Tearfund Vice President, Rusty Pritchard, was in Central America on a Tearfund trip when the globe suddenly woke up to the specter of COVID-19. He shares his experience, and how the global pandemic is exacerbating already tumultuous conditions, including gang violence, drug production, and natural disasters.
Over the course of a week in mid-March, I visited churches in three different countries working to transform their communities. In the previous week, I had met with pastors committed to win kids away from gang recruiters, who inspired their churches to seek peace and justice amid violence and corruption.
I had listened to inspired individuals who were ministry entrepreneurs, going to the hardest and most neglected places--dumps and markets and slums and dangerous streets--declaring with their lives that Jesus is in the business of changing everything. I had heard many people say the turning point for them was the vision they received at Tearfund workshops and trainings.
At the start of the week, in Guatemala, I heard occasional mention of the new virus popping up around the globe. Our team members were excessively careful to wash our hands, and we felt a little sheepish about it.
Driving to El Salvador on Wednesday, we started hearing of events being cancelled back in the US. At the border, we were surprised that a health worker climbed into our van to take temperatures and ask questions. A few hours after we entered the country, the El Salvadoran president closed the border to foreigners.
By the time we got to Honduras, we had heard a stunning cascade of reports of other countries closing their borders. In churches, hugs gave way to fist bumps, which gave way to foot bumps. Then came rumors that shops would be shut and schools closed (how normal that now seems, but it was strange then).
After I left, Central American governments began to lock their countries down with an incredible strictness.
Tearfund and its church partners responded immediately in Central America (and elsewhere around the world), checking in on the most vulnerable, making sure people were safe and had good information about preventing infection, sharing food and hygiene supplies, and praying with anxious and lonely people.
In Central America, the initial Covid-19 cases were enough to overwhelm their health system, and the loss of income from the lockdown began to hit hard. There are projections of a long, hungry summer before the fall harvest.
Central America was already under unique stresses before coronavirus struck. The countries where Tearfund works sit between drug-producing regions in the south and drug consuming regions in the north. The US’s drug habits fuel the gang violence and government corruption that reaches breathtaking levels. Economically, Central America has been left behind the rest of Latin America, with continuing high rates of poverty and inequality. And the countries inhabit a dangerous geography where tectonic plates collide, resulting in risk from volcanoes and earthquakes and landslides; where hurricanes and tropical storms are a regular occurrence (including Tropical Storms Amanda and Cristobal that hit back to back at the end of May/beginning of June).
COVID-19 has compounded the crises facing Central Americans. Thankfully, the churches following Jesus in the midst of those stresses are still following him into the pandemic and its aftermath. The churches mobilized by Tearfund and its partners are able to do more, and churches in the US can help. Right now, months into the pandemic, many churches have exhausted their financial and food resources, but they have relationships with the most vulnerable and a commitment to reach out.
Tearfund USA is working in collaboration with three other like-minded ministries, Convoy of Hope, ENLACE, and Viva, to purchase much needed supplies of food and hygiene materials and get them to churches to distribute. We hope to distribute five million meals before the end of the summer. We want to do this by purchasing supplies locally, to help stimulate the local economy, and we’re following the lead of churches on the front lines in shaping a distribution plan, since they know their communities best.
Tearfund is committed to training and equipping local churches to be ready to respond to disasters, crises, and disruptions in their communities, rather than waiting for disaster to strike. The local church is already there, leading the recovery. We believe they need to be in the driver's seat of community development and disaster response, and it's their expertise and dedication that multiplies the effectiveness of international assistance.