The Rev. Henry Torres told his parishioners, who had gathered on Palm Sunday in socially distanced rows of half-empty pews, that God had not abandoned them.
The coronavirus had killed dozens of regulars at the church, St. Sebastian Roman Catholic Church in Queens, N.Y., and the pandemic forced it to close its doors for months last year. But the parishioners were there now, he said, which was a sign of hope.
“Even through difficulties, God is at work,” Father Torres said. “Even when people are suffering, even if it may seem that God is silent, that does not mean that God is absent.”
That is a message that many Christians — and the cash-strapped churches that minister to them — are eager to believe this Easter, as the springtime celebration of hope and renewal on Sunday coincides with rising vaccination rates and the promise of a return to something resembling normal life.
Religious services during the Holy Week holidays, which began on Palm Sunday and end on Easter, are among the most well-attended of the year, and this year they offer churches a chance to begin rebuilding their flocks and regaining their financial health. But the question of whether people will return is a crucial one.
Across New York City, many churches have still not reopened despite state rules that would allow them to do so.
The Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, a nationally prominent Black church, said concerns over the virus, and its disproportionate impact on the Black community, would keep his church from reopening until at least the fall.
Nicholas Richardson, a spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of New York, said many of its churches had also not reopened. When the diocese introduced a program last fall to allow its 190 parishes to pay a reduced tithe to the diocese, roughly half of them applied.
“It varies church by church,” he said. “Pledges are not necessarily dramatically down, but donations given to the collection plate are hopelessly down.”