While the COVID-19 pandemic seized communities in Oakland, California, the City of Refuge United Church of Christ, founded by Rev. Yvette Flunder ’97 (D.Min.) in 1991 to unite a gospel ministry with a social ministry, ramped up its Word-of-Mouth Food Pantry services.
“As the pandemic raged, so did food insecurity for so many who lost employment or became unsheltered,” says Flunder, who today is also presiding bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a national coalition of congregations and faith- and justice-based organizations throughout the U.S., U.K., Mexico, and countries in Africa and Asia.
The pantry ministry quickly became an outdoor drive-through operation, in addition to delivering hot meals to housebound residents. The initiative helped combat not only the physical need of hunger, says Flunder, “it also provided a response to social isolation … those alone at home are provided with friendly faces and good nutrition.”
An award-winning gospel music artist and the author of Where the Edge Gathers: A Theology of Homiletic and Radical Inclusion, Flunder’s international activism reaches well beyond Oakland. She has spent years ensuring inclusion of all people, especially those who have been marginalized, ignored, or overlooked by the church.
“It would be refreshing, wouldn’t it, if we could move away from the ‘us and them-ness’ that is so in our atmosphere,” said Flunder in February as part of an interfaith group of LGBTQ and faith leaders who spoke in support of passing civil rights legislation before the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on the Equality Act (it was passed on Feb. 25, 2021). “There really only is ‘us.’ And we have each other’s concerns at heart. We owe that to the generations that are coming after us.”
The youth of today fill Flunder with hope. “I have lived long enough to witness several civil rights movements,” she says. “However, this most recent movement for justice is very different to me. Our young people strategically planned women’s marches, Black Lives Matter marches, supported marches against Asian hate. What that says to me is, those who are just barely voting age and becoming voting age across race and gender or sexual orientation don’t just dream of a better world, they intend to fight and vote and contend for a better world.”
A native San Franciscan and third-generation preacher, Bishop Flunder’s dedication to her congregation has been a life’s work. Years ago, during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Flunder and staff opened the Bay Area Hazard-Ashley House, Walker House, and Restoration House, providing support services for the AIDS community. She is also currently a co-creator and regular guest on the weekly Beyond the Gatekeepers broadcast on Facebook, and was a prominent voice in this year’s PBS documentary series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.
Normally, her schedule is filled with travel as a teacher and lecturer, but the pandemic kept her at home with her congregation. “For me, it is important to use this time to define and redefine the role of church and religion,” she says. “We are in the midst of discovering ‘church unusual vs. church as usual.’ What has been a blessing to me, is not simply being present for my people but to be present with my people.”
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