Faith in the time of pandemic

Pastors face the reality of empty pews on Easter Sunday

By RACHEL COLEMAN
Posted 4/8/20

“In September of 2001 our world was changed and our lives turned upside down in a matter of a few hours, when an unidentified enemy struck fear into the hearts of all Americans,” said …

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Faith in the time of pandemic

Pastors face the reality of empty pews on Easter Sunday

Posted

“In September of 2001 our world was changed and our lives turned upside down in a matter of a few hours, when an unidentified enemy struck fear into the hearts of all Americans,” said Rev. Jim VanHouten of Walden Baptist Church.

Van Houten said that within two hours following the attack on the World Trade Center, Walden’s DPW was at Ground Zero assisting in search and rescue. VanHouten arrived shortly thereafter with two Walden police officers. He returned the following day with a team of firefighters from the Walden Fire Department to help with the rescue and recovery efforts on the pile of the South Tower.

“We fought against time to save lives. While we were there, my wife and daughters, along with my church, remained home in Walden on their knees in prayer, asking the Lord for His divine help,” said Rev. VanHouten. “But in this pandemic, things are completely reversed for me. My wife and my oldest daughter are on the front lines serving with two amazing teams of health care workers at Orange Regional Medical Center and Orange Regional Medical Group, caring for those in need, while I am at home in Walden, on my knees asking the Lord for His divine help in saving the lives of our neighbors.”

While the public was able to come together and support each other in the days following 9/11, the current world crisis has forced people apart. Businesses have closed their doors and for possibly the first time in the United States, churches have as well.

“We are living the history that will be studied by our children’s children,” said Pastor Rick Bruschi of Freedom Road Bible Church.

In the town of Montgomery, Walden Baptist Church, Freedom Road Bible Church and Goodwill Church all stopped holding public services in early March and will not open their doors until the local, state and federal governments say it is safe.

“Churches are not designed for social distancing,” explained Pastor John Torres and Pastor Marcos Ortega of Goodwill Church. “The whole of our congregation depends on weekend services for fellowship and personal growth. We are a community that has been forced away from our community. The pain is profound. So too, our pastors are not trained for “distance ministry.” We are charged to encourage the downtrodden, to teach and preach, to create space for people to serve one another and serve the Lord. This charge and the mission of our church still stands even in the midst of COVID-19. Figuring out how to accomplish this charge and mission? That’s not so easy.”

Goodwill has five sanctuaries or worship sites in the Hudson Valley, including their location on Route 208 in Montgomery. All six of their pastors are working tirelessly to support their people and connect them “to God and to one another.”

“This has been a challenge, but thanks to the internet and social media, it is not nearly the challenge it would have been a generation ago,” said Torres and Ortega. “We are being stretched to consider ways we can love our neighbors when we can’t go to them.”

They have established a new website: www.goodwillstrong.org, to provide the public with updates and services in light of the pandemic. They offer pre-recorded services which are also available on YouTube, daily Bible studies and devotionals, nightly times of prayer on Facebook Live, Zoom meetings, music, articles, fun stuff and opportunities to share.

They said they have been surprised by the high number of people and other churches they have been able to help, reach and connect. While they feel they have been “moderately effective,” the pastors at Goodwill admit that it isn’t the same.

“Church isn’t about a product, it’s about a community of believers worshiping together,” said Torres and Ortega. “That can’t be manufactured through a screen, no matter how high the production value. Church isn’t designed to be done remotely.”

Goodwill is also looking into delivering groceries and even coaching people through unemployment forms.

“We’re doing our best,” said Torres and Ortega. “We’re still learning from one another and being encouraged by one another. It’s something, but it’s far from ideal.”

Goodwill was able to add to an already strong online presence, but that isn’t the situation for every church.

Only three miles away, Walden Baptist Church has a website and Facebook page, but is focused more on the physical church. They usually gather several times a week for worship, Bible study, 4-H meetings, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, choir and other events. Now, all of that is on hold.

“I find it difficult not being able to make hospital calls for both friends and neighbors,” said Rev. Jim VanHouten. “It’s something I usually do every week. But for now, I must settle with making phone calls. I’m glad that the Lord hears our prayers on the phone the same way He does in the church.”

