By Sam Bojarski
For nearly 50 years, the Evangelical Crusade Christian Church in East Flatbush has been a fixture in Brooklyn’s Haitian community. It has been a sanctuary not only for worshippers who call it their home church, but for area residents of social and spiritual need. The go-to stop for politicians on the campaign trail and place for high-profile funerals and festive cultural displays alike.
But now, weighed down by the financial strain of the COVID-19 pandemic, Evangelical Crusade is one of several churches facing financial hardship, senior pastor Samuel Nicolas said.
Nicolas, who also heads the Haitian Evangelical Clergy Association, which represents more than 50 churches, said several Haitian-led churches in the New York metropolitan area are likely to close permanently. Some small “mom-and-pop” churches, which may have 100 members or fewer, he said, are at risk of not surviving past the winter.
The cash offerings, also called donations, that churches like Evangelical Crusade rely on dropped steeply since in-person attendance gave way to livestreamed services.
“We’re 47 years old. Our people, they are not used to giving online,” Nicolas said. “They’re used to going into the churches physically, handing their envelope, handing in their offering.”
Evangelical Crusade’s predicament is not unique. Nearly every church has experienced some drop in cash donations since March, said George Russ, executive director of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association. The group represents 250 churches, 38 of which are Haitian-led.
“Job loss is a big contributor,” Russ said. “Churches that were not set up to have online giving or some type of electronic platform suffered a lot.”
With holiday giving underway, Nicolas said, people should consider donating to churches in need.
“Membership does not give when they’re not present at the churches,” Nicolas said. “If [members] intend to come back to the churches, they need to make sure their church stays afloat.”
The shift to digital worship
Houses of worship, along with other entities, shifted to virtual services when the coronavirus struck New York City last March.
Evangelical Crusade began broadcasting its 9 a.m. Sunday service via Facebook. Numerous churches have done the same, including Ebenezer Haitian Baptist Church in Crown Heights, which livestreams Sunday services. The French Speaking Baptist Church in Downtown Brooklyn broadcasts its 12:30 p.m. Sunday service on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. In addition, the church offers a daily morning prayer session via telephone, as well as Monday evening Bible study via Zoom.
Joseph Victor, pastor of the First Haitian Baptist Church of Canarsie, said COVID-19 forced the church to adapt quickly. Since March, the church has purchased new video equipment and started utilizing Whatsapp for group messaging. Through the latter initiative, a movement called “spiritual breakfast” that Victor helped launch in September, the pastor shares encouraging text and voice messages daily with church members.
The church’s 11 a.m. Sunday worship service, which drew about 600 people pre-pandemic, is now streamed on YouTube.
“We don’t encourage all of them to come [in-person], maybe less than half,” Victor said. “We don’t know when we’re going to resume the way we used to be. For now we’re very, very careful.”
Currently, New York City restricts indoor services at houses of worship to 50% capacity.
At Holy Cross Roman Catholic Church in Flatbush, the 900-seat chapel’s layout can accommodate only about 35% with social distancing observed.
Its 11:30 a.m. Sunday mass in Creole is held both in person and over Facebook Live. Pre-pandemic, about 400 of the church’s 600 Haitian parishioners attended, its pastor, the Rev. Joseph Malagreca said. Since June however, when in-person services resumed, only about 150 have attended in person.
“Everybody’s afraid,” Malagreca said. “We had a lot of deaths, and a lot of them were elderly Haitian people. Even now, a lot of the elderly haven’t come back.”
Many worshippers have instead turned to the church’s Facebook livestream, with most viewers in their 50s or younger, said Yessenia Hernandez, the church’s secretary. Some older people ask their grandchildren or children to put it on the computer for them, she added.
Drop in offerings
The rise in online viewership means a decrease in the amount of offrande, French for cash offering, that churches have collected. Smaller, storefront churches are particularly vulnerable since many do not have the money to purchase the video equipment needed for virtual services.
Since March, Evangelical Crusade has seen an 80% drop in in-person attendance and a corresponding fall in offerings, Nicolas said. While they are able to donate cash online, most church members have grown accustomed to doing so in-person.
During in-person services, the offerings collection portion of the program comes with much fanfare, songs and prayers about giving. It can last for several minutes, sometimes longer during big fund drives, as designated congregants pass around the collection plate from row to row, person to person, and attendees are encouraged to give whatever they can afford.
Online, church viewers are asked to click a “donate” button, a transaction that involves having and using financial accounts that some worshippers may not have set up.
“When you’re serving a congregation that’s a little bit older, you will have technological challenges,” Nicolas said, about online giving.
Many church members have tried to maintain their level of giving by mailing offerings to their church. Some churches have also taken pledges of offerings via phone. At Evangelical Crusade, those donations can be paid by debit card or a deacon can pick up the money, Nicolas said.
At the Shrine of St. Bernadette Church in Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights, pastors do not hold livestream services because the older, traditional community it serves has not adapted to technology, parish priest the Rev. Juan Luxama said. Instead, weekend masses in the 300-seat chapel are limited to at half capacity.
When mass is not being held, Luxama allows small groups of parishioners to follow the Catholic tradition of lighting memorial candles to remember deceased loved ones. With funeral restrictions preventing so many families from typical rituals of grieving, observing the solemn candle lighting tradition has comforted many people.
“It’s a great way of release,” Luxama said. “The church provides a sense of consolation for the people. Churches provide a place where they can get the comfort, the healing they need.”
Still, St. Bernadette launched online giving since the pandemic as a way to offset expenses. Luxama said disinfecting alone after each mass, a Diocese of Brooklyn requirement, can surpass $1,000 some weeks, Luxama said.
“It’s something that we’ve introduced to them for the first time,” Luxama said. “So it’s coming slow, but online giving is a great way of supporting us or helping us maintain the church.”
Victor, the Baptist pastor, has seen a drop in donations, but he is confident that his church can weather the financial storm because the church consistently engages through multiple media channels. In addition to Sunday services via YouTube and using Whatsapp, the church holds teleconference prayer services four nights per week, Victor said.
“People are still feeding, and we try our best to feed them,” Victor said. “We’re trying to add and subtract [services] all the time.”
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story made a reference to Evangelical Crusade facing the possibility of closing this winter. Nicolas made the statement in reference to smaller Haitian-led churches in the New York metropolitan area. The original headline has also been updated to reflect this change.