The COVID-19 crisis reveals the power of holistic community support for Southeast Fort Wayne

According to census data analyzed by UnitedStatesZipCodes.org, Allen County is the only county in the country with both the highest and lowest levels of poverty in its state. And here, the disparity exists between two zip codes a mere 11 miles apart.

As a pastor in the poorest, 46803 zip code of Southeast Fort Wayne, this is something Melissa Fisher knows well. Fisher

Over the years, her congregation at Faith United Methodist Church has come together across racial, lingual, generational, and socio-economic boundaries to serve their neighbors.

Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s seeing a similar and more pervasive response arising across the 11-county region of Northeast Indiana, as residents from all walks of life rally around Southeast Fort Wayne’s health and future.

Fisher is one of three founding members of a grassroots volunteer movement called Southeast Fort Wayne Community Response (SFWCR). It all started on March 22 when she came together with Lady Sandra Payton of Come As You Are Community Church and Sheila Curry-Campbell of Pilgrim Baptist Church and the Fort Wayne NAACP to pool their resources and make masks for Parkview Hospital.

As the group’s capacity grew, they extended their efforts to make and distribute free masks for their neighbors in Southeast Fort Wayne, too.

To date, their networks have made and distributed more than 4,067 masks total: 2,000 for Parkview and another 2,067 and counting for Southeast residents, Fisher says.

Southeast Fort Wayne Community Response (SFWCR) asks community members to make free masks for Southeast Fort Wayne.

To get masks into the hands of community members, SFWCR has been partnering with Southeast area churches, groups, and organizations, like the developing Utopian Community Grocery store. Utopian distributed about 150 masks at its free curbside BBQ pickup event on April 19, and there was need for hundreds more, Fisher says.

With this in mind, SFWCR is hoping to produce and distribute 10,000 masks as quickly as they can, and while the initiative was started by local churches, groups of all types are pitching in to help reach this goal, Fisher notes.

Everyone from Fort Wayne Pride members to rural Lion’s Club members are sewing masks for Southeast Fort Wayne.

“We’ve had people from Harlan, Columbia City, Ligonier, and even a guy from Convoy, Ohio, volunteering with us,” she says. “This crosses all racial and socioeconomic lines. All different types of people are serving and helping for a common goal.”

SFWCR teaches people how to make masks.

It’s the power of this growing regional momentum, awareness, and community connectivity that is likely to be a gamechanger for Southeast even after the pandemic subsides.

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Along with being the most economically depressed zip code in Indiana, the 46803 zip code is also an outlier in Northeast Indiana for its large minority populations. In parts of the quadrant, 50-80 percent of residents are non-white, the majority being black, Hispanic, and Burmese.

That’s been another impetus behind SFWCR’s work, Fisher says. By sheer numbers, the virus is hitting black communities disproportionately hard—even the country’s wealthiest black communities. Analysts believe the reason is a combination of factors, including structural conditions that inform pre-existing health disparities, like access to food, on top of chronic stress and prejudice.

A white woman herself, Fisher has black friends and mentors who have made her aware of the complexities in how race impacts society. More than that, she says she’s just inspired to be better at loving her neighbors, like Jesus Christ.

“The black community is a community of people who have been underserved, but also oppressed in this country,” Fisher says. “Resources have never been distributed equally. As I learned that, and as I grew in my ministry, I learned that’s who Jesus was. He was fighting for the people who did not have resources.”

A booth on black history at Faith United Methodist Church.

A similar sentiment has inspired Southeast community leaders, like Cedric Walker and Nygel Simms, to get involved in the movement, too.

Walker is the Founder and Senior Pastor of Joshua's Temple Missionary Baptist Church on the Southeast side and Founder/CEO of the community housing development organization Joshua's Hand Inc. As such, he knew that Southeast Fort Wayne is one of the most densely populated areas in all of Northeast Indiana, making it prone to spreading viruses.

On top of the impact that COVID-19 is having on black communities, close living quarters could be lethal.

Yet, as Walker was getting some essentials in Southeast about four weeks ago, he noticed that not many people in the area were wearing masks. This concerned him that residents might not be taking the pandemic seriously or might be inclined to rely on their faith rather than take health safety precautions.

“I’m not a person who lives in a lot of fear, but I do try to be aware,” Walker says.

Cedric Walker and his team at Joshua's Hand.

