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‘God is with us’: A New York church in the epicenter of the pandemic offers support, hope

6.1. 2020 Written By: Sara Alvarez Waugh, Everence

Photo: Prayer during an Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan worship service in 2019. Lately the church has been meeting virtually. Photo provided by Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan

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

Pastor Elvis starts his car, makes a trip to the grocery store to help pick up some food essentials for the woman and her three children, and delivers them to her apartment.

A core ministry of the church, which has around 200 members, is supporting immigrants as they build new lives in New York City. Now, church leaders, including Pastor Elvis, are working hard to support their community’s financial, emotional and physical health in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan has been dedicated to serving their community since its beginning. Pictured is a Thanksgiving meal for church attenders and the wider community in 2019. Photo provided by Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan

“We’ve always helped people in need with food, water, clothing, bills. This is part of what we do,” says Pastor Elvis. 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,” says Pastor Elvis.

The church keeps a small fund for helping people and has utilized 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 the funds in the church’s account to help those who need it.

“It’s been challenging to have limited funds,” says Nubia Hererra, finance administrator for the church. “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, Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan applied for a grant in the hopes of getting more support for their church members and to help with rent.

“We’re so thankful for organizations sharing their money in this way to support others,” says Hererra. “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 (MDS), Everence and Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. to help Anabaptist and related churches facing financial crises due to COVID-19. Since its launch, the fund has received more than 340 applications, and distributed more than $715,110 out of the $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

The leadership team of Evangelical Garifuna Church of Manhattan carries with them the weight of the loss and grief experienced by church members during this crisis.

“It has been hard to sleep at night sometimes,” says Pastor Elvis, noting the image of three children weeping after their mother passed away from COVID-19 sticks with him.

The church has had 17 in their faith community pass away from the virus, and many more across the congregation’s extended community and family networks. Others within the church family have had the virus and recovered.

“There has been so much loss in such a short amount of time, it’s been really challenging,” says Hererra. “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,” says Hererra. “She can hug her kids and is recovering.”

Another church leader and her husband 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.

With face-to-face meeting restrictions in New York City, the leadership team tries to intentionally follow up with church members each week, taking special care to call new attenders. They check in and see how each member is doing, how they’re managing being at home with their children all day, if they know someone who has passed away and what is on their minds. At the end, they pray together.

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

Glimmers of hope

During their online church services, the lead pastors offer encouraging messaging to keep spirits up. They also 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, youths, 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,” says Hererra.

The children’s group has prepared drawings and thank-you messages for church members serving on the front lines of the medical field or civil service.

Pastor Elvis noted the stark contrast between messages of hope at the beginning of the year with the start of the new decade. The coronavirus pandemic 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,” says Pastor Elvis.

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