By Sam Bojarski
Churches nationwide have used federal relief funds to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic, but small Haitian churches in Brooklyn have been locked out, some pastors said. Now, they are asking the government to help.
“Small churches are not qualifying for the disaster loans because they do not have any employees,” said Jerome Herold, pastor of Bethel Christian Church, a congregation of about 200 people in East Flatbush. “We are dealing mainly with volunteers.”
Churches in Brooklyn have seen cash offerings, a main revenue source, decline sharply as in-person attendance dropped, parishioners lost income and lack of technology literacy prohibited giving online. In a Dec. 2 conference call, the executive committee of the Haitian Evangelical Clergy Association, which includes pastors like Herold, called for broader government assistance to help small churches in the community stay afloat.
“We’re not looking for disaster loans, we’re looking for a government bailout,” said the Rev. Samuel Nicolas, head of the Haitian Evangelical Clergy Association, during the Dec. 2 call. “We need [a] government subsidy to stay afloat.”
On Dec. 20, Congress finalized the details of a $900 billion stimulus bill. The bill revived the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) which did not provide relief for churches without employees, in the spring.
If the PPP has not been reformed so that umbrella organizations like the Haitian Evangelical Clergy Association can receive funds to serve smaller churches, there is little hope for relief, Nicolas said, in a Dec. 21 interview. The Clergy Association represents more than 50 Haitian churches in the New York City metropolitan area.
The $521 billion PPP program, which was initially part of the CARES Act stimulus package in March, only applied to organizations that could demonstrate payroll expenses.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office has begun exploring ways to assist small churches, said Jose Bayona, a spokesperson for the mayor. So far, the administration has directed faith leaders to the Small Business Administration and New York City Small Business Services for help.
“We are in the early stage of exploring the possibility of connecting smaller houses of worship to either larger houses of worship or private donors,” Bayona said in an email.
Congresswoman Yvette Clarke of the 9th Congressional District, which encompasses numerous small churches impacted, said in a statement to The Haitian Times prior to the new stimulus bill passing, that she has called for reform to the PPP.
Clergy members on the Dec. 2 call agreed they needed assistance that goes beyond the requirements of the PPP.
“If the government does not step in and help our churches, a lot of our churches will end up closing after this pandemic or during this pandemic,” said Nicolas, speaking on behalf of the clergy association. “We’re asking for help, we’re crying for help.”
Houses of worship, especially Black churches, hit hard
Nationwide, church finances have taken a hard hit from COVID-19, with Black churches taking the brunt of it.
In a September survey of 1,007 Protestant pastors nationwide, polling firm LifeWay Research found that 35% reported lower levels of donations at their churches this year, compared to 2019. The firm typically sees no more than 25% of churches report lower year-over-year giving levels.
When their income is reduced, churches typically have difficulty covering their two biggest expenses, which are property and staffing costs, said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research.
“If a church has paid off the building that they meet in, they can often last a long time,” McConnell said. “But for many churches that are renting or have a mortgage, these are trying times.”
Of the churches surveyed by LifeWay in September, 34% indicated attendance was down 50% to 70% compared to February, just before the pandemic struck. More than one third of all pastors had either delayed a big project, stopped supporting a specific ministry or made staffing changes as a result of COVID-19.
Bethel Christian Church serves large numbers of essential workers, Herold said, which has contributed to low attendance. Other congregants are watching the news and have decided to stay home from church, from fear of contracting the virus.
“Members, they are low-income people, and they’re also working in health care,” Herold said. “They go and do their overtime, [those] that have work.”
National data underscores the particularly devastating impact of the pandemic on Black churches. Specifically, 60% of Black pastors said they did not meet in-person during September, compared to 13% of all churches, LifeWay reported. Black pastors were also most likely to report that they either removed a staff position or reduced pay.
This data, McConnell said, underscores how seriously Black pastors, particularly in regions like the Northeastern United States, treated the pandemic. It also speaks to the devastating toll of the pandemic on minority communities.
Pastors call for financial aid
McConnell said any downturn in giving very quickly affects whether churches have a place to meet or are able to pay their staff. Rent relief would provide churches more reprieve than loans, which could take years to repay, he said.
In New York City, some small businesses have negotiated rent adjustments with their landlords. However, earlier this month, small business owners protested the lack of broader rent relief from the government.
Smaller churches may not have payroll, but they do have hefty operational expenses to cover, like rent.
Herold, for one, said he would like to see rent forgiveness for churches like his. Churches in the community may be paying between $3,000 to $5,000 in rent and face income reductions of 25%, he said on the Dec. 2 call.
“A voucher or grant [for] three months’ rent, that would be a big relief,” Herold said.
The financial predicament of churches underscores the need for federal lawmakers to consider financial assistance for small churches, particularly in the form of stimulus money, Nicolas said.
While details of the December stimulus bill have been finalized, President-elect Joe Biden has suggested the need for more assistance early next year, after he takes office.
Congresswoman Clarke, whose district is teeming with Haitian churches like Bethel Christian Church, called for changes to the PPP.
“If we do not reform the Paycheck Protection Program to make sure all of the pillars of our communities, like non-profit organizations and small churches, get the resources they need to carry on, we will all suffer,” Clarke said.
Clarke did not immediately detail how her office would advocate for PPP changes that could benefit local churches.
It is not yet known what, if anything, other elected officials may be doing to assist.
New York City District 45 Council Member Farah Louis, and New York State assembly members Rodneyse Bichotte of District 42 and Nick Perry of District 58 — all of whom represent portions of central Brooklyn with small churches — have not responded to requests for comment.