Denise Allen

In early February 2020, I accepted a job as the Divisional Creative Arts Coordinator for the Salvation Army Western Pennsylvania Division. Having grown up in the army and working in ministry for many years, as well as having a passion for performing and creative arts, I couldn’t believe God had opened the door for a full time position which perfectly combined the two. Four weeks later I found myself leaving my home in Australia to begin my new job in Pittsburgh, PA. Everyone in the division was so hospitable and welcoming, and although I was anxious as most people would be when starting a new job or moving to a new country, I knew I was blessed to be in a full time arts position. I was very excited to start meeting everyone in the division and to dive headfirst into planning for our summer conservatory program.

However, after just two days of working in the office to complete my orientation and training, the world as we knew it suddenly came to a standstill. Covid-19 had escalated to a point a lot of us hadn’t seen coming.

Even just one week earlier I could never have imagined how much the world was about to change. Planes stopped flying; events were cancelled; schools, colleges, theatres, shopping malls and restaurants closed; and hospitals were overrun with patients. At work, all kids and arts programs were cancelled for the foreseeable future. One by one, all of the upcoming divisional and territorial events were also cancelled, to ensure everyone’s safety. The very next Monday we were no longer even able to work from our office at DHQ, as most workplaces transitioned to working from home to keep people as safe as possible. In this sudden change, my Music and Arts team found ourselves immersed in new jobs on the frontlines. One thing I have always loved about being part of the Army is how much of a priority it is to provide for people’s physical needs, alongside the spiritual. This is especially true in times of crisis with Emergency Disaster Services always being ready to help. Having just experienced this in Australia as we lived through one of the worst bush fire seasons our country has ever seen, I was all too familiar with watching my world change overnight and seeing The Salvation Army spring into immediate action.
This, however, meant that my job quickly turned from planning a summer musical and getting involved in arts programs, to a hands-on warehouse job. Our weekly tasks on the frontlines at one of our local corps consist of; helping to ensure the cleanliness of all floors and surfaces; accepting food deliveries and donations; packing food-bank boxes; handing out food packages; dismantling boxes; and packing hundreds of lunches to then be distributed to the local children. At first I didn’t think twice about jumping in—I was happy to help as much as I could in such a difficult time. I was, and still am, so grateful to have a job and to do what little I can. In the beginning it seemed like it would only be for a few weeks, and then we would be able to get back to normal. However, after nearly two months of doing the same thing every day I would be lying if I said it didn’t start to get challenging, both physically and emotionally. I constantly feel an overwhelming sense of sadness for all those suffering greatly through this pandemic, while also grieving everything I have left behind for this completely unexpected new life.

My creative arts job was meant to be focused on helping people use their talents and creativity in a way that would honour God, and help to point others to Him. Instead, the extent of my creativity has suddenly been limited to how quickly I can pack and fold brown paper lunch bags.

Denise Allen | Packing boxes of food during COVID19

For a while I was upset about this, because I couldn’t understand why God had brought me so far from home, right as a pandemic hit. I had felt God’s hand in this whole opportunity as He kept miraculously opening many doors for me to be in ministry in the US. However, I had no idea why He had brought me here for such a time as this—just to be in a job I was now unable to do and to feel stranded in a different country, physically unable to even get home to my family if I needed to. With all of the new social changes and trying to assimilate into a new city while being worried about my loved ones at home, I felt so lonely, isolated, and scared. Then of course I felt guilty for feeling these things, knowing that others who were sick, working hard in hospitals, losing jobs, or enduring terrible living conditions, were way worse off than me. However, I know that no matter what is going on in our world, we serve a loving and compassionate God. Through this time I have had to remind myself that while it is good to have perspective, God still cares about every single person’s worries and varying circumstances, offering us unconditional peace and comfort when we go to Him.
So, even though this has been a hard time, through this whole experience I have been reminded of two important things. One is that we have to keep trusting in God’s plans for our lives, rather than our own. We can make our own plans, even thinking they are in line with God’s plans but ultimately at the end of the day, God alone knows our future. As it says so simply in Proverbs 16:9, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.” When we are completely surrendered to Him and declare that we want to follow His plan for our lives, it might not always look exactly how we imagined it. We have to trust that His plan is best and keep believing that His plans will prosper us and not harm us. (Jeremiah 29:11)
The other is that as Christ followers, we need to offer everything we do back to Him. We must be willing to offer our all to Him with a grateful heart—whether that be our skills, talent or time—and He will use it for His good. Sometimes that can look like singing and acting on a stage in front of many people, or like right now, it can look like putting food in lunch bags in the back of a warehouse so that a child doesn’t have to go hungry. No matter how different these tasks are, or how different life might look right now compared to what I thought it would, if I continually offer all I do up to Him, God will make something beautiful out of it and use it all for His glory.
I know that completely trusting in God and giving our all to Him is not always easy, nor is it something to be taken lightly. I have always loved the worship song ‘Oceans’, by Hillsong. The lyrics say,“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever you would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander and my faith will be made stronger, in the presence of my saviour.” To ask God to take us where our trust has no borders, wherever He calls us, is a big deal—so we need to be ready and willing. Right now, still with so many unknowns, my prayer is that through all of this our faith will only be made stronger and that we will feel God’s comforting presence throughout this strange season, wherever He may be leading us. God is still good. He is an ever-present help in time of pain and suffering.

Our plans may have changed in this time, but thankfully His good plans remain.

Rustbelt Mayberry Photography for the Listening Library: Beaver County