September 11, 2020

Refugee center and urban mission program collaborate in response to COVID-19

Written by  Andrew Mashas
The Mountville youth group help the Grape Leaf Empowerment Center move supplies out of James Street Mennonite Church and into a pop-up center at Trinity Lutheran Church on South Duke Street. Andrew Mashas/EMM The Mountville youth group help the Grape Leaf Empowerment Center move supplies out of James Street Mennonite Church and into a pop-up center at Trinity Lutheran Church on South Duke Street. Andrew Mashas/EMM

LANCASTER, Pa. COVID-19 has forced many people to embrace new forms of resilience, often spurring on great creativity. Two Lancaster leaders serving the refugee and immigrant communities have been doing just that: Patience Buckwalter, executive director of the Grape Leaf Empowerment Center, and Krista Martin, Eastern Mennonite Missions’ (EMM) Kingdom Team director. 

Stay-at-home orders, social distancing requirements, and capacity restrictions have dramatically reduced the ability of community services like the Grape Leaf Empowerment Center. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, Grape Leaf Empowerment Center has been trying to think of a way to reinvent the services that we provide to our refugee and immigrant families,” said Buckwalter. 

COVID-19 realities also altered the way the Kingdom Team (K-Team) program ran this summer. Teams were not able to stay in the same residence, and outreach opportunities were either canceled or limited in scope. During the week of August 3–7, Mountville (Pa.) Mennonite Church’s Kingdom Team creatively partnered with Grape Leaf Empowerment Center to serve the refugee community of Lancaster. 

“This is my second year partnering with Grape Leaf and I always appreciate the big dreams, creativity, and passion that Patience carries,” said Martin. “That was especially valuable this year as we had to adapt our plans many times along the way.”

Because of limited access to resources and services, the Mountville youth group helped the Grape Leaf Empowerment Center move supplies out of James Street Mennonite Church and into a pop-up center at Trinity Lutheran Church on South Duke Street. 

“It was bittersweet to change our way of delivering services and COVID-19 really impacted us,” said Buckwalter. “Our next plan is to raise funds to buy a camper/RV to be mobile and bring the services to our community where our families are located. Our families need us more during a pandemic, and we are being flexible and creative to serve them!”

Several other youth groups had to alter their plans or not participate at all. In addition to Mountville’s youth group, other groups also had to be resilient and creative to make their Kingdom Team experiences work. Some defaulted to having their morning discipleship sessions in the morning via Zoom. Others were able to have them in-person with mask-wearing and social distancing. 

K-Teams are week-long, summer discipleship and cross-cultural experiences offered in small urban centers in the U.S., specifically for youth groups. Martin’s desire is to see youth connect on a relational level with refugee families, even though that can be difficult during a pandemic.

“My hope is that through the K-Team experience, youth will grow in understanding God's love for themselves, and for all people while learning and practicing ways of building God's kingdom on earth,” said Martin.  

The ​Grape Leaf Empowerment Center provides a safe gathering place for local refugee and immigrant communities where they can receive support, connect with one another, and access resources in Lancaster City. It was founded by Buckwalter in 2018 to bridge the gap between refugee and immigrant families by providing a hub of services, including culturally sensitive case management and resources for as long as they are needed.