Chatham’s Hispanic churches maintain community, support congregations despite COVID-19

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Editor’s note: This is another in a series of special reports produced through La Voz de Chatham, the News + Record’s Facebook Journalism Project COVID-19 grant. The project is funded through the fall. For more, see additional content on “La Voz de Chatham,” the project’s dedicated Facebook page, and under the La Voz header on the newspaper’s website.

SILER CITY — It’s dark inside Iglesia Metodista El Camino, one of Siler City’s oldest Hispanic churches.

The seats are empty, and there’s no music. Instead, there’s a tent set up outside in front of the playground. Underneath it, Pastor Antonio Legrá Juan preaches alone in the grassy field.

People listen on from three sides — some from the other side of the street — even as cars go roaring by and a plane overhead drowns out Legrá Juan’s voice. A father sits on top of his car, holding his daughter close. As Legrá Juan reads out a Bible verse, someone across the street shouts, “Amen!”

“Possibly three or four more people might come on Sunday,” said Iglesia El Camino’s Jorge Borrayo, “but for a church of 80 members to have some 20 to 25 members (attend), I think (the pandemic) has had a large impact in a spiritual and economic sense.”

COVID-19 hasn’t just shuttered worship for Iglesia El Camino; it’s also threatened the financial and spiritual welfare of many Hispanic churches in Chatham. Yet even so, many churches continue to find ways to provide crucial support to their congregations and maintain a sense of community.

Iglesia El Camino lies nestled between a credit union and a laundromat on Chestnut Street in Siler City. The church opened its doors in 1989 to meet a growing community’s spiritual needs, but since March, it has had to reduce or cancel most of its activities.

“Before, we had more songs. The sermons were a little bit longer,” said Luz Elena Borrayo, a singer who’s been attending the church since 2007. “There used to be Sunday School upstairs. They used to go upstairs after the music ended.”

Like many churches, Iglesia El Camino first experimented with virtual services. Near the end of April, they began broadcasting messages over Zoom, but after few people attended those calls, they switched to editing together pre-recorded songs with sermons and posting the videos on YouTube. They transitioned to outdoor services approximately two months ago, and in late August, they began regularly holding outdoor services every Sunday.

It’s been difficult, Jorge Borrayo said. Many families have stopped coming, and the church has been unable to continue Sunday School or many community activities.

“For a church to stay alive, we’ve got to have Sunday School, practice what is unity (and) work with the community,” he said, “and we haven’t been able to because of this social distancing and all the requirements the government and federal laws have imposed to mandate this distance.”

North Carolina has since lifted some restrictions on indoor gatherings, said Pastor Legrá Juan, but since the situation with the pandemic hasn’t changed much, he said they prefer not to risk it.

“Our church is very small,” he said. “If we were to maintain six feet between each person, we would only sit about 10 or 12 people inside and no more.”

But Jorge Borrayo said they may have a big problem in a month or two if they don’t shift to indoor services soon.

“Winter’s coming soon,” he said, adding, “The outdoors is cold. On a Sunday of 30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s impossible to work.”

Other churches have already resumed indoor services — and for most, it’s not the same.

Pittsboro’s only Hispanic church, Iglesia Bautista Misionera Roca Fuerte, lies off N.C. Hwy. 902. With help from Pittsboro Baptist Church, Iglesia Roca Fuerte sprung up in 1990 and has been led by Pastor Javier Benítez ever since.

Following North Carolina’s March stay-at-home order, Benítez began preaching through Facebook Live — and he still does even now that Iglesia Roca Fuerte’s holding indoor services to make sure “those who don’t come don’t pass the week without listening to something.”

They’ve held indoor services for about five weeks now, but it’s different from what it used to be. They have to divide the congregation into groups, Benítez said; one group attends on Saturdays while another comes on Sundays. The largest group includes no more than 45 people.

“Someone who wants to go to church in person has to enter, disinfect himself, put his mask on, don’t walk around greeting or hugging others (and) enter by that door and leave through the other,” Benítez said.

But COVID-19 has paralyzed other activities — including baptisms, funerals and Sunday School — and that’s what worries Benítez.

“The children right now are at a crucial age to speak to them about faith, the Bible, God, love, being generous, being merciful,” Benítez said. “Those truths are sown right now.”

But the church can no longer sow those truths: Benítez said the church’s classrooms aren’t spacious enough to maintain social distance and have 15 or 10 kids per class.

Other worries pertain to finances.

Iglesia Roca Fuerte survives off the gifts, donations and tithes of its congregation, Benítez said, and once those contributions run dry, it becomes harder to pay church expenses like electricity, insurance and air conditioning.

“The virus has arrived, but the bills don’t stop arriving,” he said, adding, “We can’t compare to an American church that was founded in 1800 something ... where the contributions of the parishioners are quite strong (and where) they can weather a crisis without getting into big trouble.”

COVID-19 has truly shaken his community, he said, and many have lost their income, jobs and even homes.

“How do you ask someone, ‘Give to the church,’ when you know their children are going hungry?” Benítez asked. “It’s a very difficult situation.”

