The New York City (NYC) metro area remains one of the hardest hit areas in the United States with the coronavirus, as the number of cases and deaths continue to rise.
Twenty-two Wesleyan churches in the greater NYC area are offering encouragement, prayer and support amidst the crisis.
“Most of our pastors are in rather intense areas,” said Dr. Karl Eastlack, district superintendent for the Northeast District.
Senior pastor at New Hope Family Worship Center (NHFWC), Dr. Anthony Graham, who also serves as the network leader for NYC area pastors, said, “There are many people that have been affected, and many people attending our church may have a person in their family or somewhere along the line that has been affected by the crisis.
“With the illness, there’s also the lockdown, which means folks are not leaving their homes to work, posing a financial crisis as well. This is greatly affecting U.S. citizens and those who are foreign born.”
He explained that NHWC had been serving meals at its soup kitchen to around 600 people and managed a food pantry that provided groceries to 500 people weekly. The COVID-19 crisis closed both services.
“We have had to cease operation of our soup kitchen,” said Graham. “Just a couple days ago, we had to hand out meals by the door and eventually we had to stop. The same has happened with our food pantry. We have had to cease operating. We put food outside on the sidewalk, and that food was gone in a matter of minutes.”
Graham noted that all area food pantries have been forced to close. With so many dependent upon food assistance, he wonders how people are sustaining themselves.
“Not only is this a physical crisis,” said Graham. “It is a spiritual crisis because people would normally come to church where they would receive spiritual nourishment.” NHFWC is streaming services and reaching more people, but Graham expresses concern for reaching persons who do not have a computer or the Internet.
Branden and Jenn Petersen, Resurrection Life NYC co-pastors, are “praying on the 8,” with Zoom calls made up of church congregants who can connect at 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m. to debrief and pray. During a recent call, several doctors shared how things are going in the city, medically-speaking. They reported a hospital in Queens had around 17 deaths in one day, doctors and nurses have two masks a week to use and some are using trash bags as gowns.
“Seeing the church step in right now is a beautiful thing,” said Jenn. “I think we all want to do more. But all of our medical people are saying the best thing you can do right now is stay home so that we don’t have to see you in the hospital.”
The Petersens are also seeing the financial effects, as friends of small businesses in NYC have had to close doors, and “they don’t know if they will ever open again.” Some business owners are serving those in the medical field. One East Harlem coffee shop owner delivered pastries and coffee to local hospitals.
The virus is affecting the Resurrection Life congregation in a way that others may not think of initially.
“We have a young congregation with a lot of young professionals,” said Branden, “and I would say maybe close to half of our congregation has left the city and just gone home to parents or someplace else.”
Senior pastor at Grace Family Fellowship in the Bronx, Dr. Lennox Pigott shared, “The reality is that things are as terrible as they been reported. I have my wife and a couple of other healthcare workers, nurses and doctors, in my congregation. They are overwhelmed. The unbelievable toll that it’s taken on people, it’s hard to describe.”
“We are doing the best we can” with caring for elderly people in the congregation, he added. Pigott is praying for foreign-born citizens he knows who may contract COVID-19 because he doesn’t know what would happen to them within the healthcare system.
Nagela St. Fleur is a nurse practitioner who attends NewBorn Wesleyan Church in Newark, New Jersey. She reiterated that although coronavirus is not new, COVID-19 is, and the best way to stay healthy is to stay home.
“As of now, we don’t have any treatment for it,” said St. Fleur. “So, the best treatment now is the prevention. The prevention is to stay away from people, wash your hands and just isolate yourself from other people.”
Bianca Saint Louis serves alongside her father, Rev. Rochemond Saint Louis, at Ebenezer Wesleyan Church in Huntington, New York. The congregation consists mainly of healthcare workers, elderly individuals and Haitian immigrants.
“I think it hits different particularly for underrepresented communities, primarily immigrant communities, folks who aren’t necessarily in the system,” said Bianca. “As well as folks who are deep in the healthcare system. There’s just a lot of strain.”
Rev. Donavon Shoemaker, pastor at Jersey City First Wesleyan Church, said the church services are being livestreamed for the first time and that different people within the church are making food like chicken soup for those who are ill, adding “we just drop it at the door, text and run. And that’s the best we can do right now.”
A new church plant for Northeast District has been affected. Esperanza de Vida Community Church’s March 29 launch had to be postponed. Although disappointing to pastors Daniel and Ada Cifuentes, they are trying to encourage persons who are a part of their church plant.
