As the human and economic toll from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic mounts, EPC churches in some of the hardest-hit areas of the United States have witnessed the death of parishioners in quarantine among other unprecedented challenges as they continue to minister to their congregations and communities.
In New York, which has experienced more cases statewide than any single country outside the U.S., grief and hope comingle in a region under lockdown.
“Every Sunday is a mixture of sadness, grief, lament, beauty, joy, and hope,” said Matt Brown, Senior Pastor of Resurrection Brooklyn. “Traffic in the city has decreased, but the sirens are incessant day and night. But in the midst of sickness and death God has gifted us with spectacular blooming magnolias and cherry trees.”
Brown said the congregation mirrors the city.
“We are in a very difficult season right now. We have growing numbers of sick people in our churches and had our first death on April 2. Fortunately, none of our staff has fallen ill yet. We are trying to cope with Sunday worship as best we can—like everyone else.”
Another coronavirus hotspot is in Detroit, 600 miles west of Brooklyn.
Scott McKee, Senior Pastor of Ward Church in Northville, Mich., said the situation is “pretty bad here in Detroit.” He reported that the church staff and congregation are mourning the recent loss of a faithful member.
“He was 79 years old and a very active church volunteer. What is heartbreaking is that his wife was not able to be with him, and now, in her grief, is not able to be with family. She has COVID-19 and is home in quarantine.”
Despite the heartache, McKee said church members are stepping up to help in the face of the pandemic.
“A young medical resident in our church was worried about becoming infected and passing it on to his wife and young children. A member of our church loaned him their travel trailer, which is now parked in front of the doctor’s house and has become his home away from home.”
In addition, more than 100 volunteers from the church have mobilized to sew 1,000 face masks for local nursing homes and healthcare facilities, as well as at-risk church and community members and hospitals.
“God is faithful. Times are troubled. Jesus’ Church prevails,” McKee proclaimed.
For Randy Brown, Pastor of Military Avenue EPC in Detroit, personal illness has slowed—but not stopped—his efforts to address the needs of the congregation.
“I am extremely busy trying to get up to speed on streaming our classes and services online,” Brown said, noting that he came down with the seasonal flu and has been in isolation since early March. “I have had to replace much of our dated internet equipment, as well as learning new software.”
He reported that none of the church’s members have contracted the coronavirus, but confessed, “the isolation is getting to people.”
Back in New York, volunteers from Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan helped set up a Samaritan’s Purse field hospital about three miles from the church in Central Park. The 14-tent, 68-bed respiratory care unit opened on April 1 and is designed especially for coronavirus response.
Jason Harris, Senior Pastor of Central, reported that “a lot of positive work” is taking place during the crisis, noting that volunteers from the church also are preparing hundreds of sack lunches for the city’s homeless each week. Yet he echoed Matt Brown’s comments that the good is mixed with heartache.
“Several people within our congregation contracted the virus, and we suffered our first loss on April 2. An elderly member contracted the virus, and then fell in his home fracturing nine ribs, one of which punctured his lung. He was rushed to the hospital Wednesday night and died peacefully Thursday morning. The saddest part is that none of us could visit him in the hospital.”
Harris emphasized that the member received “exceptional care” from the attending doctor, who “rested his hand on his shoulder as he breathed his last. This has brought comfort to the family and friends.”
Across the East River from Manhattan, members of Resurrection Brooklyn’s Williamsburg campus (one of five in Resurrection’s network of churches in New York’s largest borough), are communicating their experience of isolation to the rest of the congregation by email.
“Anything that reveals a bit of light ultimately points to the One who is the Light of the World,” said Vito Aiuto, Lead Pastor of the Williamsburg congregation.
Steve Brune, a self-described “seminary dropout” who now works in finance, offered the following perspective during Holy Week:
“As we celebrate the season of Lent in anticipation of Good Friday and Easter, we would do well to imagine the ultimate moment of Christian emotional dislocation and vertigo as we see our King executed outside the city like a common criminal. The hopes and dreams of the faith community crushed—overwhelming feelings of tilting or spinning.” Brune wrote. “The losses we are experiencing are real and should never be diminished. We have absorbed tangible losses, fractured community, emotional dislocation, and severe vertigo.”
He added that “grief and outrage at these forms of evil and pain and at death itself” are normal and acceptable responses—but are not the end of the story.
“Then it happens,” he wrote. “Easter comes. Resurrection. A new song of the Lord.”
by Tim Yarbrough