Urban Alliance

Loving Your Neighbor During a Pandemic

In early March I made an appointment to visit The Agape House in Bristol, a ministry that started with a few friends visiting the homeless on hikes and walks in Bristol. Over time, the ministry has grown to provide key services to the homeless and people in need, providing everything from a cup of coffee, to clothing, life skills training and support, and more through their day center, street outreach, and food pantry.

The week before I was scheduled to meet Christine Thebarge, director of The Agape House, the country had just started worrying about social distancing because of the COVID-19 virus. I had expected to visit a Day Room program with 50 or more people getting coffee, breakfast, and other vital assistance, but the Day Room had been forced to close for public health and safety. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see The Agape House “in action”, but I thought we could still share some of their story.

As I walked into The Agape House on a beautiful day in the middle of March, one thing was clear: The Agape House was very much still “in action,” despite the challenges the coronavirus was presenting. Rather than a crowded Day Room, the morning program had adapted and was providing a cup of coffee to go, and “go bags” with breakfast and some essential supplies. Everyone who entered was warmly greeted by three or four volunteers. Christine welcomed me with a smile and as she welcomed me into her office, she had a brief conversation with “one of the Crew” (a phrase used by everyone at The Agape House) that closed with “… and please, don’t share cigarettes! It’s a respiratory infection. Stay safe.”

We sat down, commented briefly on how quickly the world was changing, and then Christine’s phone rang with a call she had to take. Over the next five minutes it becomes abundantly clear that society may have started slowing down because of the coronavirus, but work at The Agape House was still going forward at top speed. Christine’s phone call was with a couple that had moved to Florida, only to have their housing fall through. They were reporting in that they were getting resources and finding shelter. Christine explained this to me as another one of the Crew stopped to give her some updates on some personal developments. Christine’s phone rang again and she took a call about getting someone into a rehab program.

I asked Laura, a UAServe volunteer I am sitting with, if this is a typical day. “It’s a little slow because of the virus, but we’re always busy.”

We toured the facility, where I can see the ways different services are provided, but more than that I am heard story after story of how lives had been changed:

  • a young man who had received a suit so he could proudly walk at graduation, which volunteers were able to attend
  • a UAServe volunteer created a resource guide that led to a woman and her child finding a room at a local safe house
  • assistance getting people into apartments

Laura says, “the only time we really drop everything is when someone comes in and says they are ready to check in to rehab.” I’ve heard at least five different stories of people receiving that kind of aid, and it’s clear that the importance of recovery is a defining value for this ministry.

This work is not without its challenges. I can hear the heartbreak as stories are shared about relapse and overdose, suicides, and loss. And yet, even in the middle of a global health crisis, the work continues. "[Urban Alliance's training] programs actually prepare us. A couple of us have gone through the Case Management courses, even though we're not case managers. We call ourselves coaches, but we can fill in the gaps."

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked again about the challenges of supporting people in need during a pandemic. Beyond the obvious need for supplies, masks and gloves and sanitizer, one of the biggest challenges that the workers at The Agape House were feeling was no surprise: "It's just so hard when someone is coming in for a hug, and we have to say 'No, we can't.'"

If you'd like to find out more about The Agape House, you can visit their website