Reverend Holly Chowtie pastors at Canarsie Holiness Tabernacle in Brooklyn. Three times daily (Monday-Friday), congregants meet for prayer via phone. March 22 was the first time the church livestreamed its services.
“Quite a few people were present [to view via livestream],” said Chowtie. “I thought of before that we keep our services within the four walls. But now with the new reality and this virus, we had to make different arrangements, which I also count as a blessing because you’re able to take the Word of God far and wide.”
That same Sunday, after livestreaming the service, a church member stood outside and shared the Gospel with the community. Chowtie believes people listened to the message and trusts God will use that message to plant seeds.
Graham shared that this current crisis in the country “is drawing men and women to himself” and shared an example. He told about a gentleman who came to Graham and told him he needed a new kidney. Graham invited him to church, and the man attended the next Sunday. After the service, Graham anointed him with oil and prayed specifically that God would give him a kidney. Days later, Graham received a call from the man’s sister saying he’d received a kidney that was “a perfect match,” and that the kidney was functioning as it should.
“I am trusting God that these kinds of situations will continue, that people will continue to look to God in the midst of this crisis and that our Christ will be real to them,” said Graham.
Drs. Clinton and Pearl Glasgow of World Impact International Ministries in Rosedale offered anointing and prayer over each family in their church at a Sunday service before the lockdown. Family members were instructed to anoint and pray over their homes, asking God to protection them from the virus. Both pastors stressed the importance of prayer, asking God to protect lives and homes in Jesus’ name.
As NYC pastors navigate these times of ministry in uncharted waters, they are also ministering to grieving people.
The Petersens are offering counseling at Resurrection Life. Branden believes grief will affect the Church positively.
“I think the Church in the city is going to change,” said Branden. “I think we’re just praying that there would be the point of potential revival — that the church in New York City would rise up and become what Jesus is wanting it to be.
“I think we can help people in their grief but also help people see they have opportunities,” Branden added. “It’s not about how do we as churches just survive this time and then sort of go back to church as normal. I think, really, this is a call to how is God accelerating the change in the Church in order to meet the needs and the Gospel opportunity that we have in this culture. So, we’re just praying that, on the one hand, yes, let’s help people with the grief. But on the other hand, how do we help people see opportunity and hope as we move forward?”
Graham encouraged his fellow pastors on the Zoom call to stay connected to Jesus.
“You cannot give what you do not have,” said Graham. “And, so, if we are to continue ministering, we need to get in touch with our Savior.”
Branden Petersen encouraged pastors too.
“I read an article a few days ago that we need to prepare for the winter, not just the blizzard, and this can feel like the blizzard in the sense that it’s all happening right now,” said Petersen. “But the reality is the disruption could be months. How are we, as pastors, going to be available for people and our churches if we spend it all right now? And so, just encouragement to my fellow pastors — just how are we taking care of ourselves now for the long haul?”
Pigott said it’s important to believe God and trust him and follow guidelines set forth by government leaders. But people are fearful too and need to be met where they are.
“We have to acknowledge that this is a real phenomenon and that it poses a great danger, especially when we’re dealing with others,” said Pigott. “I think of the elderly people in my congregation. I think of their fears. I cannot deny their fears. I’m appealing to my fellow pastors, because of the line of work as a psychologist that I do, that we do not deny, do not underplay the fears of people.”
Branden Petersen believes this is a missional time for the church.
“How can the Church be the visible Church during this season?” said Branden. “I just don’t know the answer at this point. We’re connecting over Zoom. But as this goes on, how can the Church in New York rise up and be the visible Church and really be the hope for people?
“How do we do that with people that aren’t even connected with us yet? It seems to be a real puzzle, how we continue to do what we all want to do, when we actually can’t at this time,” said Petersen, “So, I think prayers for missionary imagination [are needed].”
The reality of what the Church can be is becoming apparent across the country.
“We don’t have four walls anymore,” said Eastlack. “And I pray to God that we never go back to that mentality that the Church can only exist in four walls. That was just two weeks ago. May the Lord help us to see a whole new day in a whole new way.”
“In the midst of all we teach Christ, we represent Christ” said Graham. “And this is actually a great hour for the Church. The Bible lets us know that when there was darkness in Egypt, there was a light in Goshen.
“And, so, we are believing God that in the midst of this crisis, that Christ will be lifted up. It’s a time of crisis, but it’s also a time when Christ can be magnified.”