By Mike Patterson

As COVID-19 emerged into a global pandemic, the Foundation for the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming deliberated over the best way to financially assist individuals and communities most affected by the virus. Instead of a top-down directive on how funds should be used, the board of directors decided to send each of the diocese’s 46 churches $10,000 to allocate where they felt the greatest needs were in their own communities.

And that $460,000 is just the first phase of the distributions.  The foundation committed a total of $1 million in financial assistance for churches in the diocese to allocate to their communities.  The second phase distribution of $540,000 will come at a later date. “Our hope is that you will dream of ways you can make a love-spreading difference in the lives of those negatively impacted by this crisis,” the Rt. Rev. John S. Smylie, bishop of the Diocese of Wyoming, said in a letter to parishes. “We are asking that you distribute these dollars… to meet the most pressing needs you currently discern.” As of April 12, Wyoming, with a population of about 580,000, had 261 confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases, the lowest number in the United States.  There were no deaths attributable to the virus.

“Love your neighbor means going outside of the parish to serve those in need,” Press Stephens, executive director of the foundation, said in a news release. “Individual communities across Wyoming have varying needs, and Episcopal churches have experience in identifying and addressing the most pressing of those needs. “With about two Episcopal churches in each county in Wyoming, “it’s kind of like having 46 affiliates,” Stephens explained in a telephone interview with The Living Church.  “The churches are filled with congregants who are pretty much community leaders” and know what the local needs are.“The Episcopal Church is known as a giving community,” he added.  “Even congregations of only 10 to 12 members play a big role in providing financial resources in their communities.”

Most churches spent Holy Week discerning how the foundation grants should be dispersed in their communities.  None of the funds can be allocated for operations or capital expenditures. To aid in the discernment process, the foundation board accompanied the checks with a letter from Smylie that outlined four broad areas of potential use, Stephens said.  These were child care, especially for hospital and front-line workers unable to stay home with their children; vulnerable adults, including help for senior centers and individual senior citizens; food insecurity, which Stephens says is “unbelievable” on the sprawling Wind River Indian Reservation and across the state; and unemployment issues and “general assistance for families who are suffering from lost wages” due to job losses from the impact of COVID-19.

The concept of making direct distributions to churches was not a new idea to the foundation.  In 2009, the foundation was struggling over the best way to support the mission of the diocese. Smylie, a foundation board member and then rector of a church in Casper, suggested they “go out on a limb, be risky, spend some capital, and send each church $12,000,” Stephens said.

This was known as a “mustard seed grant.” Unfortunately, Stephens said, the foundation had few reporting requirements so “we don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of what they did with their $12,000.”

Then in 2016, a big downturn in the coal industry forced companies to lay off miners, creating an economic rippling affect throughout Wyoming. To blunt the impact, the foundation sent each church $5,000 to provide aid in their communities. By this time, the foundation had improved its reporting requirements.  “We have pretty good information about what we did with that $5,000 check,” he said.

Fast forward to 2020. By now the foundation had fine-tuned its reporting requirements in order to be accountable to the foundation’s mission.  It was well-positioned to respond to the urgent needs across the state.

“People needed assistance yesterday,” Stephens said. “The telephone was ringing all the time. People who were unemployed were the most pressing need. Health care workers also needed help. People were clamoring for dollars.”

The board considered how much it could allocate from the foundation’s assets and arrived at the sum of $1 million. And one reason is that it sounded good. “A million was a pretty good number,” Stephens said.  “Less than a million was not so memorable.”

Reaction from the churches “has been amazing,” he said. Many churches have less than 50 members where “$10,000 goes a long way in their small communities,” he said. Some churches are adding additional funds to the grants received from the foundation, he said.

Among the areas hardest hit is the 2.2 million-acre Wind River Indian Reservation, home to the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. The sparsely populated area is served by two or three grocery stores – one of which was recently closed after an employee was diagnosed with COVID-19 – two or three gas stations, casinos, schools and tribal governments.

“At this point they are all shut down,” said the Rev. Roxanne Jimerson-Friday, a member of the Eastern Shoshone tribe who was first woman ordained on the reservation. “The unemployment rate on this reservation was around 50% to 60% before the Covid-19 pandemic crisis.  Just like the rest of the country, you can imagine what kind of circumstances we are in now.  The poverty levels were high to begin with.”

She and her brother-in-law, the Rev. Rawlin Friday Sr. of the Northern Arapaho tribe, preside over two churches — Our Father’s House/St. Michael’s Episcopal Mission in Ethete and St. David’s Church/Shoshone Episcopal Mission in Fort Washakie.  Each church has a separate vestry and membership roster.

Coincidentally, as the foundation was mailing out checks to churches in the diocese, Jimerson-Friday participated in a conference call with social service agencies, tribal leadership, state representatives, churches from other denominations and the Riverton Chamber of Commerce.“They are calling upon mutual aid for the Wind River Indian Reservation,” she said.

She next brought her two congregations together in a conference call during which they determined the greatest need for their communities was to get more food and supplies to homes as soon as possible, Jimerson-Friday said. “A decision was made to put all of their $10,000 grant monies from the Foundation of the Episcopal Diocese of Wyoming toward this effort of the mutual aid getting started.  We also decided to use our funds in the food insecurities support, and basic needs support of this mutual aid coordination.”

Even during Holy Week, phone calls were being made to set up the first shipment of food. “We don’t quite know the impact yet and we won’t know until we get rolling with purchases and distribution,” she said. “We are still determining exactly the number of homes and families who will be helped.  We believe it will be a great number.”

“We have many young families on our reservation, and we know that diapers, baby needs will be one of the top priorities also,” she added. In addition to the food effort, she said “there are a few ladies who are sewing face masks for church donations.”

In Dixon, the Rev. Linda Fleming, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, spent Holy Week soliciting suggestions for the most pressing needs in the community and planned to have a final decision on the expenditures by mid-April.

Among the ideas being considered were helping pay rent, and providing a stipend or addressing the immediate needs of those who have been unemployed due to the crisis, she said. “We will address other less immediate needs later in the month or early May,” she added.

Fleming expressed her gratitude that “the foundation has granted the same amount of funding to each church, no matter how small.” She explained, “We are small, with an average Sunday attendance of 14…The wisdom of the foundation board is that they realized with 46 churches in the state, in 44 communities, that each community might have similar but very different needs from another community. This is the best way to distribute the funds closest to the people impacted and in need.”

Like St. Paul’s in Dixon, the Rev. Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Hotchkiss, rector of St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church in Saratoga, said they are still in the discernment phase of their distribution plans by researching needs in the community and praying about the best ways to use the funds. She planned to hold a virtual vestry meeting to crystallize their plans after Easter.

“Our top priority may not be possible,” she said.  “But we are still making contacts.  We want to help local school children have access to internet service, and we want to support families in need and the local food pantry and ministerial association that provides assistance to people who cannot pay utility bills.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jackson has reached out to a local restaurant which has agreed to make and package family meals for all local grocery store workers, said the Rev. Jimmy Bartz, rector. “We’re working now to see the best way to deliver these meals so they can take them home to their families. Each worker will get dinner on us. And the local restaurant will be able to employ some additional labor that’s been sidelined during the shelter at home order.”

Stephens said the remaining balance of its $1 million commitment will be distributed later and that the amount each church receives may depend on its specific needs at that time as some churches may not need additional funds. The foundation has assets of about $78 million, built largely from gifts and bequests.

Those wishing to donate to the foundation’s COVID-19 fund may visit https://thefoundation.diowy.org or contact Press Stephens at press@efwy.org for more information.