What does it mean to be church in the city in a time of COVID-19? Sustained by the Spirit is a project developed by City Seminary of New York listening to what is taking place on the ground, and sharing what we are beginning to learn. It is about attending to the ways the Spirit is sustaining us in love, hope, and lament.
We are all just beginning to find our way in this time, but a series of questions about faith, ministry, and community in the city have helped shape this effort. How is a world of Christianity in our city living out faith amidst this global pandemic? What can we learn from other cities? With church buildings and physical places of gathering closed, how are congregations engaging in worship, ministry, and mutual support? How are pastors continuing and changing ways of ministerial care? Where are the signs of generosity, resilience, and compassion in the city? Where are we in our spiritual journeys? We can even begin to wonder: how might the church and city change post COVID-19? How will we be transformed?
As we share this resource of stories and practices, please use this as a way of learning in community, for faithful ministry in this uncertain and challenging time. We hope that this resource might help you think about how to respond and engage faithfully to the challenges and possibilities facing us.
We also hope these stories, which will be added to in the days, weeks and months to come, will spark imagination, learning, and community, in ways that complement thoughtful resources for churches in this time of COVID-19 such as these compiled by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School, The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, and The Center for Congregations. Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning offers guidance on online teaching and learning, especially in the context of theological formation.
The Yale Youth Ministry Institute has many resources available, including a Guide to Taking Youth Ministry Online. Miroslav Volf and the Yale Center for Faith and Culture offer a podcast series available on Google, Spotify and Apple called For the Life of the World about faith in a time of pandemic.
Please share with us what you are doing and learning at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a COVID-19 Hot Zone
This is a way of serving the homeless and addicted persons from a social distance. At Recovery House of Worship in a particularly vulnerable section of Brooklyn, NY, the local homeless community is served through to-go bags and tracts and a basement shelter. In partnership, 200 bags of groceries for new immigrant families are delivered weekly to another local church. Pastor Edwin Colon is hopeful that despite the challenges, the pandemic will help people recognize their dependence on God. Read more here.
Remembering the Elderly
This is a way of caring for the elderly in the community. Living Faith Community Church is serving its local community in Flushing, Queens, through its community development corp (CDC), delivering food to those in need, particularly the elderly, and advocating for local nursing home residents (whom they have been volunteering with for almost 20 years) in a letter writing campaign to elected officials. Learn more about LFCC here.
Moving Outside of a Silo
This is a way of being opened up to new ways of ministry. Rev. Jonathan Roque is the pastor of Damascus Christian Church in Hunts Point, the South Bronx. He realizes in this time an opportunity to think afresh about ministry, to move "out of my silo." Responding to his community, he's partnering with local networks, including a food pantry, to take groceries to people in need. He's thinking about leadership and the future of church life.
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Praying for the World
This is a way of thinking about the times. Mother Marie Cooper, a leader in the Church of the Lord (Aladura) in North America, believes this is a time for prayer. So she prays for everyone she knows and the world. Always on her mind, she prays for the school she started and supports in Monrovia, Liberia, and the needs of its young people.
Rethink Food and Community
This is a way of connecting excess food with those who need it. Conservative Chinese Baptist Church (CCBC) in lower Manhattan, NY, is partnering with Rethink Food, an organization with a creative mission to build a more equitable food system in New York City. Rethink Food is connecting local restaurants with community organizations to provide healthy, ready-to-eat meals for those who need them. Volunteers are needed to distribute meals on weekdays at the church. Learn more about Rethink Food or sign up here if you can volunteer.
Chapel with the Community
This is a way of being a church in London. When formal gatherings at their care home chapel in Croydon, London, were shut down, Reverend Peter and Dee Price took the chapel to the people. As temporary chaplain, Peter began a weekly newsletter with prayers, stories, readings and contact information. They provided information on how to financially support local groups who serve the community. On Palm Sunday, Peter and Dee distributed crosses made of palm leaves. By being present and creative, they are showing a new way of being a church.
