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Faith, Nonprofit, Government Leaders Come Together Each Week To Focus On Community Issues

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Keith Riley-Whittingham
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Every Thursday morning, faith leaders from a variety of denominations gather via Zoom with leaders from the city of Springfield and Greene County as well as local nonprofits.  They get an update on the COVID-19 pandemic, pray, ask questions and discuss ideas for helping the community.  It’s part of the Have Faith Initiative.

The effort began in March, and was started by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, the Community Partnership of the Ozarks and the United Way of the Ozarks.

"That trifecta had already really started linking together to work on coordinating the nonprofit community in response to the coronavirus and then it sure made sense to connect the faith community as well," said Mark Struckhoff, co-chair of the Have Faith Initiative with Bob Roberts, pastor at Second Baptist Church.  Struckhoff said the initiative’s coordinating efforts were tested quickly in late March.

"Easter weekend, the temperatures got below freezing," he said, "and we needed to coordinate some shelter for our homeless neighbors in that cold weather weekend to protect them, and we had churches say, 'yes, I'll open up' and got city permits to do that."

The Community Partnership of the Ozarks lined up funding to shelter about 160 homeless individuals, and the Have Faith Initiative put together a program to feed them.

One focus of the initiative is conducting supply and food drives to serve the most vulnerable people in the community.  Another is coordinating support for the community’s spiritual and mental health.  Reverend Jennifer Simmons, lead pastor at National Avenue Christian Church, is working with Burrell Behavioral Health and others to create mental health care kits.  Those are provided to churches to give support to people struggling with stress, anxiety and depression.

"It's just been more stress on the family unit," said Have Faith Initiative co-chair, Reverend Bob Roberts with Second Baptist Church.  "There has also been a major stress on our pastors and our pastoral teams throughout our community, you know, on decisions that they've had to make, more family counseling," he said.

Pastors and community leaders have provided videos that can be accessed on the United Way’s website, said Roberts.

The Have Faith Initiative also focuses on two other areas:  Determining how the community can best come together in faith during this time of physical distancing; and serving as a communication conduit, both from faith leaders to civic leaders and from civic leaders to faith leaders.

Mark Struckhoff said it’s “absolutely critical” for faith and community leaders to work together in a crisis, which is what he said this pandemic is.  Crises, he said, often reveal other issues, including strengths.

"Like, for example, I think it's a real strength that we're willing to lean in together to work together as a community," Struckhoff said.  "I see faith traditions accepting and working together, accepting one another, recognizing that we're all vital members of the community."

The pandemic has revealed some long-standing issues, according to Struckhoff, including systemic racism, and Springfield is not immune to that.  He said the weekly meetings allow faith, nonprofit and government leaders to discuss various issues.

"Creating space, what we've come to call a brave space with the Have Faith Initiative, for folks to enter that space, knowing that they can speak the truth as they understand it and see it, and, so, we do a lot of listening together and, primarily, listening for how we can really care for each other," said Struckhoff.

Roberts said there’s a lot of power in prayer, and the Have Faith Initiative has created a space where people can come together and feel a fellowship with the community.

"It has totally supported our government officials, which is biblical, and it has allowed them then to be undergirded because we pray for them each week when we come together," said Roberts, "but we also have a thought or a reflection for the day, and that allows us as a community to stop and just be in one accord for that hour."

Struckhoff said around 18 different Christian denominations are represented in the weekly meetings as well as representatives of the local Jewish synagogue, the Islamic Center, the Baha’i faith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

One future planned project is a Stuff the Truck Food Drive set for September.  Members would like to receive feedback about what types of events would be helpful to the community.

Bob Roberts said the Have Faith Initiative will continue even after the virus is under control.