Walden Baptist Church is now offering printed Bible studies, taped messages, food to those in need and prayer support for all first responders. They are delivering fruit baskets to health care workers at ORMC and ORMG.

“This is the third week which we have canceled services and I miss preaching and sharing God’s message with my church family,” said VanHouten. “I must settle with just writing the messages which I may preach in the future.”

A couple miles away, Freedom Road Bible Church has “migrated to a ‘Virtual Ministry’ approach” according to Pastor Rick Bruschi.

They now offer Sunday morning YouTube videos, Tuesday evening Virtual Bible Studies, Wednesday Youth Group, Thursday Group Prayer Meeting and Friday Olympians youth program, all virtually via Zoom. They also post regularly to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to encourage their church members.

“We are extremely blessed to be living in an age where the technology exists to connect and build community, while still being personally distant,” said Bruschi. “In God’s perfect timing, we just got our live streaming working three weeks prior to the mandatory shutdown in March!”

Bruschi said the learning curve was steep and it had been a hurdle just to find a platform that would work for all their needs.

Small businesses in the area are under serious financial strain after having to close their doors and churches are not immune to the financial impact. Concern has been expressed that like some small businesses, churches may not survive the closure.

“Families are the building block of the church, so when families hurt, the church hurts,” said Bruschi. “There are new financial needs that families now face, either through loss of employment or reduction in hours they are able to work. There is the fear of how long this pandemic will last, and what the new “normal” will look like when we eventually get there. And, of course, there is the fear of contracting or spreading the virus to immune-compromised people. All of these make it difficult to continue to support the local church, particularly when we are not physically together, nor able to rally together to fight as a whole.”

“Again, in God’s perfect timing, our online giving was set up in February,” said Bruschi. “While our tithes are, of course, not what they are when we meet together, God is providing miraculously through this technological advancement.”

Meanwhile, the story is a little different at Walden Baptist Church.

“Not meeting together for services does mean that there are no offerings coming in. However, since my members tithe, they will either mail them in or just bring them once we are open again,” said Rev. Jim VanHouten.

At Goodwill, their members have the ability to give online and the pastors stated that they have seen tremendous generosity.

“I certainly hope that none of our local churches find themselves unable to reopen after this crisis abates. If they do, we at Goodwill (and I’m sure other churches), would like to hear from them and see how we might offer them help of any kind to get their doors back open when the time comes,” said Torres and Ortega.

In the meantime, each of these churches are still excited for the Easter holiday.

At Freedom Road Bible Church, there will be a YouTube service, complete with worship music and a sermon. The congregation has been asked to upload photos and short videos to a shared drive. These will be compiled into an Easter video to be shared with the church.

At Goodwill Church, there will be Facebook Live services during Holy Week and even a streamed Sunrise Service on Easter morning.

Walden Baptist Church will also be sharing their Good Friday and Easter services in a virtual format. VanHouten said it will be difficult not having their normal services at such a special time of celebration, but added that the church will be delivering Easter flowers to their members, while practicing social distancing.

“On Easter Sunday we will be looking back at the cross of Christ and the empty tomb, and even though we are in the middle of a pandemic, we will be shouting “Hallelujah Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!” said VanHouten.

In the meantime, VanHouten encourages the members of their church, friends and neighbors to stay safe in their homes, washing their hands often and disinfecting flat surfaces.

“If you are in need of food or medicine please call me. If you feel depressed, once again please give me a call, I would be glad to help you. And let’s all continue to pray, asking God to end this pandemic, which will save the lives of many of our neighbors,” said VanHouten.

Bruschi encourages people to continue to meet through online Bible studies, prayer meetings and other services, and to gather as families to watch the YouTube services.

“In other words, love God and love people—the very things that the entire Bible hangs on,” said Bruschi. “I would remind the community of two things: God is still in control and we will get through this to a new “normal.” We as a nation of families and churches have faced many hardships and battles. We have had to endure many trials and were called on to sacrifice. God’s people always have prevailed on their knees in prayer—now is not the time to stop.”

The pastors at Goodwill Church would like to thank the essential workers and those that are staying home.

“The only way we can defeat the coronavirus is to work together: stay home and stay safe to save lives,” said Torres and Ortega. “We are not without hope. We are one day closer to this crisis being behind us. God is with us through it all. This Easter is a time for each of us to turn to Jesus Christ and find peace and joy during these trying times.”

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