CORRECTION: The original version of this story, posted June 5, 2020, contained misinformation regarding Yvonne Rodney and her late husband, Donald. Neither has been a victim of COVID-19. Our sincerest apologies to the family.
As the pastor of North Bronx Seventh-day Adventist Church, a 1,300-member congregation in the Greater New York Conference, Dedrick Blue first noticed the ominous signs as early as late January. Coronavirus was spreading rapidly through China, raising international consternation; but never did he think it would wreak such havoc on his congregation.
“I had already begun saying some things to people,” he said, recently reflecting on the early days of the pandemic. “At that point, everything was still normal in the United States.”
That was until early March when the National Guard arrived in nearby Westchester County to help contain the virus, which was already sweeping through local neighborhoods. As the death toll began to climb, hundreds of congregants stopped attending worship services. A week later, the church shut its doors in response to state guidelines.
Shortly thereafter, the church began losing church members to COVID-19, one of them being its beloved first elder, Maurice Ojwang, Sr., a man in his 50s who served on the Greater New York Conference Executive Committee. Blue said Ojwang, a Kenyan immigrant who had built a successful life in the United States, attended the church’s last in-person worship service on March 8 and joined the group for its first Zoom service on March 15. He died about five weeks later.
Elder Ojwang, photo courtesy of the North Bronx Church.
“He was a very strong, very healthy, very vital man,” said Blue, whose church lost at least two other people to the virus and had about 23 members infected, not to mention another two dozen who lost loved ones not associated with the congregation.
“He didn't really have any underlying medical conditions that would have predisposed him,” Blue said further of Ojwang, who left behind a wife and two adult children. “And yet, one day he was just feeling lethargic, and the lethargy turned into a fever. He went into the hospital breathing on his own and then ended up on a ventilator.… [They took him off the ventilator], and that's when he passed. It was quite shocking to the church.”
The Rising Death Toll
G. Earl Knight is president of the Atlantic Union Conference, which includes the metropolitan New York area. He said Ojwang is one of “nearly 200” Adventist church members in the Union who lost their lives to the deadly pandemic, as of early June. Ninety percent of the cases have been in the Northeastern and Greater New York conferences. Pastors and conference leaders in those areas said they hope to hold memorial services to honor the lives of their deceased members after social distancing.
“Because of our (dense) population in the metropolitan New York area and because of our demographics, we have suffered the brunt of the impact of coronavirus in our division,” Knight said. “…We have lost older people, but we’ve seen middle-age and younger people being lost as well. The virus has not been partial. The older people are more susceptible — we realize that — but younger people who are exposed have not been immune. They may resist the virus a little better but some of them have died.
“In fact, we have had far over 1,000 infected people,” he added. “New York has been the epicenter of the coronavirus in the United States. It has really, really crippled the activities of our churches across the entire union.”
The Atlantic Union Conference, located in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, is comprised of six conferences, which — in addition to the two most hit by the virus — include the Bermuda, New York, Northern New England, and Southern New England conferences. The territory has more than 127,000 members, 60,000 of whom are in the Northeastern Conference and another 34,000 in the Greater New York Conference.
Knight said, while he mourns with families that have lost loved ones, he is grateful for the “miraculous” healing of many who survived. He said church members and leaders recently were encouraged by a weeklong “Healing Hope” revival featuring international speaker, Dwight Nelson. The event, streamed on social media, attracted viewers in the metropolitan New York area as well as those in the wider Atlantic Union territory.
“We are positive that God is going to deliver us from the onslaught of coronavirus,” he said. “We just want to pray that He will beat back forces of the ‘Evil One’ and spare us from further calamities.”
No Respecter of Persons
Northeastern President Daniel Honoré was among those who tested positive for coronavirus. On March 27, he released a statement on social media informing constituents of his results.
“I was infected in March along with my son and subsequently my daughter,” he wrote in an email response to questions submitted by Spectrum. “Thankfully, we all survived.”
“… I can say I was tested by fire; it forced me to face my own mortality,” he added. “…I decided that I did not want to go into hiding. I shared my story with the hopes of encouraging others confronting the same battle.”
A special message from NEC President Honoré to his constituents, posted April 10, 2020.
Honoré, who is still recuperating, said the conference received reports of at least 59 confirmed deaths due to COVID-19 from various churches. However, he suspects the numbers are much higher given that some families prefer to remain private about the cause of death. He said there are also another dozen or so individuals who attended Adventist churches in the conference, but their memberships were never formalized.
Though a cross-section of churches suffered the onslaught, the most affected areas were Brooklyn and Queens. Linden, Flatbush, Hebron French, Maranatha French, Mount of Olives, and Shiloh Seventh-day Adventist churches suffered multiple casualties, according to Honoré. The Mount Vernon Hispanic church saw 70 percent of its membership infected, with one fatality.
“Our constituents fall within the vulnerable population groups,” he wrote in the email. “They are minority and immigrant populations exhibiting comorbidities. Our elderly population was severely affected. The Hebron French-speaking Church in Brooklyn (a predominantly Haitian congregation) had 14 deaths in a two-week period. Most of these were senior shut-in members residing in nursing homes.
“Social distancing requirements have rendered traditional funerals impossible,” he explained further. “Our churches have been closed as a safety precaution. Some funerals take place at funeral homes. Others may simply have a graveside service with a dozen attendees spread ten feet apart. We have also had Zoom memorial services with hundreds in attendance remotely.”
