Rev. Fabian Arias presides over a funeral Mass for Raul Luis Lopez in Queens.
Raul Luis Lopez is the n. 33 in a list that continues to grow.
The 39-year-old bell boy of the restaurant died last month in a New York hospital.
And at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, it’s part of a devastating count: Coronavirus deaths from our parish.
The list is on the desk of Rev. Fabian Arias, under the mask of the N95 which he intends to wear at the next funeral he presides. There are dozens of names and he fears that there will be more soon.
Arie and other church leaders say the pandemic killed 44 people from their parish.
Some were active members who regularly attended Mass. Others showed up sporadically for Holy Week, family baptisms or other special events. Arias sees them all as part of his parish. And he says the death toll in their church reveals a worrying reality about how the coronavirus pandemic is devastating immigrant communities.
Church leaders provided a copy of the list to CNN, but asked that the full names of the victims not be printed to protect their privacy. CNN spoke to several family members of those who died and confirmed about a third of the names on the list with public documents available, but was unable to confirm some deaths independently.
Of the deaths in the parish that church officials have recorded, Arias says that the majority – nearly 90% – are Latin. And many, he says, are undocumented immigrants.
“The virus installs more in the most vulnerable places and therefore infects the most vulnerable people. That is the question. The virus does not discriminate, “he says.” We are the ones who discriminate against society. “
Leaders say coronavirus has devastated churches across the city
St. Peter’s is located above a subway hub and attracts worshipers from five New York boroughs, some of whom visit the church on their way to and from jobs such as bellboys, waiters, construction workers and cleaners.
The congregation, which recently merged with a Spanish-speaking church, is approximately 50% Latin, according to church leaders. And it’s not the only one that hurts.
Bishop Paul Egensteiner, who was elected last year for the Metropolitan Synod of the Lutheran Evangelical Church in New York, said that many Latin-majority congregations in the city were devastated by Covid-19. In some, pastors report that 25-30% of the congregation is infected, he said.
The bishop told CNN that he is angry with Americans who claim that the pandemic has been overcome.
“You have to be in a very privileged place to be able to say it,” said Egensteiner. “Either you have blinders, or it’s an acute lack of awareness of how this virus is devastating communities.”
The Latin population of New York has been particularly affected by the coronavirus. Starting May 6 more than 5,200 Latins in New York City died of Covid-19, a higher death toll than any other racial or ethnic group.
It is a trend that public health officials and defenders have also warned across the country.
“We are dying at a higher rate because we have no other choice,” Frankie Miranda, president of the Hispanic Federation, told CNN. “These are the people who deliver food, the people who are the daily workers, the agricultural workers, these are people who work in restaurants. They are essential services and now they do not enjoy the protections that people may have in other sectors “.
Looking for friends and families are hit hard. One reason, church officials say, is that immigrant workers often live in crowded conditions, making it easier for contagion to spread through nearby networks. In St. Peter, church officials say a parish leader has lost both his brother and father.
Egensteiner said that Latin congregations across the city are facing the same crisis.
“When they are able to meet again,” said Egensteiner, “congregation members will be shocked by those who have disappeared.”
Reading the list of coronavirus deaths has become a new ritual
St. Peter’s list started in mid-March with one name.
Now, the single-spaced list is so long that it spans a second page. The severe ritual of reading the names aloud became as much part of the church’s Spanish biweekly mass as they recited the Lord’s prayer.
During each service, broadcast live on Facebook from Arias’s apartment in the Bronx, photos of the dead flash on the screen.
Behind each name, there is a story.
There is a beloved tango singer who enchanted the audience. There is a construction worker who told friends and relatives that he was afraid of going to the hospital – and he died at home, alone.
And then there is Raul, the thirty-third name on the list, a delivery man at a restaurant suffering from diabetes, went to the hospital when he started to feel bad, tested positive for coronavirus and never left.
“We thought it would be released soon. We don’t know what happened, “says his cousin, Miguel Hernandez.” We couldn’t go find him. … It was horrible.”