With this in mind, he called up Simms, Regional Director of Youth For Christ of Northern Indiana, and other community leaders about starting a mask-making initiative for Southeast. Simms had similar concerns for the black community, which is prone to respiratory illnesses due to stress.

When the two heard about SFWCR’s work, they were eager to get involved and to help establish some Southeast Fort Wayne pickup sites for mask distribution.

In the past three weeks, Youth for Christ alone has contributed more than 700 masks and counting to the effort, Simms says.

Residents across Fort Wayne are making masks for Southeast.

Beyond the tangible benefit of the masks themselves, what Walker particularly likes about the SFWCR’s work is that it’s not trying to start a new organization in Southeast. Instead, it’s just encouraging neighbors to help neighbors, and it’s inspiring people to think strategically, using their networks and organizations to collaborate for the greater good.

“People keep asking: Who’s the leader of this group?” Walker says. “Well, there is no leader. The last thing we need is another organization. Many of us are cross-pollinating, integrating services, and developing new partnerships to meet the many economic needs in Southeast Fort Wayne right now.”

It’s these collaborations and strategic partnerships that Walker sees outlasting the pandemic and giving Southeast Fort Wayne hope to emerge stronger in the future.

Just take a weekly Facebook Live forum that Simms started as an example.

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Many of the issues coming to light during the COVID-19 pandemic are not new problems in Fort Wayne or any other city, Simms says. Disparities in food access, health conditions, educational opportunities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, just to name a few, have been issues in the U.S. for a long time. And the Fort Wayne area is no different. Simms

After all, Allen County is home to both the wealthiest and the poorest zip codes in the state.

But now, under the added pressure of the pandemic, these disparities are coming to light with a new vengeance, forcing communities to address them.

“This is a time for us to tell the community that we believe that we can join forces and tackle some of these issues,” Simms explains.

With this in mind, he called his friend Iric Headley of Fort Wayne UNITED a few weeks ago with a proposition. He wanted to start a weekly online forum for the Southeast community to fill another longstanding gap he was seeing in the community: The gap in information.

While there is a lot of critical information and resources about COVID-19 being shared with Fort Wayne residents in the media during this pandemic, there’s still a gap between the media and the underprivileged communities they’re attempting to serve, Simms explains.

“People receive information where they have relationship equity, and a lot of people, specifically in Southeast Fort Wayne, may not have relationship equity with the news or other organizations providing information right now,” he says. “So how can we get community members with relational equity in Southeast to begin to have crucial conversations on issues the pandemic has magnified?”

Simms and Headley are hosting weekly Facebook Live forums with community leaders.

He, Headley, and other Southeast leaders are working to build these connections by striking up virtual conversations with leaders across the city who are experts in various subject matter.

So far, their weekly Facebook Live forums (Thursday nights at 7:30 p.m.) have covered everything from the mental health impacts of the pandemic to the impact on black communities, the education system, and the local workforce.

Simms hopes the chance to openly discuss these issues in Southeast will benefit the students he serves at Youth For Christ, too.

“There’s a lot of social issues that jeopardize our kids from living the lives we want them to live out as citizens in Southeast,” he explains.

Simms is the Regional Director of Youth For Christ of Northern Indiana.

Since he and Headley launched the series on their respective Facebook pages for Youth for Christ and Fort Wayne UNITED, the conversations have taken off, attracting thousands of views each, Simms says.

“This really magnifies that we need a holistic approach to bring life to the Southeast side of Fort Wayne,” he says.

Walker agrees, adding that it’s these types of holistic, grassroots community efforts that excite him the most about Southeast Fort Wayne’s future.

While some of the issues arising during the pandemic are uncomfortable and difficult to discuss, the key to having difficult conversations is taking an asset-based perspective, focusing on solutions and what’s working, Walker says.

“What I’ve learned is to stop focusing on what’s wrong, and start focusing on what’s right,” he explains. “People talk about divisions and rifts and all that, but I believe that if you give that stuff your attention, then you give it life.”

And while the pandemic has no doubt been challenging for Southeast Fort Wayne, it’s also waking up residents across the region to the realities here and their potential to make a difference.

“Crisis situations cause people to understand our need for each other,” Walker says. “We can get very busy just living and trying to be successful people that we forget that humanity is largely dependent on humanity. We need each other, and sometimes it takes a crisis to help us remember that. While we have the tragedy of loss, we also have the victory of unification.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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