LOS ANGELES—Pastor Juan Carlos Mendez wasn’t allowed in the hospital even though members of the south Los Angeles church he pastors were dying of the coronavirus. So in the final moments of their lives, nurses held up phones so he could assure them, through video conference, of Christ’s presence.
“I could see the medical personnel crying,” said Mendez, the pastor of Centro Cristiano Bet-El, a Hispanic congregation in South Gate. “I could see the tears rolling down their cheeks.”
It has become a hauntingly familiar routine as a fierce wave of COVID-19 has left 11 Bet-El church members infected and four hospitalized, including two in intensive care. Two have died. Added to that, the 150-member church’s building has been shuttered for more than a month and financial hardship is mounting. Yet, that hasn’t stopped Bet-El from functioning as a ministry hub.
“The doors may be closed,” Mendez said. “But the church is open.”
Bet-El isn’t accustomed to having its activity curtailed. In addition to holding worship services in English and Spanish each Sunday, the church was “the place to go” in its neighborhood,” Mendez said. The city government frequently used the church building, as did other organizations. Governors Gavin Newsom and Arnold Schwarzenegger both have attended events there. So have Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton and even Mother Teresa.
At Easter and Thanksgiving, Bet-El served meals in a local park and shared the gospel with hundreds in its relatively underprivileged neighborhood. Even local Catholics call Mendez their pastor. But much of that activity is being paused now.
The initial signs of trouble came on Feb. 16, when the first Bet-El member was diagnosed with COVID-19. More people began to fall ill, and on Feb. 25 the state health department began working with congregational leaders to shut down all church activities in an effort to stop the virus from spreading. Less than a month later, all of Los Angeles County was ordered to shelter in place, followed by a similar order statewide. As of March 30, nearly 2,500 COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in L.A. County, with 44 deaths.
Mendez and the congregation were left wondering whether the ministry could continue under such restrictions.
It has. Among Mendez’s first priorities has been to care for the sick and dying. He spends about 10 hours each day visiting, via video chat, with church members who are hospitalized. “I don’t want to hang up until they’re ready to let me go,” he said.
Talking about heaven brought the two dying patients to a point of “peace with their own soul,” Mendez said. One analogy in particular seemed to connect with them.
Believers’ lives “are like a passenger that lands in an airport,” Mendez remembered telling them. “When one plane leaves you at that airport, another airplane is coming to pick you up and take you to your final destination,” heaven.
Funerals also have been affected by COVID-19. Mendez performed one via video. He plans to do another at the cemetery, but with attendance limited to 10 people and mourners spaced a safe distance apart.
On top of “the loneliness you’re experiencing” when a loved one dies, he said, social distancing prevents anyone from “hold[ing] your hand and say[ing] that it’s going to be alright. It just makes it worse.”
Church members who are not ill have continued to meet in cell groups at people’s homes. (The L.A. shelter-at-home order only banned gatherings “occurring outside a residence.”) Mendez trains the cell group leaders by phone and video conference. He also connects with church members through phone calls and texts.
Ministry to the community has continued as well, though in altered formats. Bet-El has been providing groceries for 30 needy families over the past four weeks. To avoid personal contact, each family pulls their car up to the church and groceries are placed in the trunk. Then they drive off.
Because many community members need legal advice stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, Bet-El has secured help from a law firm. With court dates canceled, local residents have been left in legal limbo related to criminal proceedings, child custody battles, immigration processes and bankruptcies, Mendez said.
The ongoing ministry seems to have left the community grateful. Each Sunday, throughout the day, locals pause to pray in front of the church building even though they cannot enter. Mendez estimates that 100 people stop each Sunday.
“It’s a community church,” he said.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues, Mendez wants fellow believers to pray “that this situation is a spiritual awakening and that at the end of this pandemic, people don’t go back to” the status quo.
Despite the isolation and dark circumstances, he’s certain the church can continue to “shine for Jesus.”
“I am where I’m supposed to be,” he said. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”