COVID-19: NE Houston Has A Great Need for Masks and Food Distribution


Johnny Gentry, Senior Pastor of Free Indeed Church, shares how Northeast Houston Responds Coalition and MASKS FOR ALL is helping their under-resourced communities have more access to food and masks.

"It's a food desert. . . so food has been a problem for a long time. Hunger has been a problem for a long time. . .yesterday we served 3000 meals, gave away a little over 300 masks. We have this meals and masks movement that's happening and we're really trying to plug more churches in, to actually set up their own sites to do food distribution as needed in their respective neighborhoods."

Mentioned Resources:

Free Indeed Church

Northeast Houston Responds Coalition

MASKS FOR ALL

Houston Responds COVID-19 Resources


Transcript:

Tommy Rosson:

Hello, it's Tommy Rosson from Houston Responds and today I'm very blessed to be joined by Pastor Johnny Gentry. He's the senior pastor of Free Indeed Church in Northeast Houston. And he also happens to be our director of our Northeast Houston Responds Coalition.


Johnny Gentry:

Good day. Good to see you, Tommy.


Tommy Rosson:

Good to see you. Tell us a little bit about what it's been like to pastor church through this process real quickly.


Johnny Gentry:

Wow. It has definitely been stretching. It has, you know, stretched our congregation, stretched our, our outreach ministry in many ways. But it's been, I would say, reinvigorating and redefining for our ministry in many ways as, as our leadership has sought to kind of reinvent and reimagine what we're going to look like in that community post-covid. So it's been, it's been a real challenge and a real blessing.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah. One of the things that you've been, you've been working on for the last, well over a year, really two years almost now, is really that a coalition of churches in that Northeast area that work together, communicate together, help the area recover. Tell us a little bit about developing that coalition and what that looks like, but also what, what it looks like with COVID-19, a disaster we were not expecting, a crisis we were not expecting, but still you've been able to respond much better due to that.


Johnny Gentry:

Yeah, so developmentally it was slow, you know, we're fragmented in our community at times. There are pockets of churches that fellowship. And then there are some that don't, like most communities were sometimes divided by denomination by, by just fellowships. But after Hurricane Harvey, we started to see some unity. There's some key leaders in the community, guys like Ken Campbell, Household of Faith, guys like John Piles of Tabernacle of Praise, guys like Derek Davis over at Grace Church on Little York. These guys are guys who have a heart for community. And so the, I think the, the focus has been to get churches, possibly churches that are under-resourced , many of them that are just in survival mode, even in blue sky days, they're in survival mode to kind of get them to focus outward on community. I think we're seeing some progress there.

COVID really quickened, I think, many of the churches, we now have about 24 churches in Northeast. 24 pastors that are now communicating on an almost weekly basis about COVID. And that's amazing to see of the heart of the pastors, the heart of the leadership, to really be responsive, to try to figure out how to meet needs, and to just be the body for the community. I think it's growing and developing. There's potential for, for, more churches, more networks in Northeast to come together. So we're laying railroad track for that and building impasses for that to happen. It's pretty cool time in Northeast right now.


Tommy Rosson:

That's awesome. One of the things that has happened since COVID came into our community is y'all started a food pantry that did not exist there, that wasn't a part. And now you've got, more than a few churches working together to ensure it's happening. Tell us a little bit about how that came about.


Johnny Gentry:

Yeah. So, you know, Northeast in the Homestead Road, kind of Scenic Woods, Cashmere Gardens, Fontane area, right at Homestead and Tidwell, to Main Thoroughfare, Main Artery, it's a food desert. And, and 97% of the kids in that neighborhood qualify for free lunch just economically. The median household income is $33,000 in that neighborhood. That's the median household income. And so food has been a problem for a long time. Hunger has been a problem for a long time. We started an afterschool program. We were doing snacks and a meal, but that's not enough. When, when a pandemic happens, we saw an opportunity to partner with the Food Bank and the other churches and we were volunteering. And yesterday we served 3000 meals, gave away a little over 300 masks. And so, we have this meals and masks movement that's happening and we're really trying to plug more churches in, to actually set up their own sites to do food distribution as needed in their respective neighborhoods.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah, it's crazy to think about. We were looking at the numbers a few weeks ago about the idea of living in Houston and having this idea of a food desert where I think it is, you're two 10 miles away or five miles away from, from any reasonable like a grocery store and that kind of thing. And that East Houston, East Harris County is a big food desert. So especially when, in situations like this, for many of the people, especially if they don't have a car, if they can't afford to do it, they're in a really tough situation. What does it look like, for these families that are in a food desert?