Finances rank a bit lower among Pastor Fortino Ocampo’s concerns. He leads another church on North Chatham Avenue in Siler City, called Centro Familiar Cristiano. Founded in 1996, the church serves about 70 members — or at least it did before the pandemic, Ocampo said.

They recently moved into their current building, but it’s all paid for, he said, and holding fewer church activities alleviates some of the financial pressure.

“It’s true that a lot of money no longer comes in, but at the same time we don’t have many expenses,” he said. “Thank God we don’t have a building or property payment. This pandemic caught us on a simple budget, in a manner of speaking.”

Sept. 6 was the first time that church resumed holding indoor, in-person services with all required precautions. Before that, Ocampo had been holding outdoor services in the church parking lot since May, where people stayed in their cars as he preached outside.

But he, too, said it’s been difficult since the church has “practically been paralyzed.”

“We can’t go about evangelizing,” he said. “We can’t go around doing small groups. There are many things that on that side we really stopped doing and we don’t know when we are going to start doing them again.”

Located on Harold Hart Road in Siler City, St. Julia Catholic Church has a congregation that’s about 88% Latino. They offered bilingual services until COVID-19 brought them to a halt.

“It has been very difficult to see our church empty, our groups not meeting,” said Father Julio Martinez, who’s been leading St. Julia for two years. “Though we’re making a little bit of progress moving forward, but we’re doing it very carefully.”

Unlike other Chatham pastors, Martinez decided not to broadcast masses, though he created a YouTube channel where he posts, among other things, spiritual reflections and parish announcements.

“I felt that there was no need to reinvent the wheel,” he said, chuckling. “There are thousands and thousands of masses online in both English and Spanish, (so) I really didn’t feel the need to do that.”

So far, they’ve reopened the church for weekly morning masses three days a week, and on Oct. 10, Martinez said they will begin offering six masses every weekend.

“And of course it will be limited seating,” he said, adding that only about 115 to 120 people can be in the church at once.

Beginning this week, they’ll be providing passes for people that will allow them to choose the masses they will attend during the remainder of the pandemic. Raleigh Bishop Luis Rafael Zarama has waived Catholics’ Sunday mass obligation, he said, so people don’t need to come if they don’t yet feel comfortable attending indoor mass.

“You take your time,” Martinez said. “You come when you feel that you’re ready.”

‘We’re a family’

But Chatham’s Hispanic churches haven’t allowed these restrictions to paralyze them completely; many have found ways to maintain connections with and continue serving the needs of their congregations.

“We have tried to do new things,” Ocampo said. “Some work. Others don’t. But we have done our best.”

Ocampo and Benítez often send encouraging messages and devotionals to members via text or Facebook Messenger. Though they can no longer visit the sick in hospitals, Ocampo visits families mourning a loved one’s passing.

“I put my mask on with everything and I go to say a short prayer in 10 to 15 minutes,” he said, adding, “I feel like I must go.”

To engage St. Julia’s kids, Martinez created Pancho, a parrot who he said has become “famous” in the parish. Pancho stars in his own YouTube show and brings religious education, smiles and laughter to St. Julia’s little kids.

Martinez said Pancho started as a colorful statue, but after the first video, he went to “Machu Picchu Spa & Resort” and came back as a beefier, fluffier hand puppet.

“On Sundays when people drop off their contributions, sometimes I bring (him) out so that the kids can see Pancho and friends from their cars,” Martinez said. “The people have been very receptive of the fun and the serious videos because it creates some kind of a bond of a continuation, some kind of contact during this time.”

Martinez has fun with it, too — he wears wigs, puts on big glasses and sings along with Pancho and his friends.

“I’m not sure if it’s an inspiration from God or my own insanity,” he said, laughing, “but whatever it is, it works.”

Many churches have also been providing food and even financial assistance to their families to the extent that they can.

Iglesia El Camino divided a $10,000 grant among families in its congregation, granting $90 per person, and Centro Familiar Cristiano has helped some families pay rent.

“We try to do our part for our members,” Ocampo said, “trying to make our members feel that we are with them even though we cannot meet.”

Thanks in part to community donations, St. Julia’s has also provided food and money to their families in need. Sometimes when he hears someone lost a job or is in quarantine, Martinez said he would put money in an envelope, knock on the door and leave it there.

“When the going gets rough, we all got to get going,” he said. “We’re a family, and that’s what family does. We help each other in times of need.”

Iglesia Bautista Misionera Roca Fuerte likewise helps members with food, rent and even shelter. After a woman lost her job and her home, Benítez provided her a room in the church while they helped her search for work and affordable housing.

“We cannot leave a human being outside,” he said. “We cannot. We cannot. We cannot.”

Helping the vulnerable — that’s why they’re a church, he said, and he’s not going to let COVID-19 change that, too.

“We can’t stop life in difficult times. That’s when you should live life to the fullest,” Benítez said, adding, “That’s when you should help the most. Because if we close ourselves off, we stop the good we can do to help others.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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