NEW ORLEANS (BP) — The usher typically allows five people in the sanctuary at a time. One person approaches the casket. The others wait, at a safe distance, for their turn to view the body of a loved one who died of COVID-19.
In the pandemic hotspot of New Orleans, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Senior Pastor Fred Luter has instituted socially distanced wakes in advance of funerals, having lost seven church members to the coronavirus.
“It’s just so crucial at funerals, just that human touch to embrace someone and say, ‘Here’s a shoulder you can lean on,'” Luter said. “But you can’t do any of that, because everybody’s so afraid of catching this virus.”
While COVID-19 has impacted all sectors of the U.S. population, studies show African American and Hispanic communities have suffered disproportionate tolls in death, illness and loss of income. Researchers link the disparities to long-term racial inequities in health care and employment.
In planning to resume onsite worship services, Southern Baptist churches serving blacks and Hispanics must cope with disparities while protecting their congregations’ health and maintaining revenue.
For Pastor Kevin James at New Creation Bible Fellowship in Tracy, Calif., a congregation of about 100 worshipers, that means returning to gather together no sooner than August or September.
“My number one goal is to keep our members and families safe,” James said. “I don’t want to put them in a position that anyone can contract the virus. … We’re in the wait and see, because although they’re trying to reopen things and loosen the requirements — and I understand why — but I think lives are important. And I think as a leader, my number one responsibility is for their safety and the safety of this community.”
None of his members has died of the illness, but some employed in the retail industry have lost jobs. James has seen an increase in giving, with data showing 21 new givers.
James is western and northern regional director for the National African American Fellowship (NAAF) of the Southern Baptist Convention, which serves about 4,000 churches and mission congregations. His congregation helps support four church plants, and he encourages pastors to request help when they’re in need.
Data released May 12 by APM Research Labs  shows “the latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans is 2.2 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.3 times higher than the rate for Asians and 2.6 times higher than the rate for whites.” The numbers are based on data from 80 percent of deaths and racially specific numbers released from 39 states.
“To put it plainly,” the researchers said, “if all Americans had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, at least 10,500 black Americans, 1,400 Latino Americans and 300 Asian Americans would still be alive.”
According to Pew Research, 61 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of blacks said they or someone in their household  had experienced a job or wage loss due to the pandemic, compared with 38 percent of whites.
Such disparities could make it more difficult for African American and Hispanic Southern Baptist congregations to recover from the pandemic, said Marshal Ausberry, NAAF president.
“Both communities have experienced higher unemployment along with higher mortalities when compared to the national rate for other populations. These two factors will lead to increased poverty and homelessness among African Americans and Hispanics,” said Ausberry, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, Va., and SBC first vice president. “Some congregations may be on the verge of closing and not reopening its doors. This may be an opportunity to connect with an African American and/or Hispanic congregation to develop relationships with the pastors and congregations. Relationships where each congregation prays for one another. I believe it all begins with prayer.”
Pastor David Perez at Casa de Bendición Church in St. Cloud, Fla., has been able to keep his church afloat through prayer and an interest-free loan from the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC), due in 10 years. He chose not to apply for federal assistance.
His church resumed onsite worship May 3. Attendance is limited to about 20 members — about one-fifth of pre-pandemic numbers. Families sit together, socially distancing. Hand sanitizer is prevalent. Senior citizens, comprising about 70 percent of the church membership, mostly stay home.
“We have our pros and cons in our Latino and Hispanic churches,” he told Baptist Press through an interpreter. “Most of our Hispanic churches are small; they’re not megachurches. The finances, those that can receive a small financial help, that will make a big difference and we can overcome this.”
He described his membership as faithful. Although some have lost their jobs during the pandemic, the church has been able to continue his salary as a fulltime pastor, and has been able to continue ministering to the community through assistance from the FBC. He said some members have contracted the virus, but have recovered.
East End Baptist Church in Suffolk, Va., which runs about 400, lost two members to the coronavirus, according to Pastor Wayne Faison. He estimated about 15 percent of the congregation has lost a family member or loved one to the illness. Some members have lost income or are in harm’s way by working in the service, retail and health care sectors.
“We’re hearing stories of either people being furloughed or laid off,” Faison said, “but as restaurants or things like that open back up, they are not coming back to their old jobs, but they’re coming back to jobs that might pay them less. So they have to really begin to make some critical decisions in terms of the risk factor in terms of their particular health and the economic factor in terms of trying to put food on the table. Some of the stimulus funds are only going to last for so long.”
But his members have been faithful to give, he said, and the last two Sundays have been two of the highest in terms of giving in the past two years.
“Some of that is due to people catching up, the stimulus package, there are some pieces to it,” Faison said. “But we’re going to just thank our Lord for that support.”
Faison’s, Luter’s and James’ churches all applied for and received Paycheck Protection Plan loans through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act.
Faison said he hopes to resume onsite worship in July. The services would be limited because of safety protocols to about 90 attendees in a sanctuary with a capacity of 656.
Luter said he had hoped to resume services May 31 in Phase 1 of New Orleans’ reopening plan. But with governmental safety guidelines limiting attendance to 100, he’s rethinking his reopening date. His Sunday worship attendance averages about 3,200.
“When the mayor came and told us you only can have 100 people, for a church our size,” Luter said, “how do you choose 100 people? It’s impossible, and so we have decided that we just will continue to livestream, because there’s no way we could have chosen 100 people without getting the others upset.”
Members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church have suffered job and income losses, although many are able to work from home. Luter estimates giving at about 90 percent of pre-COVID-19 levels. He has encouraged members to apply for unemployment and has encouraged small business owners to apply for loans.
In addition to seven deaths, many members have been hospitalized or quarantined with the coronavirus. Mindful of health disparities, Luter has encouraged all members to monitor their health.
“The statistics are there,” Luter said. “A lot of low-income people do not have health insurance, and that’s because they just can’t afford it. And so there’s got to be some kind of way that the country’s aware of that, and that we try to make health care available for everybody.
“A lot of these people that got sick, it’s not because they didn’t take care [of themselves], they just didn’t have access to proper health care.”