Johnny Gentry:

Right. So, you know, they're relegated to have to shop at very, very ridiculously priced under-resourced, just poor quality kind of grocery stores that are in the community. These, these mom and pop places, they're paying convenience store prices, or they have to find a way to get to 45 and Tidwell, the Walmart there, and that's probably 11 miles, or to get, you know, there's one grocery store in the neighborhood. But it's, it's, it's just the produce is poor. The meat quality is poor. And so, to get quality groceries, you, you gotta commute. If you're on the bus and you don't have transportation, you got to go get groceries on the bus or you gotta find a cousin or an auntie or a relative or a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone to come get you to drive to Humble, or to drive to, to, the Northshore area someplace where there's a decent grocery store. And that can be a challenge for those who are struggling to go to work and take care of kids and that kind of thing.


Tommy Rosson:

Absolutely. And the fact that, you know, the more I have been involved in these kinds of things, the more I've learned that the less money that you have, the dramatically more you're paying for everything in proportion. So that means these families who are $33,000 median income and that's the median, are paying a lot more for groceries. So obviously the need there is great. What do you think the biggest hindrances are for more of these types of food pantries and opportunities in Northeast and East Houston?


Johnny Gentry:

Well, you know, Jesus said in Matthew 4, the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few and there does not seem to be a great, push of visionaries and leaders and workers in the community who are working towards it. I think sometimes the community settles. And so, you know, we're praying for God to send, laborers, folks with vision, folks with resources who are, who are connected, to think outside of that neighborhood and to, and to bring in some of the amenities that you see in other, in other communities that have grown economically and otherwise.


Tommy Rosson:

And they're really, that's, so, that's such a critical element to, to being able to kind of help the community that, that, and you've seen this, churches from other parts of Greater Houston, would love to support what's going on in that neighborhood. But to do that well, they really need to have and be working with the local churches in that community, to be partnering together. And I think you've seen that.


Johnny Gentry:

Yeah. Yeah. The local churches and pastors, are the, are, are still the key influencers in the inner city and in Northeast Houston. And in fact some of the most dependent on and, and relied upon voices. And so, they're still, influence and authority within the, within the local church. And, and so I think as these leaders are coming together, it's pretty exciting. The possibilities that can happen. In fact, as we've, as we've come around and started talking about disaster response, we're now talking about readiness and that, that talk from readiness has moved to, you know, economic development and how can we, you know, bring a grocery store to our neighborhood and bring business development to our neighborhood and how can we, you know, really uplift the community both spiritually and then socioeconomically as well.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah, that's the thing that we see so much in disaster with churches. It kind of forces our DNA, us to kind of have a DNA check about what are we about and, and you know, what does it mean to love our neighbor? And so we really have to, to process that during those seasons. And one of the out sources of this is not just a service in a time of crisis, but also you see a much greater growth to that. One of the things that, it's critical and much needed in your community is also, you know, you're talking about meals, but is masks. Talk a little bit about what that means in Northeast Houston.


Johnny Gentry:

Yeah. So, you know, all 24 of the churches that we have been engaging over the last few weeks and months signed up to distribute masks. And in fact, we even saw, you know, some numbers increase from those that were initially somewhat engaged to now very engaged. And we did a, we did a kind of a poll, last week and into this week, we're still gathering numbers and as of today, what was reported as of yesterday, you know, 17,500 masks, are believed to be needed now, just to serve those churches. Some want to distribute to their congregations, only in some want to distribute to the community and feel in a position to do that and have the capacity to do that. So it shows a great need. I was, I was delightfully surprised to see many in the community, wearing masks yesterday again at our, at our outreach. Kids were wearing masks, seniors wearing masks. And so, I think they realized the need and are complying with, with CDC and local official orders. So, I noticed most of them were disposable masks, which means they're going to need something more long-term. And so hopefully, you know, we're able to be a source to be a conduit, to be a vessel, to get them washable mass that they can keep, and use over again as opposed to the disposable mask.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah. And even with that, you know, roughly 20,000 or 27, I think he said, yeah. But with, even with that, that is just, for those churches and the people that attend those churches and some of the people, in the people in their community, but that's a small number compared to the need out there. So obviously, you know, it's not, and this is not just an issue of churches helping other churches and churches with resources, being able to help churches that might not have resources, especially there's the living communities where the needs are so great. No one church could help anybody overcome that. But you know, the other part of this is in your community. It's not only does this affect those of age, it also affects those with vulnerable, health systems with underlying issues. And that's also comes along with being an under-resourced community. Talk a little bit about the impact that just COVID-19 has on your community and why you all are taking this so seriously.


