Healing, Hope, and Community

As we look at the culture of the United States today, certain words come up often: anger, distrust, political and cultural division, confusion, hopelessness, and isolation. This was magnified during the COVID pandemic and in the years following. How do we continue to share the gospel, when cultural and political divisions may exist even in our church congregation?

Our church, 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church in Brooklyn, New York, is in one of the areas of New York City that was most tragically hit by COVID. Multiple waves of the disease ravaged the city during 2020 and 2021. Our church, consisting of an English department and a Chinese department, is situated in a very large Chinese community. We are two culturally distinct departments that come together to form a diverse and unique congregation.

In the months leading up to the pandemic, our church was experiencing a period of renewal. Our congregation was growing. We had just hired a new youth pastor. We had a successful youth outreach program the previous summer and fall, a growing community outreach program in our neighborhood, an expanding kids ministry program, and a Chinese outreach café. Our pastors were planning new discipleship ministries for the congregation and more outreach programs for the community. We were focused on God’s mission to share the gospel with our neighbors and community.

Our congregation is made up of individuals with differing cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, educational levels, age, gender, and spiritual maturity. Political and cultural views are also greatly varied. As the pandemic emerged, progressed, and then lingered, these differences contributed to how our congregation responded and made decisions for the church.
After the emergence of COVID, there was initially no information, then an abundance of information, including misinformation. This created an environment of confusion, along with a lot of fear, blame, and suspicion. Those feelings entered our church as well.

“How could you consider stopping the youth ministry when it has been successful?” “Why should we ask people to wear a mask or ‘socially distance’ in the church?” “Why would you even consider closing the church for any period of time?”

There was also elevated suspicion and increasing attacks, figuratively and literally, directed at Asians around our country, due to the origin of the virus. This led to fear within both our Asian community and our Chinese congregation.

The pastors and leaders of the church gathered to discuss many of these implications and to plan how the church would move forward. Do we keep the church open? How do we minister to and support the congregation? How do we continue God’s mission during this time?

“Lord, what must we do?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” —Matthew 22:37-39

As the church gathered, while dealing with a global pandemic literally right outside our door, we focused on two major courses of action. First: Love the Lord your God and have faith in his provision and plan. Second: Love your neighbor.

Our pastors and English and Chinese joint board agreed that the immediate focus of our congregation would be on loving our neighbor, regardless of political or cultural beliefs. One of the truest forms of loving our neighbor is making sure that we do not put them in situations of danger. We have many older members of the congregation and many with health issues. Despite initial desires to stay open, we erred on the side of caution and temporarily closed our church doors. Decisions were made based on the latest information on the pandemic provided to us by health care professionals in our church. We suspended all in-person gatherings, meals, and fellowships. These were huge blows to our congregation since we had been seeing new attendees and were enjoying many successful ministries in the community.

We reopened for a period of time, as many of you probably did, practicing social distancing, taking temperature readings at the door, and encouraging any member not feeling well to remain home. We made the difficult decision to close again during the second major wave that hit New York City at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021. Our congregation made it a point to check on one another, helping each other get groceries and other necessities. Many members also helped their own neighbors with basic needs, cooking meals, providing supplies (never has toilet paper been so valuable). We supported those who lost family and friends during that tragic time, both within and outside of our church. Through these actions, we were able to share our faith and speak the gospel to others―continuing God’s mission during this pandemic.

But how can we talk about loving our neighbors without supporting, teaching, and encouraging them spiritually? During this time, the pastors and church leaders worked diligently and quickly to set up an online platform for our worship services. We established regular online worship both for the English congregation and Chinese congregation, a young kids ministry (called “Zoom Zoom”), and a weekly online prayer meeting (which continues to run to this day). Through these online meetings we were able to minister to our congregation, as well as to other believers and seekers across the United States and even in Asia.

“Love the Lord your God” and have faith in his provision and plan. When our church’s focus moved away from ourselves and to God’s mission and our neighbors, we saw the great things that God could accomplish even during a pandemic. We clearly see now that God had a plan for 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church, even when we had to temporarily close our doors. As we focused on loving our God, it overflowed into loving our neighbors.
I am very encouraged to report that I am not aware of anyone in our church who felt any ill will towards our Chinese brothers and sisters in Christ. Our congregation made great efforts to support the Asian community within and around the church. I praise God that he worked in the hearts of our people, moving us to advocate for the Chinese community and to encourage understanding and peace.

We saw many clear examples of God’s provision and planning. God placed individuals within our congregation who could acquire and distribute reliable information. We had brothers and sisters working in the hospitals of the city, providing care and wisdom to keep everyone safe. We had brothers and sisters who were able to get groceries and supplies when there were periods of scarcity. We had brothers and sisters who were able to help others get masks and other protective gear. God placed technologically savvy individuals to help us get set up online. God equipped our pastors with the determination to take care of the church, maintaining the spiritual health of the congregation and our neighborhood. No experience or training could have prepared them to deal with a pandemic; it was only through God’s perfect plan and perfect provision that his mission was able to continue, while the world came to a halt.

God continued to show his love during the pandemic. It would have been easy to despair during that time, but God was ever present, guiding us, building us, and working within the people around us.

Ultimately, the pandemic years were trying times for the world and our church, as well. Division and distrust within our culture added complexity to a horrible situation. Although I cannot say that our church was untouched by the COVID pandemic, as we witnessed the loss of family, friends, and neighbors, we still clearly saw God at work. We also saw the wisdom and power of loving our neighbor, both inside and outside our congregation.

We now have additional words that we can associate when we talk about the pandemic: healing, solidarity, unity, clarity, purpose, hope, community, and God’s victory.

Dennis Louie is an elder at 59th Street Lutheran Brethren Church in Brooklyn, New York.

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