NEW YORK — A Harlem pastor who lost 13 members in 30 days, including 11 to the deadly new coronavirus, said he believes the faith of his congregation is now being tested as many of his congregants remain untested for the virus despite their church’s staggering death toll.
“The Scripture says whether we live, we live unto the Lord, whether we die we die unto the Lord … all of us are born with an expiration date on us and all of us are going to meet death at some point. It is simply unfathomable and unfortunate that so many people in our congregation [have died],” the Rev. Johnnie Green of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem told The Christian Post Tuesday while noting he hasn’t been getting much sleep.
“I get calls all times of the night. Every time my phone rings I wonder if it’s an announcement of another person either testing positive or another person dying so you know, I’m averaging about four hours of sleep per night. That’s it. It’s on my mind,” Green said.
Since his members began dying, the Harlem preacher, who leads a 1,200-member congregation, said he has only been able to bury two of them because a local funeral home serving the church has also been hit hard by coronavirus infections.
“The owner of the funeral home and several of the employees contracted COVID-19. People were getting sick going in and out of the funeral home so they mandated the funeral home be quarantined for 14 days which has delayed some burials,” he said. “We had three burials that were supposed to take place this week. Two burials and one cremation that has now been put on hold until May.”
Just 48 hours earlier, Green revealed to his congregation in a Facebook Live broadcast that 11 members had, died including nine from the coronavirus. Shortly before his interview with CP on Tuesday morning, he got a call that a 13th member of his congregation had passed away. The two new deaths were coronavirus-related, said Green and it has been “devastating,” he said.
“It hit so severely and so suddenly, it was sort of like being blindsided. It’s something that you don’t expect. You read in the Bible, you read the stories of people like Job and how he lost 10 of his children at one time and the impact that it had on Job’s life. Well I didn’t lose 10 children but I’ve lost 13 parishioners and the impact has been devastating.
“It’s like, you remember when the World Trade Center was hit, how those buildings were leveled? The same kind of shock that I experienced watching those buildings fall is the same kind of shock I’m experiencing as I watch members of our church fall to COVID-19. So it has been a shocker.”
He insisted, however, that he is standing on his faith even as he grapples with the reality that he, as well as many of his congregants, remain untested for the virus.
“I don’t think that God has picked our church out to pick on us. I believe God has allowed this to happen in our church for our church to demonstrate before the world what real faith in God looks like … Now we are learning that God can get us through the crisis … so we are depending on His Word,” he said. “We are walking by faith and we are believing God and trusting God for the outcome and we believe that when this virus comes to an end or when it’s brought under control or when there is a vaccine found … that our testimony as a church family will only be that much greater.”
When asked how he thinks so many members of his church got infected with the coronavirus, he said many of his members are essential workers from a variety of professions.
“Well, we have a large congregation. A lot of our members are essential workers. A lot of our people work in schools systems, they work in transit, they work in the hospitals, they work in law enforcement, and so many of them from different walks of life were exposed,” he said.
“So before we had knowledge of the virus, when I say knowledge we knew that it was out there, but before we could prepare and before the shutdowns were being ordered we were coming to church. And if you bring 600 or 700 people in the church at one time and five people are infected with the virus, it’s going to spread like wildfire and that’s what happened,” he said.
Green said his last in-person service was on March 15, five days before New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the state to shut down on March 20 as the virus spread rapidly. At 12 a.m. that Friday, there were 7,100 cases of coronavirus statewide with more than 4,400 in New York City. By 6 p.m., New York City’s infection figure had surged to nearly 5,700.
As of Tuesday morning, there have been more than 253,400 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in New York, including more than 141,235 in New York City. More than 14,828 people with COVID-19 have died in the state, not including the deaths of people with probable cases.
Green said the infections at his church first became apparent after three members of his church’s choir contracted the virus.
“Three people in the choir contracted it and two died. One of our deaconess contracted it. She sat on the third row from the pulpit so there I was standing in the middle — three people infected in the choir, two or three people were infected in the congregation right in front of me,” he said.
The pastor, who says he suffers from chronic bronchitis, explained that he would also eventually get sick but was not given a coronavirus test when he visited his doctor despite having all the symptoms of coronavirus. He was diagnosed with a severe sinus infection and upper respiratory issues.
“All the symptoms bore the similarities to COVID-19. The high fever, the chills, the coughing, the shortness of breath, all the symptoms were there. I believe at that time they were just being a little lax and I believe that’s why a test was not administered to me,” Green said.
“You can call it what you want. I think it was just a sloppy job that I took the antibiotics and I self-quarantined and as a result I’m doing better,” he said, still coughing profusely.
Green said even though the virus began moving through his congregation quickly, as soon as he was aware that people were getting sick he shut his church down.
“It spread so rapidly because we are a large congregation and so many people were asymptomatic. They had it and didn’t know it and they were in church. As soon as we discovered that people were getting sick we immediately, even before the government of New York and the mayor of New York closed down the churches, we shut down,” he said.
“This week marks five weeks since we’ve been shut down but we have been stabilized by our faith in God. I believe personally as a Christian that faith is not authentic until it’s tested and my faith has been tested over the last 30+ days. It’s been tested but it hasn’t been shaken.
“My belief in God has only increased because I believe in Romans 8:28 where Paul advocates the doctrine of total good … We believe that God can bring something good out of something that appears to us to be so bad and this COVID-19 virus it is bad. I have labeled it the 'invisible assassin.' However, God is with us,” he said.
When asked if he had reached out to the city’s department of health for assistance in getting all the members of his church tested, he said they were directing symptomatic members to testing sites. He also noted that Harlem, which has a significant black and brown population, did not have a coronavirus testing site for a long time. A new testing site opened in Harlem on Monday.
He further noted that many of his members who aren’t displaying any symptoms of the virus are now too afraid to come out of their homes and get tested.
“It would be quite difficult to try to get all of our members to show up for a test at this point because people who don’t have it don’t want to come out of their homes. So they are just staying in and staying safe so it would be almost impossible to get everybody tested,” he said.
On Sunday, he continued to try inspiring hope among his flock in an online sermon, warning them not to be distracted by death.
“Like Elisha’s servant, we may have all become distracted to the point where we are paralyzed by our fears but I drop by this virtual worship experience today to say to all of you, don’t be distracted by the dangers. Yes, COVID-19 is real. Yes, people are testing positive and dying every day but the good news is more people are surviving COVID-19 than those who are succumbing to it,” he said.
“Now, I am in no way making light of the death of any of the persons who perished in the face of this deadly disease. My heart, I want you to know, bleeds church for our members who were fatally wounded and taken away from us as a result of the coronavirus,” he said. “I have no words for the pain I am feeling as a pastor … But what I will tell you today church is that there is still hope for deliverance.”