COVID-19 and the Latinx church

A CNN report in May pointed out a significant but sad statistic: “In California, Latinos represent 70% of all coronavirus related deaths within the demographic of those 18 to 49-years-old, despite making up just 43% of the population, according to data from the California Department of Public Health. In New York City, Hispanics are dying at rates more than 50% higher than their white counterparts, and more than twice the rate of Asians, according to the New York City Health Department.’’

Given these dynamics, the Office of Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support of the Presbyterian Mission Agency sent an informal questionnaire to pastors and leaders of Hispanic/Latinx congregations throughout the nation and Puerto Rico, and asked them to share stories of how the pandemic is affecting their congregations and communities.

Isabel S. Rivera-Velez, pastor of a Latinx Presbyterian Church in Houston, wrote: “The church I serve is largely an immigrant community and of those who are historically marginalized even in normal circumstances without the threat of a virus. Therefore, these church members were the first to lose their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and the stay-at-home policy. Out of the 31 giving units, 20 lost their jobs.’’

Enicia Montalvo, a certified ruling elder from Oakland, California, shared this: “Our congregation, like many of the Hispanic communities, includes many undocumented immigrants. As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, already 10 undocumented families have lost their jobs.’’

Undocumented immigrants cannot collect unemployment, which compels them to work even when they are sick, facilitating the spread of the virus to their co-workers and others in the community. They also lack access to health care, which contributes to higher rates of diabetes and other conditions that can worsen infections.

Many have jobs that require interaction with the general public, such as food service and transportation. And some work in meatpacking plants, which have emerged as major coronavirus hot spots.

A New York Times article from May states: “Public health experts say Latinos may be more vulnerable to the virus as a result of the same factors that have put minorities at risk across the country.’’

Other Hispanic/Latinx pastors and congregational leaders who answered the survey expressed many of the same concerns.

Despite these challenges, Hispanic Presbyterian congregations have developed plans of action to help their communities.

Another pastor, Pedro Pablo Morataya, shared that the session of his congregation has set aside $5,000 to help members of the community affected by unemployment, including undocumented workers. The congregation has also joined forces with ecumenical partners to coordinate efforts.

Others have increased their social services programs — such as food pantries and help with rent and utilities.

Congregations have reached out to their presbyteries, synods, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and other denominational and local government resources. The Office of Hispanic/Latino-a Intercultural Congregational Support of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, under the leadership of Rosa Miranda, has given guidance to many of these efforts through constant communication and sharing of resources. Miranda also coordinated the sharing of spiritual resources by dozens of Hispanic/Latinx pastors through social media.

The National Hispanic/Latinx National Presbyterian Caucus has also responded to the challenge by offering grants to congregations to jump-start new projects addressing the needs of their communities.

Montalvo summarizes the issue her congregation faces, but with a caveat: ‘’Like many congregations, we have not been receiving tithes and offerings. Only 3% of givers have sent their pledges recently according to the treasurer. [However] we continue to believe in the sovereignty of God in these difficult moments, and when anxiety threatens to overburden me, I hold on to God’s Word.’’

Tony Aja is an honorably retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Orlando, Florida. He is moderator of the Hispanic/Latinx National Presbyterian Caucus at adjunct professor at McCormick Theological Seminary.