Reopening healthy, safe sanctuaries

By Rachel Krach

The COVID-19 pandemic has forever marked the year 2020 as a period of unexpected worries and challenges. Changes to everyday life such as school and business closures have impelled many in the Fort Wayne community and across the world to assume new or greater responsibility to keep themselves and others safe. Indeed, heroes have emerged in our teachers, parents, government leaders, and healthcare workers, and Fort Wayne’s own Dr. Lora Overton is no exception.

Dr. Overton, a board member of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation, serves local churches through the Healthy, Safe Sanctuaries Program. So far, eight churches (Unity Christian Fellowship, Iglesia Principal de Pas, Heaven 2 Earth Baptist Church, Living Waters, Pilgrim Baptist Church, St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and School, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, and King’s Chapel Assembly) have received personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies from the foundation as well as training from Dr. Overton to aid in their safe reopening.

“Our priority is to get the churches open,” said Meg Distler, Executive Director of the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation. “Many were not even able to have funerals because they weren’t sure how to do it safely.” That changed when Dr. Overton volunteered to train churches on following CDC guidelines and to deliver needed supplies such as masks, face shields, thermometers, and hand sanitizer purchased by the foundation. “She’ll go out there with a measuring tape,” said Distler. “She has volunteered her time; she has even gone to some of the funerals.”

Dr. Overton, an OBGYN of twenty-five years who currently teaches life sciences at Ivy Tech, has had a propensity for service from a young age.

“Since I was about eight years old, I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. Her medical knowledge would serve the Fort Wayne Community even after her career as a physician. “Right when the pandemic first began and the churches were still shut down,” Overton explained, “my pastor called me.” Overton is a member of Come As You Are Community Church, and her pastor expressed his concern about safely reopening. “So, I wrote up a plan,” she said. Overton’s plan included information on social distancing, taking temperatures, sanitizing, and wearing masks. The church then purchased the necessary items and trained members of the congregation. Overton’s pastor taped her explaining the plan and asked if he could show the video to other pastors he knew who really were not sure where to start. Dr. Overton agreed, and the idea for the Healthy, Safe Sanctuaries Program was underway.

Friendship Missionary Baptist is just one of the local churches that has benefitted from the Healthy, Safe Sanctuaries Program. Pastor Christopher R. Graham Sr. commented, “It’s been really helpful; we definitely appreciate it,” in reference to the supplies donated by the foundation. While Pastor Graham understands that some members of his forty-person congregation still opt to stay home out of concern for the virus, he is very grateful that many have been able to return to church in person. “It’s about community and relationship,” he said. “You lose that by just watching it on TV.” Because of their implementation of the CDC guidelines and the protective equipment and sanitation supplies provided by the foundation, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church is able to meet in person in addition to conducting online services.

Another faith community positively impacted by the program is St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and School. Melinda Reyes, director of the church’s Religious Education Program, expressed her eased apprehension about starting up religion classes for school-age students during the pandemic.

“Thanks to the materials we got, especially the hand sanitizer, I felt more prepared,” she said. Religious education classes began in early October at St. Patrick, and Reyes asserted that the children were ready to return. “It’s different in that when our kids are not in school, they’re at home. Not at the movies or their friend’s house or the mall. When you cut off school and church, that is a very precarious situation for our kids.”

Dr. Overton believes that the ability to take part in a church community is especially important now,  when people need their faith the most. Not only have worries and uncertainties about the virus caused stress over the past several months, but also, some people have lost their jobs or have had to stay at home.

“At a time when you needed someone to talk to, you had to be socially distanced, “ said Overton, adding that her church is “big on hugs.”

Reyes explained that the inability to attend church is like breaking an “emotional and spiritual lifeline” for parishioners. “We would decorate the church for Easter even when we were closed, and I would send them pictures just to assure them that Christ is waiting for them and he’s here.”

Christ certainly is present in the Fort Wayne Community, denomination aside. While the St. Joseph Community Health Foundation is a Catholic ministry of the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, it often works with leaders of other faiths to helps community members access health and wellness care.

“That’s one of the reasons why me as a Baptist girl works so closely with them,” said Dr. Overton, “because we believe the same things – that people are important.”

The foundation and Dr. Overton are looking into a possible phase two of the program with HealthVisions, a sister ministry of the foundation, that would involve having community health workers in each church with experience and training that they can use to provide further support in the future.

“The need is still great,” insisted Dr. Overton, “but I think the foundation truly made a difference in getting these people back in to where they need to worship. Worship is important,” she said, “and if we can do it safely, then that’s the way we ought to do it.”