NEW YORK — Pastor Mike Carrion kept getting calls from church members.
“My grandfather is sick.”
“My aunt is in the ICU.”
“My father just died.”
Now Carrion braces at any ringtone. “Please, Lord, not one more person.”
Carrion leads the evangelical Promised Land Covenant Church in the south Bronx, the heart of the epicenter where COVID-19 is especially ravaging African American and Latino communities.
“I’m on the phone with a mom and she screams. How does she continue to raise her other children with her baby gone?” Carrion said of speaking with a mother of a seventh-grader who died of COVID-19. “No seminary class prepares you for this.”
Promised Land, in the poorest congressional district in the nation, sees about 250 mostly African American and Latino worshippers on a normal weekend. Public housing units line the streets near the church in the Mott Haven neighborhood, where city officials estimate the poverty rate is about 44%.
The church stopped in-person gatherings the week of March 21, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended no gatherings of more than 10 people. Three days later, Carrion said, church leaders learned someone connected to the church had been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
“Then three more people got it. Then two more people got it. Then after that: death, death, death, death,” Carrion said. In one month, 13 parishioners faced the deaths of close family members and a best friend.
Carrion, 49, grew up in east Harlem and is no stranger to preaching to people who are facing tragedy. But before the pandemic that hit especially hard in this corner of New York City, he would receive a phone call to help someone with death maybe every four to six months, he said. Now pastors are getting back-to-back phone calls about urgent needs exacerbated by the coronavirus, from health issues to job losses to people who have lost loved ones or simply need food.
“I’ve walked into hospitals to give babies last rites. I’ve walked into places where children have been abused,” he said. “It was never as complex as this. The mortgage is still due, ConEdison wants their money, kids are wearing masks.”
The church’s nine pastors keep each other in the loop through a group text, and they have asked members to help them by calling or texting five other congregants each day so everyone is checking up on someone. With New York’s stay-at-home order, the pastors could not gather for a meeting to help their bereaved, or offer a visit, a hug or an in-person funeral. Instead, they cobbled together what they could online, trying to provide not just spiritual resources but psychological coping tools as well.
Some Christians are suspicious of psychotherapy and dismiss it as secular, Carrion said, but he has embraced therapeutic approaches, especially during this time.
“People need more than a poem and three principles. People need to deal with fear,” he said. “We need the person of God and we need a God-given therapist to help us navigate our brokenness.”
Freddy Baez, a licensed therapist who attends the church, has been leading grief sessions over Zoom. He introduces concepts such as cognitive behavioral therapy and goes over strategies to improve mental health. The pastors offer religious comfort and teachings.
About 80 people joined Baez’s Zoom session on a Monday night that covered the theology of grief, loss and recovery. Some joined from their kitchens, others in their bedrooms; one woman listened with ear buds as she shopped for groceries.
“Self talk,” Baez told the group, influences how we feel and then moves us to behavior. He pointed to the biblical example of Ruth and how she reframed the loss of her husband and was able to recover and find resilience.
The members who joined the call used Zoom’s chat box — including prayer and praise-hand emoji — to re-create the call-and-response interaction typical of their worship services.
Part of ministry, Carrion told everyone on the call, is about leading people from confusion to hope. For Carrion, and other pastors across the country, part of reducing that confusion was simply asking everyone to mute their mics.
Many pastors, Baez said in an interview, are overwhelmed as they try to meet parishioners’ needs without being physically present.
“Sometimes it means being on the phone and let somebody rail against God,” he said. “Sometimes it’s being present that gives someone permission to say what they have to say and not feel like you’re God’s lawyer. It’s saying, ‘I’m in this spiritual and psychological space with you.’ “
One of the members who joined a Zoom grief session was JayJay Lugo, 30, who scribbled notes as she watched the call from her bedroom. Her stepmom, who helped raise her, died of complications from COVID-19 on April 21.
Lugo, a social worker who is taking care of her 18-year-old half sister, is debating whether to go back to work. In the meantime, she receives daily devotionals from one pastor and prays sometimes with another pastor by phone.
“On Friday, it was rough getting out of bed,” she said in an interview. “You want to isolate yourself, but you need community.”
The pastors give her options: She can watch a video, join a live Zoom class, text with a pastor or call one of them. At Lugo’s request, two pastors and a worship leader have recorded themselves for the online funeral on May 6. Ten family members will be physically present, and Lugo expects several Promised Land members to “attend” the Facebook Live broadcast. Some donated money to help with funeral costs.
Most pastors at Promised Land also have full-time jobs outside the church, pastor Diane Carrow said. When she gets home, she hops on a Zoom call almost every night for Bible studies, worship recordings and meetings with other pastors. She also takes calls from church members.
“We are not built for this,” she said. “Yes, crisis happens. But having a crisis every single day is just not the norm.”
Carrow said the crisis became personal for her when her husband, who is also a pastor, texted the pastoral team that his aunt had died March 31 of COVID-19.
Together, the couple stayed focused on ministry work, and he began sending daily devotionals to his worship team.
“We’re intentional about staying in touch,” she said. “We’re intentional about telling people that in isolation, you’re not alone. You weren’t created to be alone.”
Carrion said pastors across New York City are sharing their own pandemic stories with him. Alongside his job as a pastor, he works for an organization called Redeemer City to City, a network led by prominent evangelical pastor Tim Keller that provides resources to churches in urban areas. The network has raised $375,000 to provide $15,000 grants to 25 churches to assist with building costs and technology purchases.
“We’re seeing the Southern Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Pentecostals, the Anglicans, the Episcopal churches come together,” he said. “In some ways this has equalized us. In others, it’s showed how divided we’ve been for so long.”
It has been difficult to re-create the experience of Promised Land’s typical two-hour, charismatic services. Worship is truncated to one hour because pastors fear “Zoom fatigue,” and Carrion preaches from his bedroom.
During one sermon, he told his congregation he had been facing depression.
“The Psalmist said, ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy will come in the morning,’ ” he said. “Joy, I am looking for you.”