As the numbers increased, the conference began posting a list of names, “In Memoriam,” on social media. Many who lost their lives were long-time members active in ministry. The list includes:
Gregory Hodge, community services director of the historic Ephesus SDA Church in Harlem. He worked as an EMT watch commander for New York City and was recognized for his heroic efforts at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Eton Bent, a public school teacher set to retire this year. He served as Summer Camp Director at Camp Victory Lake for nearly 30 years, training scores of camp counselors.
Alfred Baychu, first elder of the predominantly South Asian Agape SDA Church.
Lincoln Esbrand, an elder at Brownsville SDA Temple.
Benito Phanor, head deacon at the Mitspa French Church. His ministry included transporting the elderly in the church van.
Olga Cadet, beloved faithful church mother in the Eben-Ezer Franco-Haitian Church.
Above photos courtesy of NEC President Daniel Honoré.
In response to the crisis, the conference deployed its Community Services health van to address local needs and provide free COVID-19 testing in various neighborhoods. The City of New York recently engaged the van to provide testing at the city’s homeless shelters. Conference officials also have set up a COVID-19 response hotline as well as three taskforces to establish reopening plans and guidelines for the churches.
Volunteer medical professionals administer COVID testing from the NEC Community Services van. Photo courtesy of NEC President Daniel Honoré.
“Reopening will not be as simple as unlocking the doors and turning on the lights,” according to Honoré. “It will require stringent health protocols to protect our membership. Our objective is to provide an environment in which no one will be able to say, ‘I caught COVID-19 from attending a Northeastern Conference church.’”
Though the death toll is high, conference leaders are beginning to see some relief. They hope the worst is behind them and pray for all the families who lost loved ones.
“As the statistical curve begins to flatten we see a definite leveling off,” Honoré wrote. “The panic of ‘Who’s next?’ is wearing off. I have a report of one fatality in the past week as opposed to numerous ones when the crisis first started.”
NEC Community Service Center volunteers prepare bags of food for the community. Photo courtesy of NEC President Daniel Honoré.
Surviving the Indescribable
In the Greater New York Conference, Lloyd Scharffenberg serves as secretary of the COVID-19 Working Group formed in early March to help churches deal with coronavirus-related issues. He also heads the Re-opening Committee, currently plotting the conference’s way back to normalcy.
Scharffenberg reported 54 deaths in the conference, as of June 2. He said administrators have not been tracking confirmed infections, but many church members have tested positive for the virus. Greater New York Conference Executive Secretary Alanzo Smith was among those infected. After enduring an extended stay in the hospital, he is now recuperating, Scharffenberg said. Other church leaders have lost relatives — among them Pastor Lincoln Smith of Ebenezer SDA Church in Brooklyn, who lost his mother.
GNY Executive Secretary Alanzo Smith, a COVID survivor, sent the above official statement to his constituents following his release from the hospital.
“It’s something none of us would’ve ever imagined,” Scharffenberg said of the impact coronavirus has had on the conference. “Not just the not being able to go to church but just the fear and the whole change of the way of life.”
Blue, pastor of the North Bronx church, said he could not find words to fully describe the trauma his church has experienced, and he believes the conference’s death toll is much higher than estimated. In addition to the three confirmed COVID-19 deaths within his congregation, he suspects others who died during that period may have had the virus but were never tested.
“Early on, one of the challenges with COVID was that they were merely describing it as a respiratory disease,” he said. “The other problem that we had in this particular area was people were going into the hospital ERs. And, if they were deceased already, they weren't really checking them for COVID in the postmortem, because they had so many bodies that were coming in. They were overwhelmed just trying to take care of the living ones.”
“At one time it was, on average, about 450 people a day who died (of COVID-19) in the city,” he added. “The funeral homes couldn't keep up.”
The Financial Impact
In addition to the human toll, the pandemic has negatively affected church finances. Two of the conferences recently cut workers’ salaries by 2 to 5 percent, Knight said. The union itself is down about 18 to 20 percent in tithe income and recently reduced its budget by over $1.5 million.
“This is a very difficult reality that coronavirus has created,” Knight said. “I think we, as a union, may be suffering more than any other union in the North American Division. We thank the Lord that the NAD made a decision sometime last month to help the (union) conferences across the division with a $1.5 million gift to their local conferences. Each conference received $25,000.”
Knight said there are about 100 fulltime pantries in his territory, mostly in the New York metropolitan area; and union administrators recently appealed to the North American Division for additional funding to help stock the facilities. He said the division, which has agreed to provide some assistance, is also reaching out to Second Harvest, a national food pantry nonprofit organization, for help.
In addition, the division has reached out to the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) on behalf of the union, and the agency has committed to providing $150,000, according to Knight. In the meantime, he said, the agency is helping to provide $2.3 million worth of medical supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), scheduled for delivery by next week.
On May 27, Atlantic Union Adventist Community Service (ACS) directors received an email from the NAD providing all the details.
“NAD ACS has allocated five containers throughout the US cities that are affected the most, and Adventist hospitals are supporting the efforts,” the email reads. “Even though there are no Adventist hospitals in NYC, we are committed to assisting with any additional resources in the Atlantic Union Conference territory; therefore, one container (20 pallets of medical consumables, including PPEs) will be delivered to the Greater New York Conference ACS warehouse in Bronx, NY. It contains over $500,000 of valued goods.”
Volunteers in the Greater New York Conference prepare and distribute boxes of food for those in need. Photos courtesy of the GNY Conference.
Alva James-Johnson is an award-winning journalist who has worked for several newspapers across the country. She is a life-long Seventh-day Adventist, active in the church, along with her husband and two young-adult children. Contact her at [email protected].
Main photo collage created by SpectrumMagazine.org. All in-line image credits as listed below each photo.
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