New Questions for the New Normal
This is a way of adjusting to the "new normal" in Paju City. The South Korean government recently allowed religious communities to re-gather with new guidelines, such as sanitizing the sanctuary, checking body temperatures before entering, keeping social distance, wearing facial masks during the meeting, and not eating inside the building. Members of Han-Gil Presbyterian Church in Paju City were excited to come back to the community, and the highlight for the reopening worship service was a birthday party. However, attendance for the first Sunday worship back together was low as some were still not sure of the dangers of the "new normal." Amidst this situation, the church was also being presented with new questions: Who would check body temperatures at the church entrance? Was it safe to use the microphone together? In the transition to worshiping together again, leaders and congregations are discerning with care what fellowship and community look like.
Crochet Ear Savers for First Responders
This is a way of using creative gifts for the community. InnerCHANGE missionary and street artist Naomi Lawrence (@naomirag) and her "Crafty Ladies" group in Harlem are crocheting "ear savers" for first responders to relieve the pressure caused by wearing masks over the ears. They are partnering with cafes that are already making deliveries to hospitals to pass on plastic bags of "ear savers" for healthcare workers.
The Bronx and India Together
This is a way to connect with local and global believers. Through different digital platforms, worship services by Indian Pentecostal churches in the Bronx and Connecticut area are now joined by people from many different parts of the United States and Kerala India, whose churches have also closed to comply with and protect the community's health. Through songs, reading scripture, praying and encouraging one another, they are able to stand in solidarity with others who cannot worship and fellowship together.
Evening Prayers Live
This is a way to pray together to end the day. Rev. Christine Lee of St. Peter's Episcopal Church (Chelsea) has been leading Compline (evening prayers) twice a week at 9 PM via Facebook and Instagram live for several weeks now. This has been a way to bring together people near and far for an evening rhythm of reflection and prayer to close out the day.
Ministry in the Virtual Living Room
This is a way to create space for ministry when a church building is not available. A few months ago, Zion NYC church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, lost their meeting space and had to transition to meeting in house church fashion. Because of their agility as a decentralized congregation, their 'ministry in the living room,' now via online communication, has led to designing new spiritual spaces to gather and deepened their practices of community, discipleship, creativity and prayer. From virtual lunch breaks to Zoom worship services, where they notice an increasing number of participants who have never heard the Gospel before, they are re-imagining ways to be church and community. Learn more here.
Prayer through the Night
This is a way of praying as vigil. Members of the Indian Pentecostal churches in the United States are joining different prayer lines throughout the 24 hours of the day, with each person signing up for a one-hour slot, praying for those impacted by the COVID-19 and those responding to this pandemic.
Children’s Art and Easter
This is a way of drawing children into worship through art. For Easter, Clare Wasserman of Emmanuel Presbyterian Church led Easter art making with children over Zoom. During Easter service, children displayed their work. After the service, they shared how their artwork, which included eggs, wreaths, donkeys, and a cross on a hill, symbolized elements of the Resurrection and Gospel message.
From Australia to Trinidad and Tobago
This is a way of encouraging women across the world. Sister Bola Oyesanya has been organizing "Intimate Time with Jesus" gatherings on Good Friday mornings for the past 4-5 years. What began as a non-denominational gathering for Christian women, held in her New York home's community space, expanded into local gatherings on multiple dates and locations. This year, over 60 women from all over the world - from Australia to South Africa, UK, Trinidad and Tobago and the United States - participated in a time of encouragement and affirmation, exploring examples of Biblical women for contemporary times over Zoom.
Meet Me at the Window
This is a way of gathering for sunrise service. Pastor May Lee and her Grace Alive Fellowship family met at their respective windows for sunrise service on Easter morning. While seeing different views and settings, they greeted Jesus at the empty tomb. As sunlight slowly illuminated the sky, the buildings, and the street, they were reminded to make time daily to sit with Jesus at the empty tomb, acknowledging the Hope Resurrection Sunday brings.
