When the COVID-19 pandemic led to shutdowns in East Tennessee, the need for the Church Street Benevolence team almost doubled.

Prior to the pandemic, the Benevolence Team helped an average of eight Knoxville community members pay rent or their KUB utilities bill each week. Now, the need has increased 77% across Knoxville and an average of 20 community members receive help each week from the team.

The Benevolence Team itself was different for most of 2020, with church member Keith Biggers taking the lead on most logistical and operational needs, while also taking the influx of calls between COVID-19 government-issue payments. Biggers stepped away from the team at the end of last year and church member Rob Keener took his place. 

And while the Benevolence Team isn’t new, the past few months have shown a new way of doing what the Benevolence Team has always done — help those in need. 

“I feel very excited and energized,” Keener says. “We’re building the airplane while flying the airplane, but that’s okay.” 

To adapt to the needs of Knoxville community members, Keener connected new volunteers to virtual training through the Compassion Coalition, a community organization helping Knoxville’s churches understand the needs of the community and how to serve them. Keener also reorganized the process for meeting with a new client. 

Prior to Keener’s leadership, a few volunteers would meet in-person with potential clients for about 30 minutes at a time. Volunteers would listen to their story and determine the best way to help them, which was typically a microgrant from the church of $100-$300. 

Once the pandemic hit East Tennessee, Biggers handled everything from the office in the Christian Life Center (CLC) to meeting with potential clients. Most interactions with community members were a one-time occurrence, and no follow-ups were completed. 

“Now, we’ve shifted our emphasis to not just be a ‘one-and-done’ with the client,” Keener says, “but rather to walk with the client and be on a journey with them as they participate in their own recovery.” 

Now, each trained volunteer is responsible for one day a week, Monday through Saturday, and they answer any incoming inquiries left on the Benevolence Team voicemail throughout the day. Each volunteer will also follow-up with their previous clients to ensure they have received the care and assistance needed. Volunteers call clients using an app on their phone that protects their personal phone number as the one connected to the voicemail. 

Volunteers listen to each client’s story, and take careful attention to figuring out the best way to assist with financial strains. 

“We listen empathetically,” Keener says. “We’re always trying to reflect the love of Jesus with our clients.” 

In most cases, clients can be directed to governmental services and funding. The Compassion Coalition helped Keener and the Benevolence Team understand the extensive financial resources available to those facing eviction, which during the pandemic and unprecedented job loss, became the top priority. 

The process for individuals applying for financial aid from the government can be difficult, so volunteers are intentional with their conversations, following up with clients as often as possible. 

“I hope that we can become more relational than transactional and build more relationships for our clients that will lead them to come out of their financial situations,” volunteer Ann Reego says. “I also hope they see the love of Christ through us and are led to find fatih if they are not currently involved.”

Relationships are also built in more emergent situations, such as a disconnect notice from KUB with a few days left. In situations where there isn’t time to apply and wait for government aid, Church Street steps in with microgrants, which are similar to what was given to each client prior to the pandemic. 

Looking forward, Keener hopes that a new hybrid system can help connect more clients to Church Street volunteers. While serving on the Benevolence team is “not for the faint of heart,” Keener can’t help but think of the A-Team and John “Hannibal” Smith’s famous quote: “I love it when a plan comes together.” 

“That’s how I feel. I love that the plan has come together and that we have motivated, caring volunteers,” Keener says. “It’s exciting and this should be able to stand the test of time.”