When the pandemic began, the Luce Foundation focused its emergency response on providing aid to long-time partners and the communities that they serve. Recognizing the potential for religious organizations to provide rapid support to vulnerable groups, the Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program looked to a select number of recent and current grantees, whose work engages and supports at-risk communities, to address the challenges created by COVID-19.
The creativity of our grantee partners and the diversity of their constituents meant that the emergency grants took multiple forms, but all projects incorporated two core elements: direct support to community-based partners responding to the pandemic (usually through small, rapid-response grants) and an aligned effort to document the experiences of the communities they assisted.
With help from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which provided a space and framework for program grantees to share best practices and discuss the challenges they encountered, the Luce Foundation and its partners provided critical support to over 130 local organizations across the U.S.
The pandemic exposed the extent to which existing inequities have left many communities more exposed than others including low-income families, immigrants and refugees, rural tribal communities, and people of color. Our network of partners focused on addressing people’s basic needs by providing food, rent relief, infant supplies and childcare, health services, and remote education resources.
The Borderlands Institute at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX distributed grant funds to established nonprofits and religious organizations serving vulnerable immigrant communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. “Members of these immigrant communities provide essential needs, such as harvesting the U.S. food supply and processing meat in packing facilities, or engaging in various service industries,” said Dr. Francisco Lozada, Director of the Borderlands Institute. “These individuals were at greater risk of infection of COVID-19, and thus, losing their jobs, and in many cases, being detained in or deported out of the country while possibly carrying the virus.”
Migrants from Guatemala and Honduras visit the comedor at Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, Arizona—which received a rapid relief grant from Brite Divinity School—for milk and diapers for their families during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Kino Border Initiative.
Not only were effects of the pandemic acutely felt in certain professions, but it also “revealed longstanding social disparities that have contributed to the higher death rates in communities of color including food insecurity, houselessness, lack of health insurance, and underemployment,” said Harold D. Morales, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and the City at Morgan State University in Baltimore. “As a result of work supported by this urgent-needs initiative, many in our community have a better understanding of these structural issues, the role that religious communities play in addressing such issues, and how we can work collaboratively to improve the health of our cities.”
Documenting the experiences of those most impacted by the pandemic and amplifying underrepresented voices was an important aspect of the Foundation’s urgent-needs grantmaking. Our partners created platforms for these stories by collecting oral histories and testimonials, hosting community forums, developing media projects, and supporting artists and local arts communities.
For example, part of the grant to the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University supported partnerships between media mentors and journalism students who had lost internships and jobs as the economy shut down. They worked to increase public awareness about communities whose stories aren’t often told in the press such as agricultural workers, Native Americans, incarcerated individuals, and migrants. The resulting collection of articles, titled “Southwest Stories,” is now part of “A Journal of the Plague Year,” an online, open-source, multimedia archive documenting the far-reaching impact of COVID-19.
Since its first convening in 2018, the Summer Institute at Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative (PTRJC) has trained scholars and activists on how to engage the public on issues such as voter suppression, gentrification, and police brutality. As Assistant Director Dr. Teresa Smallwood explained, the Collaborative’s network of partners and participants “presented a unique opportunity to distribute support for the unemployed through non-profit organizations strategically situated across America.” Emergency sub-grants provided assistance to communities in six different states, and the Collaborative is in the process of growing its network by establishing satellite summer institutes across the country.
Many of our grantees and their community partners emerged from these collaborations with a greater sense of interconnectedness and were encouraged to build on the lessons learned during their projects. A recent grant to Morgan State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and the City (CSRC) will expand on the work they accomplished this past year. Working with religious, spiritual, and moral leaders across the nation, “The Good Life Project” will engage marginalized groups through community-based events, seeking to learn from diverse experiences of the pandemic and to collaboratively envision better, healthier futures.
“The nimbleness of the Luce Foundation's emergency grants is a stellar example of how philanthropy can support existing grantees in creative new ways to meet unanticipated needs, while building long-term social capital,” noted Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “PRRI’s experience convening the emergency grantees laid the groundwork for our new Religion and Renewing Democracy Initiative, which is supported by the Henry Luce Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.”