Johnny Gentry:

Yeah. Now you're going to find high numbers of uninsured. You're going to find a high numbers of not just seniors, but you know, Generation X'ers, my age, you know, with untreated high blood pressure, untreated diabetes or just barely able to manage it, you're going to find lots of kids with asthma, who are, you know, untreated. And so, you know, I'm curious to see what the final numbers are gonna look like, but from what we've seen, in fact, I'll just share this. We had one of our local officials, judge Joe Stevens, precinct three made a phone call to find out why we weren't getting our test results back quickly enough. We had, we have a testing site on Tidwell and he came to the neighborhood. I came to neighborhood. Got our testing done. Ten days passed and we got no results.


The bottom line was we finally got through to, oh goodness, I believe it was, it'll come to me, to the agency that was distributing the results, Quest. They told us that they had so many positives in that neighborhood, so many positive results that they couldn't, they didn't have time to get to notify the negative folks. Wow. They were just, they were just, they were just trying to figure out a way to contact all the positive results. So that tells us that there are lots of positives happening in the community for those who were being tested and that, and that masks and protective gear and education are highly important and that we've got a great, a great mission on our hands to make sure that we're continuing to provide protective gear. We're continuing to educate the community and make sure that, you know, that they're, as they're able to get treated, get tested, go stay on top of your, you know, manage your health, you know, manage, manage those symptoms. And just really educating the community. And, I think that's a big arduous task that, you know, challenge that, that, that, that we welcome. But that one we're going to have to tackle.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah. And that's the heartbreaking part of this, that, you know, anytime, it's true with any disaster, anytime

disaster hits, it's, it's those who are the under-resourced, or who have the health conditions are the ones who really pay the price far greater, than others, many times. Not that it's, not that COVID-19 cares who it affects but, it's access to medical care, access to long-term health really is going to impact, how people can recover and if they're asymptomatic and those kinds of things. So, so especially for you, masks, social distancing, that is a critical issue in your community.


Johnny Gentry:

Yes, very much so. Very much so.


Tommy Rosson:

Is that, do you feel like that's kind of the, as beyond the food, is that the second greatest need in your community is the masks?


Johnny Gentry:

I would say I should say, yeah, I would say it's shifted the last say four weeks. I think initially the greatest need was food. And I will say the second greatest need was PPE. And then I would say the third greatest thing was financial assistance. I think financial assistance has come to the top now. Yeah. Now that folks have been out of work for weeks and weeks, feels like financial assistance to those who were serving. You know, we've had lots of requests that our church, financial assistance I would say. Secondly is PPE. And I would say thirdly as food, probably food and PPE, running neck and neck. But financial assistance now is coming into play.


Tommy Rosson:

Yeah. Well, and that's, I mean, again, things like your food pantry, you know, if food is not number one, that's a good thing, but it's because there's people living into it. So, I again, I think it's so important that we talk about, you know, what the impact is in different communities so that we can kind of understand that it's so different to pastor in different places.


Johnny Gentry:

Yeah. Yup. So it's a blessing to get to serve in such a time as this, I tell you. It's heavy lifting at times, but God is faithful. Every time we turn around, he's making a way. He's been just the Alpha and Omega and the beginning and the end of everything that we've done. We're very, very grateful for Northeast, for Houston Responds for all the partners. And so Houston Responds has made an amazing impact on Northeast as it relates to disaster readiness and preparedness. So we're very, very grateful for that relationship.


Tommy Rosson:

Well, thank you. Anything else you'd like to add before we go?


Johnny Gentry:

Well, just pray Northeast as we pray for you, as we pray for the body of Christ in all the churches that are connected. It's a very resilient community, very loving God fearing community in many respects. And there's just a will and a desire to press on and to make it. This too shall pass. That's the message that a lot of the pastors are sharing and I think around the world was sharing, Hey, this is going to pass. We're going to make it through it. And so, just know that that Northeast is strong and resilient and it's very, very grateful and very, very prayerful and just believe in God for, for great things to continue to happen to the community.


Tommy Rosson:

That's awesome. And you know, this is such a great challenge to not only be a part of the MASKS FOR ALL campaign in regards to helping to make masks, those kinds of things, but many people are buying them. And a lot of what we're hearing now is just why don't I just buy one and donate, you know, buy five and donate four. And I love that. Well, you know, "wear one, give one." And so we're seeing that. So that's another way churches can participate, especially if they've got a little bit more resources. And that will allow us to help get more and more masks out to Northeast Harris, Northeast Houston to do that. So, Johnny, thank you so much for joining me.


Johnny Gentry:

Thanks Tom. Appreciate you. God bless.


Tommy Rosson:

Pastors, if you'd like more information about the Northeast coalition about what they're doing, just look down in the notes on Facebook or on our webpage and there will be web links to that. If you would like more resources about COVID-19, you can go to HoustonResponds.org/COVID-19. Thank you for joining us today.

Additional COVID-19 resources for congregations available here.

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