Easter Outreach, Every Weekend
This is a way of feeding the city. Easter Outreach, a partnership of over 70 churches in the Greater Philly area that delivered more than 10,000 Easter meals in one day last year, has become a weekly "Service Saturday" to provide food to students, seniors, and low-income neighbors in their areas. Through the mobilization of volunteers donning masks and keeping a distance, coordination with city programs, and the expansion of its outreach sites, Easter Outreach extended the celebration of the resurrection through satisfying hunger beyond Easter weekend. Find out more here.
An Ovation for Essential Workers
This is a way of showing gratitude. In cities around the world, grateful home-bound residents are finding creative ways to show their support of essential workers - those who support healthcare, infrastructure, sanitation, groceries, etc. and who remain at the frontlines of a world changed by COVID-19. From applause to classical music, honking horns to homemade instruments and shouts of support, the world is showing what it means to be connected and grateful for daily sacrifices made for others' wellbeing. In New York City, at seven o'clock at night, listen for the sound of clapping, yelling, bugling, salsa and more.
Calling Many Neighbors
This is a way of sharing important health information in a neighborhood. In the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore, lifetime resident Nina Anderson is calling her neighbors, making some one hundred phone calls. She is checking in to see how people are doing and reminding them to stay inside and stay healthy. "If you need something, say something," Nina tells everyone.
Being Present at a Hospital
This is a way of being present to families and staff at a hospital in the Bronx. Rev. Peter Acevedo, a member of the Damascus Council of Churches and a co-leader in Plus One Ministries, is a social worker at a hospital in a Bronx neighborhood facing the impact of COVID-19. Much of his time is given to caring compassionately for families who have someone in the hospital or have lost a loved one. But in this time of fear and anxiety, Peter is also able to pray with and support the staff around him. He comes home exhausted each night, resting to return to work the next day, strengthened in hope in God.
Coffee Beans and Community
This is a way of continuing community relationships as a church and a local business. Postmark Cafe, in Brooklyn, is the home of Church! of Park Slope on Sundays and a community mainstay for the rest of the week. In order to protect their neighbors and team, Postmark has been closed as a cafe and meeting place for Church! over the past couple weeks. Brad, one of the co-pastors and the only employee of the cafe space, is using best practices to keep the cafe open for customers for whole bean or ground coffee pickup or local delivery to support the community-centered space. Find out more here.
A Ready Online Sanctuary
This is a way of being a new "cross-cultural frontier." Pastor Joe Asmah of All Nations Church, a congregation with Ghanaian roots in Elizabeth, New Jersey, has been streaming Sunday Worship online for several years. "We are ready, God has been preparing us for this time." Before starting online worship on a recent Sunday morning, he prayed with the team in the offline sanctuary. His prayer was not only for God's healing intervention for the church members and the world, but also for the airwaves and online equipment to be soaked by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Weekly on-line "attendance" is growing. Learn more about All Nations here.
On the Way Ministry
This is a way of serving the homeless during these COVID-19 times. While many are able to stay home, this is not an option for homeless people in Athens, Greece. With a vision to care for the poor in the urban center of the city, First Greek Evangelical Church's "On the Way Ministry" provides care packages, grocery coupons, and hot meals in collaboration with other charities. Care packages are hung outside the church on railings for pickup, and a small group of volunteers distribute packages in places where the homeless live with care, wisdom, and precaution.This work may also lead to the beginning of a new church. Learn more about FGEC through their website. Because you are precious and honored in my sight, and I love you. Isaiah 43:4
Sanctuary of Food
This is a way of enacting "this is the body of Christ." People still need food to eat in East New York Brooklyn, especially those who live in nearby homeless shelters. Given restrictions on gathering at churches, Pastor Vivian Grubb and True Holy Church needed a new approach. As a solution, they converted their sanctuary into a place to prepare bags of food. Instead of having people come inside to shop the pantry, volunteers distributed “grab and go” bags outside. The sanctuary has become something sacred in a new and unexpected way. Learn more about True Holy Church through their website.
