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Minister's Compassion for Grief of Others Results in Unexpected Personal Blessing

When Mike Santiago started a new ministry to help those in his community grieve the loss of a loved one during COVID-19, God knew that "others" weren't the only ones who would need it.
During the height of the COVID pandemic in Madrid, Spain, where new cases hit its high in late March, Mike Santiago’s parents (David and Dana) and paternal grandparents (Mike and Judy) were in Madrid as missionaries. in his conversations with them, he learned of how the city struggled to keep up with the deaths — having to use an ice rink as a temporary morgue.

Santiago, the lead pastor of Focus Church, a multiple location church based in Raleigh, North Carolina, realized then that this tragedy was very likely headed for the United States as well. With restrictions already increasing in the United States, funeral services seemed to fall into the non-essential category. And as travel was also being strongly discouraged, he understood that the ability for people to grieve the loss of a loved one could be greatly impacted.

“Our church decided to offer a service for people who might need to grieve online,” he explains. “As we have the physical space and the technology to stream funeral services, we decided to offer funeral services for free to those in our community who needed it.”

Santiago explains that funeral homes often don’t have the tech needed to livestream a service, but the church had everything needed to livestream to whatever platform was desired.

With a heart of compassion for those hurting, Santiago and Focus Church launched the Funerals for Free ministry. About a week later, Focus Church held its first livestreamed service . . . only no one anticipated it would be for the Santiago family.

“On April 1, my grandmother, Judy, passed away in Spain,” Santiago says. “She didn’t die of COVID, but a heart attack. I knew that grief was coming, but I had no idea that it was our family that was going to be the ones who needed the funeral.”

Santiago says that the funeral was beautiful and many more people were able to “attend” the service than ever could have come in person. So far, the video service has been viewed 7,800 times!

“Our family sang songs and everyone was able to share their thoughts through pre-recorded videos,” Santiago says. “It really was a better funeral online than it would have been in person.”

“It was terrific having the celebration of my late wife, Judy, livestreamed during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic,” states missionary Mike Santiago, grandfather of Focus Church’s Mike Santiago. “That made it possible for a much larger number of friends and family members to view that significant event from their homes or from other places all around the world, including our immediate family members, (who were) limited by travel (restrictions) to come physically together from their residences in the States.”

Since the Santiago funeral, word has spread about the free funeral service. Pastor Mike Santiago notes that even though they don’t charge for the service, families of those who have passed and used the free service have given the church a gift of money anyway.

“Many people do make a donation,” Santiago says. “They often give more than we were charging (prior to this); giving out of the kindness of their hearts.”

Santiago notes that when the free service was first offered, it was at a point where people weren’t sure what to do or what was coming next.

“It was a really tough time for people — they’re in the middle of lockdown, not knowing what they were going to do, if they would be able to work, and virus deaths were mounting,” Santiago says. “When we started offering funerals for free, we received a lot of positive feedback and support through social media — it really struck a nerve.”

Since his grandmother’s funeral and hosting several others, Santiago says the church has decided to continue offering the Funerals for Free ministry to their community — including to those that may have never visited the church — as it gets their church into the community and the community also comes to know their church.

“We’re trying to find creative ways to serve the community in very challenging times,” Santiago says. “I don’t see us going back to the old way of renting out our facility as the Lord has always met our needs.”

And in this case, through attempting to show the Raleigh community the love and compassion of Christ, Santiago, his family and extended family, and the thousands of others who viewed his grandmother’s funeral experienced the impact and results of that love and compassion firsthand.

Dan Van Veen

Dan Van Veen is news editor of AG News. Prior to transitioning to AG News in 2001, Van Veen served as managing editor of AG U.S. Missions American Horizon magazine for five years. He attends Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, where he and his wife, Lori, teach preschool Sunday School and 4- and 5-year-old Rainbows boys and girls on Wednesdays.