COVID-19 has been devastating for our community – and our church

In Berala, a mid-west suburb of Sydney, the toll of coronavirus measures is high and widespread: job losses, evictions, sleeping in cars and no money to make ends meet.

“COVID may be the greatest challenge our church has ever faced – certainly it’s the greatest challenge our church has faced in the five years that I’ve been here,” says Mike Doyle, pastor of the local Anglican church in Berala.

“30 per cent of our congregation lost their jobs in that first week of lockdown – that’s 10-15 family units.” – Mike Doyle

“It’s pretty devastating watching the panic in the church community, and the impact financially and on wellbeing, and the spiritual impact.”

Berala is a lower socio-economic area and the population is highly multicultural. Doyle estimates that around 80 per cent of the 90 adults in the congregation at St James are from non-English speaking backgrounds, with 25 per cent immigrating to Australia in the past five years.

The high proportion of people from Asian backgrounds means that fear around coronavirus hit the the church early – and hard.

“In January, when it was barely a blip on our radar in Australia, a lot of these communities were already panicking about it. They didn’t believe the numbers in reports coming out of China. Various stories and ideas about what was [really] happening in China were being passed around social media … I think that’s partly why we had more issues with supermarket panic buying in our area, just this heightened anxiety in the community.”

While fears around supplies proved to be unnecessary, bigger problems hit the area when measures to curb the spread of coronavirus began in Australia.

“We reckon 30 per cent of our congregation lost their jobs in that first week of lockdown – that’s 10-15 family units,” says Doyle, explaining that many in the local area work in retail, hospitality and trades.

“At least one or two [of our congregation members] were sleeping in their cars.” – Mike Doyle

He continues, “I don’t mean to be rude, but only the rich can self-isolate. If you’re a retail worker, a ‘chippy’ or a concreter, you can’t work from home. Very rarely [in our community] do we have the middle-to-upper class white-collar jobs where you can work from home.”

Soon after these job losses, “the evictions started happening.”

“When the government announced that landlords and real estate agents were not going to be allowed to evict people for six months for non-payment, [landlords and agents] started going in hard – harassing people for payment, giving them eviction notices and evicting them – even after the legislation had been passed.

“I know at least one or two [of our congregation members] were sleeping in their cars.

“People in our church were helping them … They’ve been sleeping on people’s couches, but we think we’ve found places for them to live now.

“There are several families with young kids who’ve been given eviction notices by the real estate agent this week. So we helped by contacting [the agent] and reminding them of the law. But it’s a mess. [The landlords and estate agents] will get away with it if they can, and many of the people they’re sending notices to are people who don’t speak English and aren’t aware of lawful protections – vulnerable people, single mums and children.”

Members of St James Berala enjoy fellowship pre-lockdown

Members of St James Berala enjoy fellowship, pre-lockdown.

These problems are compounded by the fact that many in the Berala congregation do not have permanent residency visas (with some coming to Australia as asylum seekers). This means those who lost their jobs because of COVID-19 are not eligible to receive financial support from the government. Even some who have permanent residency are unable to access government supplements.

“A lot of people round here live in the cash economy.” explains Doyle. “A lot of them get exploited because of that – they get paid under minimum wage, and no workers’ comp, that sort of stuff. And so, with government assistance, you can’t prove that you’ve had a drop in income now [because of coronavirus] when you live in a cash economy.”

St James is doing what it can to help these families financially. As well as connecting them with the Red Cross and Anglicare (and to government assistance, where applicable), the church has set aside some “last resort” funds to pay people’s expenses – like water and electricity bills, car registration and supermarket vouchers – where needed.

“There’s two families who the church has paid a weeks’ rent for,” says Doyle.

While the easing of restrictions brings some good news, Doyle suspects financial relief is still a long way off for his local community.

“We’re hearing it will be six to 18 months for the economy to recover. I reckon some of the people in this area will be the last to recover. They’re the casual workers and the ones who will only be hired when restaurants are open again and when retail stores are at full capacity again. They won’t be the first to be rehired. I think they’ll be the last.”

“Only 50 per cent of those who were coming before the virus struck are attending our online services … It feels like we’ve lost five years of hard work.” – Mike Doyle

From a church perspective, coronavirus has also had a “devastating” impact, as Doyle explains.

“God has been gracious in giving us lots of growth over the past five years. We’ve doubled in size. We’ve done much better in reaching out. We’ve seen sinners saved and there’s lots of great things happening.”

“However, it just has been devastating what has happened [during lockdown]. We have a large number who aren’t in discipleship groups. We have large numbers who don’t speak English or struggle to speak English. It’s hard enough for them to come to church and engage physically at church, but over technology, it’s virtually impossible for them.

“Probably only 50 per cent of those who were coming before the virus struck are attending our online services … It feels like we’ve lost five years of hard work.

“We had just launched a new night service in March [Lighthouse Berala]. We had three meetings of that before we had to shut it down. That was two years of hard work from a dedicated group of people in the church … It’s still running as a virtual church, but it’s been devastating to see that sort of work and hopes and dreams, at the very least, put on hold.”

While the church is trying to encourage everyone in the congregation to join discipleship groups, language and cultural barriers are preventing some from taking this up.

“It’s one thing for our middle-class, English Bible study groups to say ‘we’re meeting over Zoom today.’ But [it’s] different [for people] with different backgrounds and expectations.” – Mike Doyle

“It’s one thing for our middle-class, English Bible study groups to say ‘we’re meeting over Zoom today.’ But, say, for the Mandarin group who are just full of anxiety about what’s happening in China and what’s happening around here … to meet and read the Bible together virtually is different, with different backgrounds and expectations.”

Yet in the midst of this difficult situation, Doyle can still see God’s hand at work.

“There’s lots of reasons to think that [the church was] going to be smashed financially as a result, but, in God’s graciousness, we’ve had a really good couple of months financially. So there’s some really good things there too.”

When asked how he expects the church will look when it can meet in person again, Doyle says, again, that he doesn’t anticipate a quick fix.

He’s unsure about how long it will take for the church and the community to rebuild. And, even when the government says it’s safe for churches to congregate, he thinks there is likely to still be some fear among locals.

For now, Doyle is keeping his focus on the immediate future. When St James Berala does deem it right for the church community to come back together, Doyle plans to start on a positive note.

“I’d love to do some sort of big celebration service where we praise and thank God that his judgment has passed over us, which is what it’s looking like at the moment. God has been incredibly generous, so praise God that he has spared us.

“It would be nice to have a community-wide celebration, and then we’re just going to have to see what happens.”