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Surviving in COVID-19’s Epicenter

New York churches bounce back after devastating rampage of the novel coronavirus.

While the Empire State leads the nation in 383,324 COVID-19 virus cases and 24,551 deaths as of June 14, the 336 churches in the New York Ministry Network (NYMN) are surviving with inspiring stories.

“Although the world around us is shaken like we have never seen before, the Lord is still on the throne,” says Duane P. Durst, NYMN superintendent and a member of the U.S. AG Executive Presbytery

Durst, 70, and his wife, Beverly, 68, both contracted the virus in March. A sheriff appeared at their front door issuing an order for them to remain at home until released by a judge. The penalty for breaking the order was a $2,000 fine and jail time.

In addition to weakness and exhaustion, Durst suffered excruciating headaches and joint pain. Both the Dursts recovered after spending 27 days in home quarantine.
“God is never caught off guard,” Durst says. “If going to heaven is the worst thing that could have happened to us, that’s not bad.”

New York has sustained the most cases and deaths by far of any state in the nation. COVID-19 has taken the lives of four NYMN credential holders and five credential holder spouses.

Meanwhile, the entire 10-member staff of Bellerose Assembly of God in Queens County contracted the virus. So did more than 25 of its 800 congregants. Five died, including Naomi Morales, 59, a deacon.

“I wondered if we were ever going to come back,” says senior pastor Dominick J. Cotignola, 44. “I felt helpless.”

However, God revealed creative ways of ministering online from Cotignola’s home attic and living room. The church’s prayer life also soared with nightly online sessions, yielding testimonies of healings and more people reached with the gospel. Some out-of-state relatives of churchgoers acknowledged Christ as Savior. New online local viewers report interest in attending services.

The church created a special benevolence fund to send checks to the unemployed. Recently, Bellerose AG paid a restaurant to prepare hot dinners of chicken wings, fries, and corn on the cob for free drive-up distribution in the parking lot.

Cotignola and the staff are thankful they have all recovered without hospitalizations.

“The virus has shown us our need to be more dependent upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit,” he says.

Steve Milazzo, lead pastor of Bethlehem Assembly of God in Valley Stream, Nassau County, has organized online virtual Bible and practical teaching studies for children, youth, young adults, grief support, plus Grow University for training new Christians in leadership.

More than 700 congregants participate weekly. Up to 250 people join a daily online evening prayer meeting.

Partnering with Convoy of Hope, Bethel AG and its Hope Day network of 30 local churches sowed compassion to the surrounding community. Convoy sent several tractor-trailer trucks loaded with food, water, and disaster products. Additional donations included children’s clothing, baby supplies backpacks, Christian books, and Bibles.

Bethlehem AG’s gymnasium became a warehouse and the sanctuary a distribution center. Through May, 60,000 pounds of goods had been donated, with another 90,000 pounds slated for June, July, and August Hope Days. More churches from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Rhode Island will join in the effort this summer.

Milazzo, 57, sees the pandemic as a wake-up call for returning to fervent prayer and repentance.

“God has our attention now and we must push the reset button,” he says.

Real Life Church, founded by Reggie Stutzman, 48, and his wife, Ibelsa, spreads seeds of hope around the poverty-stricken Hunts Point area in the South Bronx of New York City.

“We minister to our neighbors and the expanding new poor who face job losses because of the coronavirus lockdowns,” says Reggie Stutzman, a U.S. Missions candidate missionary and presbyter of the NYMN’s Bronx/Manhattan/Westchester section.

On Tuesday mornings, a three-block line forms at The Prodigal Center, a charitable nonprofit extension of Real Life.

Operating from a former mechanics shop, the center distributes canned goods and other foodstuffs to around 800 residents, including the homeless and public shelter families. English and Spanish Bibles are offered as well.

A woman cried putting cans of tuna and beans into her bag, confiding she had no food left in her apartment.

As coronavirus cases and deaths in New York significantly decline, restrictions on churches are easing, allowing gatherings of 25 percent of sanctuary capacity or a maximum of 25 people at one time.

Durst underscores a rekindled passion for prayer and evangelism among New York AG churches, and renewed efforts to upgrade online platforms to reach more people with the gospel.

“God has everything under control,” he says, “God does His best work when we are in trouble.”

Photo: Local residents receive needed goods at the Prodigal Center in the South Bronx. 

Peter K. Johnson

Peter K. Johnson is a freelance writer living in Saranac Lake, New York. More than 500 of his articles and short stories have appeared in Christian and mainstream magazines and newspapers, including the Pentecostal Evangel,Charisma, the Saturday Evening Post, Guideposts, and Decision. He also serves as a consultant and contributing editor to a scientific journal.