Bright and early every Tuesday morning for the past several months, Pat Bailey shows up at Auburn City Seventh-day Adventist Church to direct cars into the food bank line, the COVID-19 testing line or both.
“I meet every car that comes in,” Bailey says. As a community health care consultant for the city of Auburn, Washington, she helped negotiate plans for the Auburn City Church site to serve as a COVID-19 testing location in the suburbs between Seattle and Tacoma.
“It’s a good relationship that really helps the community,” Bailey says. “People come from all over Auburn and beyond. All ages. All ethnicities. People are so happy and appreciative.”
Testing at Capacity
Auburn City Church’s parking lot is one of the designated COVID-19 test sites for King County. Cars typically start lining up at 6:30 a.m., testing starts at 7 a.m., capacity is often reached by 10 a.m., and testing concludes around 1 p.m. Some people end up waiting three or four hours. The tests are free for those without insurance.
“We do COVID testing on all ages,” says Lucy, a Harborview Medical Center employee who serves as charge nurse for this test site. “We provide COVID testing via nasal swab. It’s an uncomfortable test but a very reliable test. Results are typically available within four days or less.”
To date (early September), more than 1,200 people have received a COVID-19 test at this location. Typically 190 tests are administered each week.
One week, the team filled up their capacity with 201 tests. When most test sites are established, a good starting day is to administer 25 to 35 tests. At Auburn City’s site, 93 people were tested on the first day, and it’s grown from there to become one of the busiest test sites in King County.
“Right now, we’re working on the possibility of bringing in another health network so we have two vans and two staffs to process people faster so they don’t have to wait so long,” Bailey says. “We’re going to continue this program until the end of September for sure, maybe longer.”
“When we first started out, we thought we would offer this service for six weeks,” adds Waiyego Pearson, Auburn City’s health ministries director. “And now look at this! We’ve been helping people for 12 weeks now, with more to come. It’s been a good partnership between the church, the city and health care partners.”
Feeding a Need
Along with the COVID-19 test site is the church’s drive-through food bank.
The food bank almost didn’t become a reality. At the beginning of the pandemic, pastors Ofa Langi and Tommy Tamalea’a began working to make food distribution arrangements. No one wanted to talk with them about sourcing food. Tamalea’a had surveyed the neighborhood to learn their needs in the pandemic, and the biggest request was for food.
The church saw the need but couldn’t figure out the logistics with the right partners to make it happen. The church then embarked on a 40-day prayer journey through the initial weeks of the pandemic. And then it became 100 days of praying.
Finally in June, Langi thought he secured three pallets of food to share on the first day when free COVID-19 testing was scheduled to begin in the church’s large parking lot. The church widely advertised the free food boxes and free testing. Two days before the distribution would begin, the three pallets were canceled.
“On that first Tuesday morning, God provided 400 produce boxes. What you see here is a result of asking God: ‘What can we do?’” Langi says. “We still don’t have a guaranteed source of food, but every week God provides. This is a faith journey. We brought 10 pallets of food this morning, and it's almost gone by noon.”
“I just thank God for supplying. We’ve never had to worry about what we were going to put out,” says Joanne Jackson, Auburn City Adventist Community Services director. “We don’t know what we’re going to be sharing often until late Monday.”
One week, a lady drove up in an expensive-looking SUV. She was seeking COVID-19 testing. Volunteer Berit Schroeder approached the lady’s vehicle, like all vehicles in the testing line, to see if she would like something from the food bank.
“She broke down in tears over the fact that we were asking her because she was concerned that because she was driving such a fancy car that she wouldn’t be able to receive anything,” Schroeder shares. “She explained her situation, and I told her anyone who has a need is welcome to come and receive food. I had an opportunity to pray with her, and it was really, really special.”
Another time, a couple walked up to the food distribution line. They wondered what foods were available that would be easy for them to prepare without a kitchen and over a campfire. Volunteers helped them assemble a box of food options for the man to carry and a bag of produce for the woman to carry. The couple then went over to a nearby sidewalk to sort through the food and evaluate it for their needs. They brought back two box mixes so someone else could benefit from them.
The couple then asked Langi about church services — what time and where they needed to be. They had previously attended a church before moving to the area.
“We have church right here in the parking lot every Saturday with 10 o’clock Bible study and 11 o’clock church,” Langi told them, just like he does with other inquiries. “It’s right here in the same place. We have outdoor church each week here in the parking lot.”
Growing New Volunteers
Tuesdays have always been community service days at Auburn City Church. The church facility has a separate building used as a clothing bank, a small thrift shop and a small nonperishable food bank. In prior times, a faithful crew of church ladies showed up each week to sort donations, assist clients and share a potluck meal together.
Since the pandemic, the clothing bank distribution temporarily shut down. The volunteers were typically older and at a higher risk for COVID-19. The clothing bank still helps people as needed when they come to the drive-through food distribution line. This was especially true when spring turned to summer. One family at a time was then allowed into the clothing bank.
Offering the food distribution on Tuesdays brought a different set of volunteers, with an average of 12 to 15 people who represent young adults, former church members, neighboring church members, area pastors, community friends and individuals who take a day off work to come help their community.
Before COVID-19, Langi was praying for a music leader, a youth and young adult leader, and other specific leaders where the church had gaps. With the weekly interactions, new leaders started emerging, new friendships formed, and new interests in Bible study and baptism arose.
Mata and her husband, Patrick, showed up to help their community. Patrick now takes two days off per week, Tuesdays and Saturdays, so he can be present to help at Auburn City Church. Mata asked to be baptized and for their four children to be dedicated to God — a joyous occasion in August.
Grace recently moved to the United States from Malawi to be closer to her daughter. “I come here most of the time,” Grace says. “I like making friends.”
“We’re making new friends for the church every week between volunteers, clients and the health care team,” Langi says. “Everyone wants to be here. They like being here. The volunteers, especially with the testing team, don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Traditionally in food distribution, you get one bag of this or that. The church decided to adopt an attitude of giving away food in abundance. The goal is to not have anything leftover by the end of the day. If you have a want or a need, the food is available.
“For the most part, we don’t take anything back,” Pearson says. “We want to give it all away. Sometimes we have too much, but this is unusual. It’s even more work for us to dump, recycle or compost the produce. We would rather share it with families while it is still good.”
There’s another benefit too. “Our donations through the church this month are four times higher than normal,” says Jackson. “Our church is very willing to donate and share.”
Auburn City Church is also serving as a supply distributor for two other food sharing-sites at Kent Adventist Church in the next town and at Buena Vista Elementary School a few miles away, and forming additional partnerships. Auburn City has arrangements to use a box truck, stage nonperishable food supplies in a warehouse and store perishable items overnight in Auburn Adventist Academy’s walk-in cafeteria refrigerator.
“If you ask me how long we will continue to give food, as long as God provides, we will give food,” Langi says. “And when that ends, we will then see what God wants us to do next.”
Auburn City Church has fed more than 3,000 families in 12 weeks.
UPDATE: Auburn City Church is continuing to make connections and form additional partnerships — especially since this story was digitally published in September! Four new churches are serving as food distribution sites. Pastor Langi reports that they are feeding about 300 families per week, each Tuesday, for about 23 weeks. The church also now has semi-trucks of food that come each week on different days of the week. Each truck has 1,100 food boxes. Different families show up for these boxes. And in addition to the continued COVID testing, a free dental van was on site last week.
— Heidi Baumgartner is Washington Conference communication director; this article was originally published online by Northwest Adventists (North Pacific Union Conference) and is republished here with permission.