By Ashleigh Bugg
The COVID-19 crisis has affected Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel around the world. Greg and Sue Smith, who run LUCHA Ministries, Inc., in Fredericksburg, Virginia, say the crisis has caused them to reestablish their original goals.
“This has brought us back to the grassroots needs of people,” Sue said. “In more recent years, we have shifted a lot of our work to ESL programs, women’s empowerment groups and immigration legal services. We had shifted our model away from basic needs to more education and empowerment.”
However, with communities now in lockdown and social distance protocol more needed than ever, they see many neighbors struggling to make ends meet.
“We want to keep that empowerment model we’ve built, but it’s really hard to keep our people safe with social distancing protocol,” Sue said. “Things have gone back to a focus on basic human needs like food, shelter and educational support.”
Step 1: Information and Resource Sharing
After quarantine measures and physical distancing began, Greg and Sue worked to distribute information and resources.
“We set up a WhatsApp group and began sharing information for service providers in the community and simply asked people to share,” Sue said. “This helped people know whom to contact and what to do in the midst of the crisis. We began with basic information sheets on the coronavirus. And then moved to practical information, such as, ‘Here is where you can get food at the pantry; here are the schools who are going to be distributing computers and here’s what you need to do to ask for one. We included legal information for renters who are afraid of eviction. We wanted to make sure information was getting to the Spanish-speaking community.”
Step 2: Food Distribution
About two weeks after shelter-in-place protocol was enacted, LUCHA shifted its attention to food assistance and distribution.
“Last week, our emphasis was on food and we’re doing mostly food assistance right now,” Sue said. “We get food donations and prepared foods that need to be distributed. It’s causing us to scramble a little to find the volunteers to help us.”
Step 3: Education
After information was shared and food distribution began, LUCHA worked to get students the resources they needed for online classes. “This week, we have been focused on education—helping people get laptops or tablets for their kids since students are not physically going back to school in Virginia this year,” Sue said. “A lot of the teachers will be teaching online so we have been helping families get access to technology.”
Challenge 1: Dealing with unemployment
Like many communities across the nation, Virginia residents have struggled with unemployment and reduced hours. “People who work in restaurants, the service industry and cleaning services have had their hours cut or jobs lost,” Sue said. “Many workers do not have access to benefits or government help.
“One thing that has hit our community really hard is that many people have tax ID numbers and are working and paying taxes,” Sue said. “However, they won’t get any of the Economic Impact payments that are helping other taxpayers.”
Although these neighbors are active contributors to the economy, they have no safety net during a crisis. “They don’t have anything when they lose a job. They don’t qualify for unemployment, and they’re not getting stimulus money; so they are really hurting,” Sue said. “They’re pretty desperate when they lose their jobs.”
Challenge 2: Transitioning to online legal services
Due to physical distancing measures, LUCHA made the difficult decision to close their legal services office to in-person appointments. The governor in Virginia has ordered shelter-in-place and has closed non-essential businesses and schools until June 10. “One of the things we are shifting to is virtual client appointments. That is going to be a challenge for us,” Greg said.
Although It’s possible through a platform like Zoom to do a virtual meeting, Greg is worried about the difficult process of actually filling out forms as well as security issues that come with using online platforms. “The challenge now is to choose the right platform, communicate to our clients how they can connect and then be able to actually do the meetings and interviews themselves,” Greg said.
During the crisis, LUCHA decided to offer their services to every client pro-bono with clients not paying for the next few months. “This is not just for those who have lost their jobs, but for everyone, because I think there is still the possibility that more and more people could lose their employment going forward,” Greg said. “Rather than adding to their burden, we’ll continue to offer the pro-bono services for a while.”
Although it will be a challenge, Greg said the decision was an easy one. “It will put a little bit of a strain on our budget, but we would serve people anyway, regardless of whether they can pay or not,” he said.
Challenge 3: Dealing with immigration status
Many neighbors are waiting on U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to receive naturalization, residency or the necessary documents to live in the U.S. However, due to the crisis, this process has stalled. “In the larger scale of things, with USCIS, they have canceled their in-person schedule for legal appointments, naturalization appointments, etc.” Greg said.
“Several of our folks had appointments at this time, and are waiting for them to be rescheduled. We are going to hope and pray that USCIS actually does that.”
Another problem is the fear of seeking medical care without documentation. “There is quite a fear within the community of going to clinics, physicians and hospitals. They are afraid there will be a problem with public charge later on, and they would be penalized for that,” Greg explained. “We tell people to go to the doctor or hospital if they need to, that this isn’t ‘public charge’; nevertheless that fear is out there, and people are hesitant to do it.”
Clients who pay taxes with a tax ID number will not be eligible for relief, even if their families have U.S. citizens in them. “Even though they have U.S. citizen family members, if they file with that same tax filing, nobody gets any stimulus relief,” Greg said. “Even U.S. citizens will be penalized by the policy that says unless you file with a social security number, you won’t get any stimulus relief.”
How to support LUCHA and the immigrant community
Greg and Sue offer several ways to support their work with LUCHA as well as immigrants in their communities.
Support neighbors who will not receive stimulus money or unemployment help
“To support LUCHA, you can give through the Offering for Global Missions,” Sue said. “For a broader perspective, I would ask people to allow this to be a wake up call to those in their communities who don’t get stimulus money. We are privileged to have some access to extra cash. We have to be aware of all those around us who don’t have a safety net for unemployment. That’s a lot of our immigrant friends and neighbors whom we know.”
Be aware of the contributions of immigrants in your community
“I would also say be aware of the immigrants in your community and the contributions they are making to deal with this situation,” Greg said. “If they are in a service industry that hasn’t closed down, they are putting themselves at risk simply by going to work.”
Greg explained this includes farmworkers who put themselves and their families in danger to supply the nation with food. “There are still farmworkers who have to be in close contact with other people to continue to supply the food chain, whether on the farm or on through the chain. Many immigrants are working in those areas,” he said.
Many immigrants also work in health care in the U.S. According to a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association “about one out of six medical professionals are foreign-born.” Many of these health care professionals fill critical gaps by working in underserved and rural populations. These medical workers put their health and safety at risk to serve their community.
Support legislation like DACA and campaign for those in detention centers
Young people and students who are contributing under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act have added worries. “Many DACA recipients and workers are on edge with the upcoming Supreme Court decision as to their status,” Greg said.
Other neighbors are still held in detention centers despite being legal asylum-seekers as well as nonviolent undocumented residents. Young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems and disabilities are especially at risk. “Keep in mind immigrants who are in detention centers who do not have the luxury of social distancing. They are cramped and cooped up with others. That is a significant population of people who are in danger,” Greg said.
Keep immigrants in mind when voting, purchasing, praying and advocating.
“We must realize how much immigrants contribute to our economy and social wellbeing,” Greg said.
“We are on the CBF Advocacy Team for immigrants and refugees [and] the broader side of our work which is advocacy and raising awareness of the situation of immigrants across the U.S. and beyond,” Sue added.
Greg and Sue emphasize they appreciate the support from the CBF community. “We are very grateful,” Sue said. “We wouldn’t be here without gifts from CBF and the Offering for Global Missions. Please keep that up so we can continue doing what we are doing.”