The Promised Land Covenant Church in the Bronx has endured Bible-sized trials and tribulations throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
The church of about 200 has lost 15 members to COVID-19 since the pandemic hit New York City in March 2020, including a seventh grade boy. Then in January, a fire spread from a 99-cent store and consumed nine businesses along Westchester Avenue, including Promised Land Covenant Church. Sound equipment, chairs, books — the church lost everything in the fire and water used to contain the flames.
But the church members were resilient. They met in backyards to continue preaching, singing and streaming worship online through Zoom and Facebook. They renovated a basement into a new minimalist meeting place.
Then Hurricane Ida’s downpour on Sept. 30 flooded the church.
“It’s traumatic,” said Bishop Michael Carrion, who founded the church in 1978. “God is faithful, and God kept us together, but when you have multiple taxes like that, it can disorient a group.”
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In March and April of 2020, the church lost 13 people in just six weeks.
“We were in shock. We didn’t know how to deal with it,” Carrion said. “At one point, I was scared to answer the phone because every time it rang, it was someone that was dying or was dead or was intubated, and they got lost in the medical system, and we didn’t have access to them.”
The Bronx is New York’s poorest borough, and 90% of its 1.4 million residents are people of color. It suffered the highest infection, hospitalization and death rates from COVID-19 across the city last year.
After the initial wave of deaths and sickness, the “financial tsunami” came — people started losing their jobs, Carrion explained.
“Now it gets real, now people are having anxiety thinking about where are they going to live,” he said.
The church provided outside social workers to help people cope with grief, loss, trauma, fear and anxiety.
Pastor Donald Carrow said the church members’ love for one another means they are like family. Those relationships help them endure.
“I feel like that one word (love) says it all,” Carrow said. “Everything we do week to week in this community is about love. We love each other, and this family is a gift to each other. The church is a family, is what keeps us connected.”
The Promised Land Covenant Church members also invite their neighbors into their family, seeing their mission as embracing those on the margin, feeding the hungry, providing clothes to those in need and visiting the sick. The church runs a homeless ministry with a monthly food pantry called Love On The Streets, or LOTS, and supports several local organizations like South Bronx Kids — a free dance school for kids from low-income families — and BronxConnect and Brooklyn Teen Challenge, two organizations that serve vulnerable youth.
With other churches and community organizations, Promised Land Covenant Church helped raise nearly $10,000 in grants and donations to secure and distribute food and medical resources to the community’s most vulnerable. The resulting program fed thousands of people.
“It was heartbreaking to see the children, the family, the older mature citizens, who worked all their life now being in that situation,” Carrion said.
The shift to online services during COVID-19 lockdowns helped prepare the church to go virtual again when the fire took their building. Still, online worship does not build the same sense of community as in-person gatherings, Carrion said. The church leaders continued to gather in person when recording services to capture that sense of community for online participants.
“It was difficult,” he said. “The dynamic is different. Part of being uncomfortable is speaking to a camera looking at monitors. That’s why it is so important to have all the pastors here, so at least we get the energy of response, a synergy.”
Carrion sees all of these traumatic events as a way to grow stronger. He believes that God is preparing them for what is to come.
Now the Promised Land Covenant Church is looking for a new location where it can gather its full congregation — permanently. For now, part of the congregation gathers on Sundays at a temporary meeting space on Castle Hill Avenue. Prior registration is required to attend as space is limited, and services are livestreamed.
“You know, here we are, we are still showing up, and I don’t know what God is going to do,” pastor Diane Carrow said. “We just keep on showing up and following the voice of God.”
Sofia Kioko is an intern for Religion Unplugged and the 2021-2022 Arne Fieldstead scholar at the John McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York. She hails from Brazil.
Bethany Johnson studies journalism at The King’s College in New York City — in between brewing coffees for locals and tourists and photographing everyday life around the city. Her recent gallery, “On the Streets of New York: COVID-19” earned her an honorable mention from the Society of Professional Journalists.