Closed By Coronavirus For Over A Year, One Harlem Church Hosts A “Trial Run” On Easter Sunday

Veronica Jackson rose extra early on Sunday morning to perform a cherished but lapsed ritual: she got dressed up to go to church.

“I’m what you call a praiser,” she said, standing tall in a dark dress and heels. “And I really missed being in the midst, and just experiencing the songs and the fellowship.”

Jackson, a nurse, was among the roughly 90 congregants that convened at Harlem’s Union Baptist Church for a special Easter Sunday service this weekend. The church is one of several prominent Black churches in New York City that have been closed for more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic began. Although churches across the state have been allowed to hold limited gatherings since the summer, many have yet to reopen, opting instead to continue holding online services. But as the pace of vaccinations increases in the city, Union Baptist is among those that have decided to experiment with a gradual reopening.

Prior to the virus, Union Baptist welcomed around 300 to 400 parishioners each Sunday.

Asked what it meant to be able to attend church in person on Easter Day, Jackson’s eyes welled up. “It’s a gift,” she replied.

Moments later, Charles Cook strode through the door. A member of Union Baptist for 55 years, Cook grew up in Harlem but now lives in South Jersey, one of many who have kept up their ties to the church even after moving out of the city.

“Today, we get to see some folks,” he said. “We can see each other, worshiping together. And that’s a lot different from hearing it on the phone or watching it on a screen.”

The decision by Union Baptist to reconvene on Easter was not taken lightly. Coronavirus has sickened and killed members of the Black and Latino community in disproportionate numbers. United Baptist lost at least 20 of its congregants; some of their names are memorialized in an engraving that sits outside the church alongside a bed of tulips.

The church’s pastor, the Reverend Brian Scott, said he had spoken to several other Black churches in the neighborhood, which decided they were not yet ready. Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, another prominent Black church, will not reopen until at least the fall.

Communion wafers and wine was distribution prior to the service so as to minimize movement and interaction.

Communion wafers and wine was distribution prior to the service so as to minimize movement and interaction. Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist

During his sermon, standing before the pulpit decorated with white lilies, Scott told congregants that he stopped counting the number of those who had died after presiding over his 15th funeral.

“It’s been a long road,” he said to a nodding audience.

Beside him, a four-piece band played, a pared-down version of the full music accompaniment and choir that the church would normally have.

What began with a survey turned into weeks of preparation by Scott and more than 40 congregation members. The church purchased air purifiers and sanitizing devices, and installed social distancing signs on the floor and throughout the pews. Bibles and hymnal books were removed to prevent the possibility of surface transmission.

Communion materials, in the form of a prepackaged set of wafer and wine, were distributed to churchgoers as they walked in so as to minimize social interaction between ushers and congregants.

At the door, one of the senior congregants, Patricia Miller, managed a welcome station that included a temperature check, sign-in sheet, and plenty of hand sanitizer. As the service began, she kept a watchful eye on the crowds, making sure that people remained socially distanced. Several church members were tasked with sanitizing the bathrooms every 30 to 45 minutes.

United Baptist’s reopening reflects the urgency faced by many churches, which have faced the prospect of losing congregants due to the prolonged public health crisis.

Jon Bowden, a deacon-in-training who has been attending the church for 15 years, described Sunday’s service as “a trial run” for the more than century-old church, which opened originally in Hell’s Kitchen before relocating to its current location on 145th Street.

While not everyone may return, “I think we’re going to be okay,” said the Harlemite.

A view from the balcony of Union Baptist church.

A view from the balcony of Union Baptist church. Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist

With its call-and-response tradition, Black churches have felt especially hurt by the loss of in-person worship, although Scott maintained that technology has nonetheless fostered a new kind of community. The church has been streaming its service on YouTube, and plans to continue to offer that service throughout the pandemic.

Following Sunday’s sermon, Scott, a 44-year-old Louisiana native who sings and preaches with vibrating energy, reflected on the unique circumstances. Looking out at the pews, he could see familiar but masked faces; all but families were spaced six feet apart.

“It was kind of surreal in a way that we had finally made it, to turn this corner,” he said.

While congregants greeted each other enthusiastically—”It’s been a year!” several women proclaimed—the day had a restrained feeling. Members were instructed to leave the premises immediately after the service; there were elbow bumps, a quick grasp of the arm, but no hugs.

Still, there were unexpected moments of urban church normalcy. Scott stopped his sermon briefly at one point to read a note passed to him.

Could the owner of a white Subaru could please move the car, he said.

Over the next few days, United Baptist will gather feedback on Sunday’s service and decide when and how frequently they will gather in-person. Scott, for one, sounded hopeful.

“I think we’ll progressively ease back into it,” he said.