Jared Stahler believes St. Peter Lutheran Church in New York City is having a resurrection moment. It’s a poignant statement to make after everything the pastor and his parishioners have experienced over nearly two years—calendar pages marked by tragedy, grief, community and lessons learned.
Within the first 10 weeks of the pandemic, St. Peter lost more than 50 parishioners to COVID-19. Most of those deaths were among members of the former Iglesia de Sion, a Latino congregation that just weeks earlier had voted to merge with St. Peter after being ministry partners for seven years.
“The new St. Peter’s, right after it merged, experienced a massive loss of life, but we went through this crisis very much together as a community,” Stahler said.
Fabian Arias, who served Sion and is now a pastor of St. Peter, gathered with many of the families who lost loved ones, holding small funeral services in homes or on the street. He said many of the Latino parishioners are undocumented immigrants and often multiple families live together in one apartment, making it easier for the virus to spread quickly among people. One family lost multiple members across generations in 10 weeks’ time.
“It was a very dramatic situation,” he said, adding that every day for nearly two months he received calls from families asking him to pray with them for their sick loved ones or to hold funeral services.
In addition to the loss of life, Stahler said many parishioners lost jobs, making it difficult to pay rent or put food on the table. To help, St. Peter partnered with other city congregations to start a food and personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution program, which is ongoing.
“In the midst of all of this, we’re figuring out how to build a community that just merged together,” he said.
St. Peter has had an online presence for many years, so it started livestreaming liturgies from day one of the pandemic. Initially they had separate services for English and Spanish, the latter of which Arias broadcast from his home. But in June 2020 they recalibrated their approach.
“We understood it would not be safe for us to bring our community together because of the loss of life we’d experienced,” Stahler said. “We realized the pandemic isn’t something that is going away, so we needed to think creatively about how to approach being church and how to live more deeply into our merger using the digital tools at our disposal.”
Leaders spent a lot of time thinking about the dynamics of people worshiping from home and what it meant to present something powerful in a concentrated format. “That changed everything, from the way we preach to read to how music is done,” he said.
“In the midst of all of this, we’re figuring out how to build a community that just merged together.”
For example, during vespers they chose to not light a typical large candle that would be found in the church, but rather the kind of everyday candle people have in their homes.
They also created a bilingual Wednesday night service that takes place on Zoom rather than being broadcast. Stahler said this has presented many gifts, such as opening up space for leadership among the congregation’s youth since many of them are bilingual. “This probably wouldn’t have developed quite as fast had we not had to build a community in the midst of a pandemic,” he said.
Last December they planned a bilingual Christmas Eve service that would bring the whole community together virtually. Every parishioner received a Christmas card from the congregation along with a linen cloth designed with St. Peter’s logo. They collected video footage of people spreading out their cloth and lighting a candle, anticipating the ritual people would be doing in their homes on Christmas Eve. The video was shown at the beginning of the service, along with a video compilation of members singing “Silent Night” in their homes in English and Spanish.
“What resulted was this beautiful rendition that you couldn’t do in person,” Stahler said, adding that their whole mentality shifted about how to use technology and media in ways that fostered a sense of community.
“People were embodying what it means to be the body of Christ in their own homes,” he said. “What we saw emerge in Zoom—with people in their homes where the dog is barking or the fire engine is blaring by outside—is a kind of realness to humanity. I continue to marvel at that. In some ways, it has given us a better picture into each other’s humanities.”
Enduring witness of Christ
On the morning of Jan. 4, St. Peter endured yet another challenge as a city water main broke, flooding its building. Two-thirds of the building was massively damaged or destroyed, including the sanctuary and the entire lower level. But the congregation, as it had now many times before, persevered and came together.
In June, leaders started welcoming parishioners back to the church in small groups for worship with outdoor liturgy services held on St. Peter’s plaza. And in September, they moved all services into what they refer to as the church’s “living room,” which with social distancing allows 40 people to gather, all with preregistration.
“It was very, very emotional,” Arias said of returning to in-person services after everything the congregation had been through. “It was a very beautiful, spiritual and emotional time for us to slowly come back together.”
The congregation is maintaining their digital services because they realize there is a large swath of people who only connected with them because they were able to do so virtually last year. Stahler said a special gift of this is that it allows families to worship together from different countries, as many of St. Peter’s Latino parishioners have relatives living in Latin America.
“It was a very beautiful, spiritual and emotional time for us to slowly come back together.”
Arias and Stahler have no false notions that there will be a return to normal. They know how much their congregation has been through during the pandemic—a merger, the destruction of two-thirds of its building and, most significantly, the loss of now more than 70 members. There are still a lot of new things to be worked out, but they see it as a time to faithfully lean into the church’s theme: “Together, being the Body of Christ.” “Juntos, formando el cuerpo de Cristo.”
“How do you offer thanksgiving in the midst of so much sorrow and death? That is what we’re learning this year—how to pray and thank God for one another in this immensely challenging time,” Stahler said.
“But we don’t feel alone. Our God is one who went to the cross, who died and who rose to new life that was dramatically different from what was before, and I’m convinced that’s what’s going on in our midst. We are in fact being resurrected.”