening: reducing restaurant capacity, shutting bars across the state and cancelling elective surgeries in several counties.

In the best of times, El Paso knows poverty. The pandemic has exacerbated this, but it’s also given local congregations opportunities for ministry.

Immanuel Church’s food distribution expands

Even before the coronavirus, Immanuel Church operated a food pantry. But with needs increasing and COVID-19 demanding additional safety protocols, the church’s food ministry changed and expanded in late March, when Immanuel became a monthly drive-thru food distribution site for the El Pasoans Fighting Hunger food bank.

One Thursday a month, Rico and his son drive a Penske truck to the food bank, load groceries and return to church where some 25 volunteers unload and box the items to be given away that afternoon. The process is daylong, from early morning pick-up to late afternoon, when the final boxes are placed in clients’ cars.

When temperatures soar, the process is broken into two days and distribution occurs earlier on Thursday mornings.

The church’s food outreach expanded in late May when Segovia’s Distributing, Inc., a produce distributor in El Paso, received a government contract through the USDA’s Farmers to Families Food Box initiative to provide fresh produce to families through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

A Segovia representative contacted Rico to ask if Immanuel would distribute boxes of fruits and vegetables which the company would deliver to the church three times a month. Rico said yes. Sometimes, both food bank and Segovia distributions occur on the same day. 

The produce boxes are generous: filled with potatoes, onions, carrots, celery, and seasonal fruits.

“We open up the parking lot and people drive through,” Rico said, adding that volunteers put copies of the SBTC’s Hope in Crisis disaster relief pamphlet in English and Spanish in the boxes. 

Clients are asked if they need prayer or would like a Bible.  

“We have given out 400 Bibles already,” Rico said, noting that he recently prayed with a lady who had been furloughed from her security job.

“We are giving out bread, but we want them to know there is the Bread of Life,” Rico said.

The pastor estimates that 1,500-1,800 people—some 700 families—receive food from the Immanuel site each week.

Other SBTC churches, including Semilla de Mostaza Centro Familiar Internacional, Iglesia Jezreel and Agua de Vida are also picking up food at Immanuel for distribution, Rico said.

Food distribution grows regionally

In July, First Baptist of Fort Stockton will begin receiving Segovia produce for its region. 

The church has long operated a food pantry in conjunction with the West Texas Food Bank in Odessa, which delivers prepackaged boxes to the church before its monthly distribution.

“COVID has greatly changed what we’ve done,” said Kay Northcut, church secretary. “We moved our distribution to our parking lot. We set up an awning. We don’t turn anybody down, but we do keep track of how many we feeding.”

First Baptist also takes turns with local Presbyterian and Catholic congregations to pick up donated food at Walmart, each church serving one week a month as a distribution site. The West Texas Food Bank also sends a truck to Fort Stockton each month and distributes items directly.

Northcut said First Baptist gives food to 65-70 families per month.

On July 12, Segovia will send a semi-trailer with 800 boxes of produce for the community.

Rico facilitated the contact between First Baptist and Segovia, Northcut said, adding that other churches in the Pecos Valley Baptist Association, including Collision Church in Alpine and Fort Stockton’s Immanuel Baptist, will distribute the produce and that boxes will go to the Rankin Food Pantry.

“We are just grateful to have it,” Northcut said of the Segovia produce.

Ministry continues

For pastors like Rico, the opportunity to feed the hungry is a godsend during a crisis that has paused many traditional ministries.

“It has blessed us. It’s an injection of ministry in action,” Rico said. “There’s so much need out there.”

Rico said he expects the food distribution to continue through the end of August, possibly moving to Saturdays after school starts.

In-person church services resumed June 14 at Immanuel, but online options continue as the coronavirus heralds a new normal.

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