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Jamie Grace was floored when a couple of volunteers from Love INC showed up at her apartment Wednesday to drop off boxes of supplies, food and five Easter baskets with chocolates for her kids.

“I started crying,” said Grace, 35, the single mother of six children, who range in age from 2 months to 15 years. “It just made my heart so warm.”

Her newborn had spent days in the hospital, her daughter was overcoming pneumonia, and she was just trying to get back on her feet.

“I was getting really worried about Easter, how to get everything together,” Grace said. “I was just hoping for some toilet paper and laundry soap. … They went above and beyond.”

Amid all the dark and depressing news about coronavirus, many local people and churches are finding ways to help people and brighten their lives with acts of kindness and compassion.

At the same time that national news reports showed people fighting over bath tissue in store aisles, Bozeman’s First Presbyterian Church collected 500 rolls of toilet paper to donate to needy families through the non-profit Love INC.

Gallatin County Love INC, which stands for Love In the Name of Christ, is a partnership of some 48 local churches. Rob McCormack, its executive director, was delighted to get a call from World Market, one of many Bozeman stores closed during the government-ordered shutdown intended to contain the virus.

Could Love INC use five-dozen Easter baskets? Absolutely.

Other stores, groceries and churches have donated as well. In the past two weeks, Love INC volunteers — following strict sanitization procedures to avoid contracting or spreading the virus — have delivered more than 200 Easter baskets, and hundreds more baskets with food and personal care items, everything from toothpaste to toilet paper and laundry soap.

“The biggest thing it seems to do is deliver hope and joy in a basket,” McCormack said. “It brings a breath of fresh air in this dark time.”

The ‘least of these’

At Resurrection Parish Catholic Church, volunteers have been running “Angel errands” for older parishioners and people with fragile health, said Father Val Zdilla. Will Wright, the organizer, said about 15 people need help getting groceries or filling prescriptions. Some are happy just to get a call when they’re stuck at home.

“This is kind of a lonely time,” Wright said. “They just appreciate knowing someone is there to help them in a difficult time.”

At First Baptist Church, Pastor Jason Bowker said parishioners are checking to see if other members, especially elderly people, need help. They’ve brought people food and offered rides to the pharmacy.

“It’s been fun to see our church really step up,” Bowker said. “It’s been beautiful.”

Easter services are usually a great celebration, with the organ blasting and people singing, getting excited about meals and greeting folks they may not have seen in a year, he said. “It’s a joyful morning.” But this year will be different, with services held online.

“At our very core we are called to be people who love our neighbors as ourselves,” Bowker said. When the pandemic is over, he said, “We will be recommitted to being neighborly and being kind.”

Laurie Berg, 22, said she goes to Journey Church, and people there have been checking on her since her roommate is very sick and both of them are quarantined. Church members provided bleach to help her disinfect and have offered other help. Berg, who came here last year from Indiana as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, said that kind of support makes her feel good as a newcomer.

“I’m really glad I found this community,” she said.

The Rev. Jody McDevitt, co-pastor of Bozeman’s First Presbyterian Church, said her church usually delivers about 60 Easter “baskets” loaded with food for a grand dinner, “from the ham to the dessert,” to families referred by community agencies. But this year, because of the virus, they’d probably provide food vouchers from Heeb’s market instead.

When the virus hit Montana in mid-March, McDevitt said, a group of clergy and faith leaders met online over Zoom with Heather Grenier, head of the nonprofit Human Resource Development Council.

Grenier told them that the Warming Center, HRDC’s winter homeless shelter, would have to shut down March 18 because it couldn’t meet Centers for Disease Control guidelines to keep people 6 feet apart. HRDC asked their help to get outdoor living gear for clients.

“We agreed to get the word out to our congregations to send donations to HRDC,” McDevitt said. “Generosity, community, concern for the ‘least of these’ — as Jesus said it in Matthew 25 — these are the spiritual values we teach week after week, and it’s rewarding to see that translated into action.”

The churches’ efforts raised roughly $2,500 to $5,000, though it’s hard to say exactly because most donations came from individuals, Grenier said. By the end of the month HRDC raised more than $200,000 from all kinds of generous donors.

“There are many, many private, faith-based and other efforts happening that are helping our community and countless stories to share of everyone coming together,” Grenier said, including groups like Love INC and Greater Impact.