Hernandez says the hospital called him to tell him that his cousin was dead and that Covid-19 was the cause of death.
He says that listening to his cousin’s name read in the long list of Mass gives him comfort, but it also breaks his heart.
“There are so many people,” he says, “who are in the same situation we are suffering from.”
The church has protected people from fear
St. Peter’s Lutheran original was founded in 1861 by German immigrants, who venerated over a food store in central Manhattan. The church later sold its land for $ 9 million to a Citigroup precursor, who built both an office tower and the modern triangular church which now stands on the corner of 54th Street and Lexington Avenue.
As the Lutherans moved away from the city and the congregation diminished, St. Peter reinvented himself less as a sanctuary for worship than as a ministry in the creative and chaotic city that surrounds it. The church houses art galleries, jazz vespers, programs for the sick and food pantries for the homeless, as well as legal clinics for immigrants.
And since the Trump administration has intensified immigration repression in recent years, Arias says many have come to church because of the legal clinics offered there. Arias, who conducts Spanish-language services at St. Peter’s, says immigrants from at least 14 different Latin American countries consider the church to be a spiritual home.
“People were looking for protection. … They want to baptize their children, communion, confirmation, all the sacraments. They are attracted to faith, “he says.” But in recent years, they have basically been attracted to fear. “
Arias, who made headlines when he became the legal guardian of many immigrant children to help them stay in the United States, he says immigrant members of the congregation are no strangers in handling disasters. Storm Sandy destroyed some of their homes in New York. And some have seen earthquakes devastate parts of their home countries.
But nothing, says Arias, has shaken them like this pandemic.
“People are afraid,” he says, “and it’s even sadder for these people because most of them have lost their jobs.”
Restaurants closed. Closed construction sites. Long-time employers let the cleaning ladies go in seconds.
“They live on this money every day,” says Arias. “Now they don’t have it to feed their children.”
So Arias pushed to distribute donated food to hundreds of families. And in sermons, he tries to offer comfort to his congregation.
“When we walk in the darkness of confusion, despair, friends, Christ offers himself to us like a light,” Arias said in a recent Wednesday evening broadcast.
But even for Arias, darkness is impossible to ignore.
Last week he said he presided over eight funerals, including four for people related to the parish.
“Two more are dying every day,” says Arias.
This leaves little time to suffer, he says, or to absorb the extent of what is happening.
“You feel like you stop to think about it, you wouldn’t be able to continue,” says Arias.
Today he presides over another funeral Mass.
A living room funeral, with masks and gloves
Arias distributes masks and gloves as soon as she sets foot in the candlelit living room. So he asks everyone to stand out as much as possible.
Normally they would be inside their church. The benches would be packed. He would have embraced the grieving participants before the service started, so that they knew they were not alone.
But the Manhattan building where St. Peter normally holds his masses has been closed since early March. Raul Luis Lopez’s funeral takes place at home in Queens, where the delivery worker lived.
It is a small gathering for the immediate family and Arias’ first funeral took place in a private house. And today he is just as focused on protecting the living as he is on praying for the dead.
In addition to gloves and masks, he brought disinfectant spray for the communion plate.
Today we ask you for the eternal rest of our beloved Raul Luis Lopez. Bless these ashes that were part of his earthly life here on earth.
Arias is in the center of the room. A small black box holding Lopez’s ashes sits on a nearby table surrounded by candles in front of a large screen TV.
Bless also your loved ones who are here today and this family of faith that participates today in this prayer for the dead in this place.
This place is a living room with bright green walls with school performance certificates. It is a neighborhood where many Mexican immigrant families live. And it’s a community where Arias knows that many people in the shadows suffer.
Let this peace that only you, God of life, can give us, remain in each of us.
Arias peeks over the surgical mask and scrutinizes the room as she speaks. Make an effort to look each person in the eye.
He can’t embrace them, but he wants them to know that whatever happens next, he will stay with them too.
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