On Friday night, March 13, the Rev. Joel Miller, interim minister at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was in Columbus, Ohio—where he’d flown to visit his mother and to preach at an installation in nearby Pittsburgh—when he got an urgent text.
The public schools in Baton Rouge, like so many around the country, were closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That meant that healthcare workers from the area’s Ochsner medical system would have no childcare as the crisis escalated and the demand grew for doctors, nurses, and support staff. Kelly Coreil, a licensed daycare provider who had been approved to rent space at the church this summer for a kids’ camp, had a favor to ask the Baton Rouge congregation: Would they allow her to launch a childcare program for the kids of local healthcare workers, starting . . . immediately?
“She said hospital workers need daycare because there’s no school, and she said, ‘Do you want to do this?’” Miller recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what we’re here for.’”
Miller quickly called the staff and the congregation’s board chair and vice chair, who immediately approved. By 5:30 a.m. on Monday—before Miller was even back from Ohio—the daycare center was up and running.
“Hospitals know they’re going to be on front lines of saving people’s lives, so they had to move fast—and we had to move fast,” says Miller, who gives special credit to the congregation’s director of family ministry, Kathy E. Smith, who worked all weekend to make the daycare happen. Says Smith, “It moved very quickly.”
The congregation’s ability to approve the special program was helped immensely by the fact that it had already vetted Coreil and approved her to rent space to run a summer camp this coming summer for children ages 4 to 13.
The Ochsner healthcare system had its own requirements for the daycare, and it implemented health and safety measures, including sending in a special cleaning crew to scour the part of the church facility where the kids will be. Ochsner is also providing nurses who will be on site each day to evaluate children and parents for signs of the illness, in order to try to prevent spread of COVID-19.
Smith met with Coreil on Sunday to show her around the space. At the crack of dawn on Monday morning, three nurses from the Ochsner system arrived to check people in by taking their temperatures. Twenty-six children were signed up for Monday and fourteen showed up. By Tuesday, there were fifty children on the roster and twenty kids on-site, says Smith, who notes that nurses and other healthcare workers often work three days on, three off, or twelve-hour shifts, and so may have signed children up before actually needing to use the daycare.
“In south Louisiana, we know how to do hurricanes” by responding with providing meals to neighbors and helping with cleanup, Smith says. Since those types of close-proximity assistance are unsafe during the COVID-19 pandemic, the daycare center is a way “we can support the health workers who are supporting our community,” she says.
“We will continue providing it as long as it’s possible for us to do so and as long as there’s a need we can fill,” Smith says.
Like so much with the current pandemic, things evolved rapidly and fast response was essential. On March 12, Miller flew from Baton Rouge to Columbus to visit his 84-year-old mother and to preach that Sunday at the installation of the Rev. Jane Thickstun at the UU Church of the North Hills in nearby Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But by the time he landed eight hours later, he was no longer able to do either one.
The UU Church of the North Hills canceled all meetings in its building, postponing Thickstun’s installation service and moving worship services online.
Like so many elder care facilities around the country, the one where Miller’s mother lived no longer was allowing visitors, and Miller was only able to wave to his mother from the sidewalk outside her window.
Moreover, the person Miller was supposed to lodge with in Columbus has a child for whom COVID-19 could be fatal. Miller contacted a high school friend whom he hadn’t seen in years and asked if he could crash with him.
Meanwhile, the situation back in Baton Rouge had escalated. On Friday morning, Miller got a phone call and learned that a staff member at the church had symptoms of COVID-19. Miller immediately told his staff to close the building. That evening, he received the text about the need for childcare for healthcare workers.
Since Miller had decided to shut down the building—the daycare is in a separate space from where the ill person was, he emphasizes—the Baton Rouge congregation moved its worship services online. An interfaith guest speaker, the Rev. Rhetta Morgan, was scheduled to preach in Miller’s absence. She had already arrived in Baton Rouge from Philadelphia when it was decided to close the Baton Rouge church, so Morgan preached her sermon via Zoom and on a Facebook stream from the church sanctuary, with just herself and a handful of others on site.
“She preached beautifully, she was so good,” says Miller, who notes that about 300 people attended the virtual service. Going forward, the congregation’s services will be livestreamed via YouTube, he says, with a virtual coffee hour immediately following via Zoom, which allows people to see each other’s faces.
“One of the things that impresses me about UUs in Louisiana is they understand crises and national disasters,” due to Hurricane Katrina and a long list of other hurricanes and floods, says Miller, who’s been interim minister for the past seven months as the congregation searches for a fulltime minister. “They know how to do it well. They reach out, they take care of each other, and they are a model for the rest of our movement on how to do it.”
Other Unitarian Universalist congregations are also starting to find new ways to support their surrounding communities. In Columbus, Ohio, for example, First UU Church and UU Justice Ohio are partnering with a network of immigration attorneys to establish a food bank to serve undocumented workers.
The Unitarian Universalist Association has launched a COVID-19 Pandemic Response Fund. The fund will provide grants through the UUA’s Disaster Relief Fund to support UU groups partnering with local organizations to help people at significant risk. It will also provide grants through the UUA’s Living Tradition Fund to meet extraordinary financial needs of ministers, religious professionals, and other congregational employees.
The UUA continues to assemble resources for congregational leaders responding to the pandemic. UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray has started sending weekly letters to congregational leaders, which are archived at UUA.org.
Due to an editing error, earlier versions of this article included references to two dates that were each off by one day. The dates have been corrected.