NYC church offers care through virus crisis

Congregation in epicenter of COVID-19 offers support, connection and hope

Jun 1, 2020 by and

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“I’m running low on food. Is there anything you can do to help?” said a text message to Pastor Elvis Martinez from a woman who attends Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan, a Mennonite congregation in New York.

He started his car, made a trip to the grocery store to pick up some essentials for the woman and her three children, and delivered them to her apartment.

Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan serves the community, such as the 2019 Thanksgiving meal for church attenders and the wider community. Though the church is not meeting in person due to COVID-19, the leadership team helps provide groceries and support for rent and bills to those who need it. — Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan

Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan serves the community, such as the 2019 Thanksgiving meal for church attenders and the wider community. Though the church is not meeting in person due to COVID-19, the leadership team helps provide groceries and support for rent and bills to those who need it. — Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan

A core ministry of the church of 180-250 members is supporting immigrants as they build new lives in New York City. Now, the leadership is working to support the community’s financial, emotional and physical health in the midst of the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S.

“We’ve always helped people in need with food, water, clothing, bills — this is part of what we do,” Martinez said. But with strict stay-at-home orders, layoffs and reduced hours, more people now find themselves struggling to make ends meet.

Adding to the stress, people who are undocumented are wary of accessing public services and resources like food banks, food stamps and other relief programs out of fear of being turned away or deported.

“For some people, this difficult situation just brings back the trauma of immigrating here,” Martinez said. The church keeps a small fund for helping people and has used the Everence Sharing Fund program. But with so much need, sometimes the pastors take money from their own pockets, or food from their pantries to support church members.

Throughout the pandemic, the church’s 30-person leadership team has met regularly to decide how to distribute church funds to help those who need it.

“It’s been challenging to have limited funds,” said Nubia Hererra, the church’s finance administrator. “We want to do as much as possible to help so many people. If one of us has something to share, we share it with those who have less.”

When the COVID-19 Congregational Relief Fund launched in April, the congregation applied for a grant in the hopes of getting more support for their church members and to help with rent so the congregation would have a church to come back to.

“We’re so thankful for organizations sharing their money in this way to support others,” Hererra said. “Our church feels a huge responsibility to go through this moment together and not leave anyone behind.”

The fund was started through a partnership between Mennonite Disaster Service, Everence and Mennonite Central Committee U.S. to help Anabaptist and related churches facing financial crises. The fund has received more than 340 applications, and distributed more than $715,110 out of the original $800,000 committed by the three organizations. An additional $17,000 has been added to the fund through private donations.

A crisis like no other

“It has been hard to sleep at night sometimes,” Martinez said.

The image of three children weeping after their mother died from COVID-19 sticks with him. At least 17 people in the congregation’s faith community have died from the virus, and many more across the congregation’s extended community and family networks. Others within the church have recovered from the virus.

“There has been so much loss in such a short amount of time, it’s been really challenging,” Hererra said. “Sometimes I have to take a minute for myself before making a difficult phone call to someone who has lost a family member recently. It’s so much bad news, it’s heavy for everyone.”

One pastor was sick for almost two and a half weeks, isolated in a bedroom to keep from getting her husband and children sick.

“She’s doing so much better now,” Hererra said. “She can hug her kids and is recovering.”

Another church leader and husband both tested positive for COVID-19, making it impossible for them to care for their children while also staying isolated. The couple had no choice but to send their children to a relative’s home.

Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan prays during a 2019 church service. The church is meeting by videoconference, hosting singing, sharing time and a pastoral message. — Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan

Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan prays during a 2019 church service. The church is meeting by videoconference, hosting singing, sharing time and a pastoral message. — Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan

With face-to-face meeting restrictions in the city, the leadership team tries to follow up with church members each week, taking care to call new attenders.

They see how each member is doing, how they’re managing being at home with children all day, if they know someone who has died and what is on their minds. They pray together.

“We try to hold each other even while far away,” Hererra said. “We try to be someone they can share news with and connect with.”

Glimmers of hope

Lead pastors offer encouraging messaging to keep spirits up during online church services. They take time to allow group sharing and check-ins, giving space for each household to share.

In addition to Sunday services, the church holds virtual small-group services for young adults, youth, children and new members, as well as women’s and men’s group meetings.

“The most adorable thing [during the children’s service] was listening to the kids singing gos­pel songs and clapping,” Hererra said.

Martinez noted the stark contrast between messages of hope at the beginning of the year with the start of the new decade. The epidemic wasn’t what anyone envisioned for 2020.

“This is tough as a pastor, as a husband, as a father, but I know that God is with us,” he said.

Donations to the fund can be made at mds.mennonite.net/covid-19-donations or mailed to Everence Foundation, Attn: COVID-19 Congregational Relief Fund, PO Box 483, Goshen, IN 46527.


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