Loaves, Fishes and Masks
This is a way of experiencing "the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes." Since wearing a facial mask has become an essential guideline for keeping society safe in South Korea, Rev. Young Doo Peter Kim, senior pastor of Han-Gil Church in Paju city, decided to share his personal face masks, the ten pieces that he had, to church members. His congregation is made up of mostly Ghanaian immigrants who have limited access to masks. This story spread through Facebook and many people are donating several boxes of masks to the church. To learn more about Han-Gil Church, visit their Facebook page.
Church Partners with Health Center
This is a way of a local church and health center working together. When Esperanza Health Center in Philadelphia, led by Susan Post, needed more masks, they asked members of Spirit and Truth Fellowship to make them. Dr. Sue Baker, a founder and leader at Spirit and Truth, responded by ordering elastic and pipe cleaners to go with the fabric being supplied. She hopes she can sew at least 100 masks. Learn more about the work of Esperanza Health Center in Philadelphia through their website.
Praying on the Hour
This is a way of praying collectively. At the Redeemed Christian Church of God Chapel of Hope in Brooklyn, Pastor Adebisi emphasizes prayer and fasting. With the pandemic, he now encourages congregants not to fast as usual. He has suggested instead that congregants eat regularly and pray for three minutes each hour to intercede for the health of their communities and world. Learn more about the Redeemed Christian Church of God Chapel of Hope through their website and visit their YouTube channel.
Evening Taizé Prayers
This is a way of doing evening prayers as a family. At the end of each day, just before the Gornik family turns in for the night, they light a candle, have a time of silence and prayer, read a Scripture text, and then sing a song from the Taizé community in France like “Bless the Lord,” “Jesus Christ, Bread of Life,” and “The Kingdom of God.” Learn more about Taizé at their website. Listen to “Bless the Lord.”
Public Reading of Scripture
This is a way to hear God speak through the Scriptures in community. Drawing from the spiritual practice of the public reading of Scripture (I Timothy 4:13), this global movement encourages gatherings to hear the text read aloud in groups. With technology that enables virtual meetings and immersive dramatized readings via an app, the Public Reading of Scripture pairs longer passages from the Old and New Testaments with Psalms as prayers. Learn how to launch a Public Reading of Scripture by going to this website.
Reflecting on Experience
This is a way of reflecting on the meaning of these times in our lives. Sister Marylin, who lives in Harlem and leads spiritual direction at City Seminary, shared a reflection with the staff. “Our call as God’s people in these times includes working to see the deeper invitation that the pandemic is providing. How might we be conscious of the transformation occurring within ourselves, our communities, the nation and the global community as we live through this time? Reflecting and perhaps journaling with the following questions may be one of the most important contributions we can make as God’s beloved in this challenging time: What has been arriving in my life these days? To what am I being invited to consider? What am I experiencing in these times? What is important to remember?”
Pray Where You Are
This is a way to pray in community wherever you are. Continuing our commitment to pray for our city neighborhood by neighborhood, City Seminary has expanded the annual virtual pray and break bread, NYC to a weekly Wednesday morning community prayer Zoom, and replaced our scheduled neighborhood prayer walks in March and April with a virtual pbb.WHERE YOU ARE. Whether walking the streets (following social distance guidelines), at home or at work, on Zoom together or offline, we invite participants to pray in solidarity for the wellbeing of people around and places they are in. This is an example of a handout to guide the time.
Being Present to Healthcare Workers
This is a way to support medical professionals in a church. With many doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals attending the International Gospel Church, Pastor Geomon and Reji George have planned a special Zoom fellowship and prayer time to support them. In addition, from writing a personal note to having a telephone conversation, Pastor Geomon and Reji remind their members at International Gospel Church that they are not alone. They are journeying together.
Communicating Preventative Health Practices
This is a way to pass along the word on preventative health practices. In India, the leaders of Pentecostal church networks are calling and sending Whatsapp messages to fellow pastors. In these conversations, they are sharing basic preventative health information like how to wash hands and other safety precautions to practice every day. This is then shared with their congregations. Church leaders strongly believe that with this intersection of health and faith, they are able to more effectively contribute to slowing down the spread of COVID-19.