Quilters at Christ the King Lutheran Church have been sewing masks for health care workers, said the Rev. Lindean Barnett Christenson, church co-pastor and moderator for the Gallatin Valley Interfaith Association. GVIA brings together local Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist groups.

All faith traditions have strong practices of serving members of their own community and the greater community, Christenson said.

For the past three winters, Christ the King Lutheran has lent its building to serve as an “overflow” overnight shelter for homeless women and families, while men stayed at HRDC’s Warming Center, Christenson said.

The day her church’s council members considered HRDC’s request to shelter women and families, she said, the Bible reading was about Jesus telling his followers a parable. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

When did we all do that, his followers asked Jesus. “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Christenson said, “For Christians, there’s a sense that by caring for those in need, we’re serving our Lord.

“We look to places where there is suffering and need … and when we serve those, we’re serving Jesus.”

Generosity

Christian churches aren’t the only ones that have stepped up to help others during the coronavirus crisis. Other faiths, many businesses and secular individuals and groups have also been generous and taken action.

Greater Gallatin United Way and the Bozeman Area Community Foundation teamed up to create the Southwest Montana COVID-19 Response Fund. In three weeks, they had raised more than $218,000.

Danica Jamison, Greater Gallatin United Way president and CEO, said she hopes to reach $300,000, for what she feels may be a yearlong need.

The money is being used in five areas: food and supplies, emergency housing and quarantine shelter, financial assistance for people who lost their jobs, health and well-being, and crisis response, including emergency child care for essential workers’ families.

“There’s a lot of generosity happening,” Jamison said.

Some people are finding ways to volunteer on United Way’s website (www.volunteermt.org), some are making masks for adults and children, or making calls to seniors, or responding to other requests that come through the Help Center’s 211 phone call help line. People who need support can call 211 any hour of the day, she said.

“We’re just so pleased people are able to share,” Jamison said. “Certainly the need is great.”

While Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on charity and compassion, those values are among its basic tenets. They may even be one of the contributing reasons why what started out 2,000 years ago as a tiny persecuted religious sect survived and grew to become one of the world’s great religions.

Historians report that there was little evidence of organized charitable efforts in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Philanthropy was more about nobles’ obligation, civic responsibility and a way to achieve esteem — not about common humanity.

The Christian tradition of caring for others goes back centuries. St. Basil in the 4th century gave away his inherited wealth to help the poor. He founded a soup kitchen, hospital, hospice, homeless shelter, and worked to reform thieves and prostitutes.

“The commandment of love is decisive,” Helmut Koester, professor of Harvard Divinity School, said as part of a PBS documentary exploring why Christianity succeeded. “That is, the care for each other becomes very important.”

Kindness

From the very start of the coronavirus crisis, Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, has urged residents to not only wash their hands frequently, stay home and stay 6 feet apart, but also to remember the importance of “compassion, kindness and charity.”

Yes, Kelley said last week, it is a strange thing for a government official to talk about kindness and compassion. But he said he was concerned, because the virus originated in China, about the possible mistreatment of people of Asian heritage or ethnicity.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty and some fear,” Kelley said. “Fear doesn’t always bring out the best in people.”

This virus doesn’t distinguish between people’s skin color or heritage, he said, “and we shouldn’t either.”

“Our best path through this pandemic is to go through it together and take care of each other,” Kelley said.

Humanity has a long history of blaming scapegoats for pandemics. In the mid-1300s when the Black Death raged through Europe, killing roughly half the population, many blamed the Jews and thousands were massacred.

Nearly 500 years ago, bubonic plague reached Wittenberg, Germany, home to Martin Luther, the renegade priest who sparked the Protestant movement. In 1527 people didn’t know what caused the epidemic but they knew it was dangerous to go near people who were sick with the plague, and friends urged Luther to flee the city, said Jim Keena, lead pastor of Bozeman’s E-Free Church.

Luther replied that he would “ask God mercifully to protect us.” Then he would take practical steps — fumigate to purify the air, take medicine, and “avoid persons and places where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”

However, Luther added, “If my neighbor needs me … I shall not avoid place or person, but go freely.”

“His message is timeless wisdom for today,” Keena said. “What Jesus is teaching is we’re to love and care for people.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.