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Church planter’s ministry pivots during height of pandemic

Donning full COVID-19 protective gear – two sets of gloves, a mask, a plastic face shield and a hazmat-style jumpsuit – Rusty Ford, a church planter in Seville, Spain, entered a nursing home in crisis during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

He’d spend the better part of the next two months serving in any needed capacity at Joaquín Rosillo nursing home in San Juan de Aznalfarache (Seville) – a nursing home that was deemed too dangerous for most people to enter.

Each evening as he came home to his wife Jennifer and four small children, they’d go to one side of the house while he put his potentially compromised clothes in the wash and took a shower before he touched his family.

Rusty and Jennifer Ford, church planters in Seville, Spain, with their children. During the height of the pandemic, the entire family found ways to serve their community.

By April 2020, nearly 80 residents of the home had been diagnosed with COVID. Twenty-four of the residents died due to complications from the disease.

Spain was under lockdown, and many people were panicked. At that point, no one knew how the virus was spreading or much about it at all. The country remained locked down for six weeks. People were not allowed out of their homes except for trips to the hospital, pharmacy or grocery store. Ford knew he had to do something.

He was granted access to the underserved nursing home only after jumping through red tape. While there, he did a little bit of everything.

“I’d go into rooms, and I’d help clean people. I’d help feed people. Basically, whatever needed to be taken care of, I was there to do,” Ford said.

Many of these elderly people already had limited mobility. In the early days of his time there, residents weren’t even allowed to move from room to room for meals or socialization. They were isolated.

But in his capacity as a volunteer, Ford was able to go into the rooms and visit with the residents. In a country that is less than 1 percent evangelical Christian, it was crucial to offer some form of hope in the height of the crisis.

“I was getting chances to pray with people, because people are talking now,” he said. “Everybody I was dealing with has basically never heard the Gospel. And I was also getting a chance to share the Gospel with some of the coworkers.”

IMB President Paul Chitwood commended Ford, saying he is just one of the more than 3,600 IMB missionaries who continued to share the Gospel amid the pandemic.

“With literally thousands of short-term mission trips cancelled over the past 18 months, Southern Baptists have not been left without a witness among the nations,” Chitwood said. “The risks and challenges our missionaries continue to face in light of COVID-19 are enormous, but they remain hard at work.”

When the residents of the nursing home where Ford volunteered were once again allowed out of their rooms, one of the managers approached Ford one day with an idea.

“Rusty, you’re a priest, right?” he asked. Since the country is predominantly Catholic, the idea of a pastor wasn’t familiar.

“More or less,” Ford answered. When the man asked Ford if he wanted to hold religious services, he jumped at the opportunity.

Within 20 minutes, Ford was sharing the hope of the Gospel with 12 residents before their exercise class.

“There was a ton of hopelessness because they’ve seen 24 of their friends die, and lots of people were sick,” Ford said. “I got a chance to share the Gospel with around 10 or 15 people.”

After that first time, they decided to make the service a weekly thing. Every Monday at 10 a.m., he shared the love of Christ with the residents. The group grew to an average of 25 or 30. Of those, Ford could only identify one woman who was believer.

Eventually, having volunteers inside the facility became a liability, and Ford was forced to give up the ministry he’d started. But he is thankful for the time serving in the nursing home, despite the risks involved.

He joked that partially he was thankful simply to get out of the house, since being on lockdown in a townhouse with four small kids wasn’t easy. But mostly he was thankful for the opportunity to share the Gospel each week with 25-30 people who didn’t know Christ.

“Typically, in our strategy [as church planters] we wouldn’t focus on nursing home residents,” he said. “It’s totally outside of the box of our normal ministry.”

He is glad the pandemic provided an avenue to share the Gospel he might not have had under normal circumstances.