Chaplaincy in the Neighborhood
This is a way to be a neighborhood chaplain. Chaplain Adrienne Croskey is always on the go in her Harlem neighborhood, connecting with families, friends and neighbors. Now she is a chaplain in her neighborhood and city in a different way. She meets with people by phone and through prayer. She calls people in the hospital, praying with and for them. In these times, the days are often longer, but Pastor Adrienne continues to be present with the Gospel of "fresh oils" for the well-being of her neighborhood and city.
This is a way of passing the prayer baton. Based in Harlem but connected to cities in Florida, Maryland, and the Caribbean, community pastor Apostle Staci Ramos organized a 3-day weekend prayer shut-in and fast with her church contacts. This enabled some to gather in small groups in person, according to social gathering recommendations in place at the time, and others to join over a conference call. Groups took turns to pass a virtual prayer baton from church to church over the 72 hours. She has now passed the baton on to a church in the Bronx.
This is a way of doing youth ministry. In East Harlem, Miriam Acevedo is a leader in Plus One, a church-based ministry to youth. Because they are unable to meet in person, Miriam is in regular contact through phone, Facebook and Zoom, praying together in this time of pandemic and pause in the life of the city. The youth are already connecting through these media, so she has joined the conversation.
This is a way of mourning loss. Diaspora Indian Christian communities in New York City are modifying funeral rites by making personal videos and sending messages via Whatsapp and Facebook. These chats are saved and passed onto family members. Through these little steps, a community is walking with the family experiencing loss and mourning together.
Creating a Garden Together and Apart
This is a way of building community through art-making and conversation. Collaborating with street artist Naomi Lawrence (@naomirag), the Walls-Ortiz Gallery team has organized virtual yarn circles via Zoom on Tuesday afternoons and evenings in April and May 2020 to build a community through craft. The yarn flowers and leaves crocheted in apartments across the city will be collected and made into an outdoor yarn installation at the Fresh Oils Yarn Garden in Harlem. The Garden will become a space for in-person community conversations and more art-making when times allow those ways of being together again.
Caring for Neighbors
This is a way of caring for neighbors. Uptown Community Church in Washington Heights, pastored by Rev. Reyn Cabinte, is connecting church members and small groups to the needs of community and neighborhood. Following a check-in process, church members make pharmacy trips for their community and neighbors. Using Google sheets and docs, they have created different portfolios to be attentive to the most vulnerable, including the elderly, those in danger of eviction, and those facing possible unemployment. Learn more about Uptown Community Church at their website.
Going Small to Serve More
This is a way to serve members of a congregation. At Overseas Chinese Mission (OCM) in Manhattan, "virtual" small groups were formed to care for individual members on a more personal level. These small groups of 8-12 people are coming together via technology even if they cannot in person, still connecting and building community. In addition, pastors and elders are checking in regularly to make sure individual members, especially the elderly, have basic provisions. If not, they set up delivery services by connecting with those who live nearby. Learn more about OCM at their website.
Prayers of the People
This is a way of seeing and hearing the church throughout the city. At Redeemer Presbyterian Church Downtown, prayers from congregants around the city are pre-recorded at home. They are compiled into the Sunday worship service as a way of sharing and hearing from a range of voices from the congregation.
Asian American Christian Collaborative
This is a way of responding to the rise in anti-Asian racism and violence due to the pandemic. Over several days through social media, a grassroots movement called the Asian American Christian Collaborative (AACC), including leaders from New York, has gone from a few to thousands who are mobilizing to respond as the Church to the increase in violence against Asians, who are associated with what some have called the "Chinese virus." In the last two weeks of March alone, almost 1,000 incidents of racism have been documented in the media. Learn more about the AACC's COVID-19 Statement here.
Flowers from a Neighbor
This is a way to see beauty in its many forms. A member of a downtown Manhattan church organized a WhatsApp group to connect church congregants in the same zip code. Her neighbor saw flowers being tossed out by a local store, and took them home to make beautiful handmade bouquets. These were in turn distributed (following social distance guidelines) to those in the church's neighborhood group.