LEARNING WHAT NOT TO DO FROM OUR COUNTRY’S LEADERS
Sep 29, 2020
By Pastor Fabián Arias
The President of the United States is elected to secure the safety and dignity of all human beings living in this country, but sadly, our current “Leader of the Free World” is desperately failing his people. When President Trump addressed the country on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, he deemed churches and other houses of worship “essential,” calling on governors in all states to allow these places of worship to reopen the next day. Trump knows that we, the faithful, miss our time in-person together, and the Holy communion, and that we consider ourselves essential, but, as Bishop Paul Egensteiner of the Lutheran Church in Metro New York so expertly responded, “We know we are essential, but it is not essential to gather in person at this time.” The president, our president, is irresponsibly promoting recommendations that go against the well-being of the very people he is supposed to be protecting and caring for. Further, Trump continues to marginalize and risk vulnerable communities, especially immigrant communities. He shakes the very foundation of what is means to be a good leader, and it is the people who suffer from these earthquakes.
As a rostered pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—the first denomination in America to declare itself a “Sanctuary Church-Body”—it is my duty and call to protect all members of the vulnerable immigrant community in Metro NY and help them to navigate this crisis the best way that I can. I truly wish other leaders would understand this responsibility, uphold this moral standard, and act accordingly. It is our duty to make the difficult decisions for the greater good of everyone. For example, this coming Pentecost Sunday my congregation, La Iglesia de Saint Peter’s in Manhattan, was scheduled to confirm thirty-seven young individuals who have been diligently working toward this moment; many are unaccompanied migrants who have been waiting for this day since last year. The confirmation service is a glorious occasion in our liturgical year, for it is a blessing to witness with God these youthful members accomplishing this important milestone in their spiritual life. But, for now, our young members, our choir and our mariachi band must wait. If I can help it, I will not allow the death toll to rise any more than it already has. Mournfully, instead of preparing for celebrations, such as confirmation, I have been busy presiding over funerals, and this sorrow and loss is precisely why I do not wish to succumb to the temptation to gather in person or celebrate in person. We must consider the health and safety of those we serve, and I predominantly serve the Hispanic community.
COVID-19 continues to hit the Hispanic community hard. To date, my congregation has had over 44 COVID-19 related deaths and over 65 confirmed positive cases. That the congregation is located near several subways that connect NYC, Queens, and the Bronx, and that we are at an intersection of several vulnerable communities, contributed to the scale of the crisis that we are experiencing. Also, many of my congregants are essential (or sacrificial) workers, some of them don’t have access to health care or governmental benefits, and they depend on the church for resources and care, now more than ever.
The most often cited passage dealing with welcoming the stranger is from Matthew 25: 31-40. However, in addition to the pandemic I find that there is another crisis befalling the undocumented immigrant community, I call it Los Muertos en Vida (The Living Dead). Without benefits from the government, without jobs, without healthcare or assistance, and with the economy in its current dire state, these members of our community find themselves stagnant and in a frightful position. We (the church) must be ready to help them survive.
The everyday pressures of consoling the living and performing funeral rites for the dead has been devastating. Sometimes, though, we can’t even recover the body, many of our families don’t have the resources to do so. Regardless of the challenges and obstacles, I am determined to keep trying to offer funeral services for members and families in my congregations—that is the least that I can do. My Bishop, The Rev. Paul Egensteiner, understands the devastating impact of this pandemic within communities of color, and he has been helping us to obtain resources to recover bodies, but the need and volume is often too great. Bishop Egensteiner also calls me daily to see how I am doing. So far, I think I am doing well, although I admit I am fearful of the end of this pandemic: when the level of stress lowers, I will have to begin a healing process, for my community but also for myself. I am sure this crisis has taken a heavy toll on me, the extent of which I am not fully aware of yet, and I worry that the recovery process will be difficult.
When I think about how frustrating it is to not be able to accompany and provide pastoral care to my dying members in their last hours, how overwhelming it is that so many of my congregants are devoid of any government aid in one of the wealthiest country’s in the world, or how urgently pastors are trying to breathe life and hope into so many despairing people, I become truly troubled by those leaders at whose mercy we are and the reckless decisions they make. “Tienen nombre y apellido los que son responsables de no prever toda esta catástrofe y esta desgracia de nuestra gente.” There are individuals responsible for allowing this catastrophe and misfortune to affect our people on this large scale, people who deem themselves “leaders,” and they are now attempting to further endanger our faithful communities. Let us learn, what not to do, how not to act, and instead continue to guide our flocks with compassion, care, Godliness, and education, for in this way we may emerge united with one another from even the darkest of hours.
The Rev. Fabian Arias is the pastor of la Iglesia de Saint Peter’s, a multicultural congregation based in Midtown Manhattan. A native of Argentina, Pastor Arias moved to the United States in the 1990s. The people of Saint Peter’s Church accompanied Pastor Arias throughout the immigration process. He completed seminary training and was ordained in 2003.