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Pandemic Takes Financial Toll on Religious Institutions

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April 1, 2021

By Tom Pedulla—

Buckets of all shapes and sizes can be found at the rear of Transfiguration Church in Tarrytown, serving as a rather wet reminder of the toll the pandemic has taken on many local religious institutions.

The buckets are being used to catch the drip from a particularly vulnerable point of a roof that outlived its usefulness some time ago. The same is true of the roof that covers the grammar school on the same grounds. Cost of the repair, estimated at $300,000, is money that Transfiguration simply does not have since many parishioners resorted to attending Mass online and gift-giving is dramatically reduced.

Aside from financial woes that extend beyond Transfiguration, local religious leaders have struggled to stay connected to congregations during a period of great anxiety while maintaining social distance to keep themselves and their followers safe.

“This is a situation none of us has ever been in and never expected to be in,” said Fr. Emiel, Transfiguration’s pastor.

His church’s financial woes do not stop with the roofs.

“We were impacted financially to the point where we were unable to meet some of our financial obligations until Christmas time,” Fr. Emiel said. “Thankfully, there was enough generosity among visitors to the church that it allowed us to pay those bills.”

Financial hardship at Shiloh Baptist Church in Tarrytown came in the form of two 275-gallon oil tanks in the basement that urgently needed to be replaced. One developed a leak, forcing a costly cleanup. The other had seemingly been operating on a prayer and needed to be replaced. The cost was more than $10,000, money that church did not have.

The issue produced one of the more heartening storylines since COVID-19’s emergence.

“We prayed about it. The Lord put it in everyone’s heart to give,” said Reverend Judith R. Williams, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church. “While the giving has had its ups and downs in the past year, when faced with that problem, everybody just gave. They just did whatever they could.”

Some donors had never attended the church but are friends of congregants who explained the urgency of the repairs. “That’s testimony to how much they love their church,” Rev. Williams said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”

Rabbi Jay M. Stein, D.D., who leads Greenburgh Hebrew Center Synagogue in Dobbs Ferry, estimated that contributions there are at 60 percent of their previous level. Attendance at services remains at a small fraction of the 800-person capacity. There was a time when the synagogue’s leaders worried about the ability to sustain normal operations.

“It was close, and we sweated it out,” he said. “But, thankfully, we will be all right.”

All religious leaders have been challenged to meet the emotional needs of their followers as they strain to meet their own financial obligations while coping with a sense of isolation worsened by increased fears of mortality.

“We would have expected that the elderly in the congregation would be the ones who felt most isolated and concerned. They seem to be much more resilient than other groups,” Rabbi Stein said. “For example, younger families have extraordinary pressures on them in terms of kids’ schooling, in terms of day care, in terms of trying to maintain their living.”

Virtual services have presented a mixed bag for Rev. Williams. She is accustomed to delivering sermons that stir passion in the congregation. Her remarks are often punctuated by fervent shouts — “Amen!” “Hallelujah!” “Praise the Lord!”

“It’s an affirmation of what you’re saying. It definitely drives sermons,” Rev. Williams said. “One of my colleagues likes to say that an ‘Amen!’ is like saying ‘Sick ‘em’ to a dog. When we hear ‘Amen!’ we just go, go, go, go, go.”

She has terribly missed that affirmation while staring into a camera during virtual services.

On the positive side, she noted that the online component helped to extend the congregation to upstate New York, Maryland and North Carolina, among other distant locations.

Shiloh also created a CARE ministry. Rev. Williams said she and church leaders call congregants “just to keep the fellowship going, just to say hello and talk.”

Rev. Williams added: “There is a lot we are doing that we would not have thought about doing had we not gotten the COVID.”

Rabbi Stein also sees a positive aspect to the unexpected adversity his synagogue encountered.

“I think people have really grown to understand the value of community. Even if you can’t see somebody, you know they are right around the corner and you can call on them,” Rabbi Stein said. “If we have somebody who needs food and they can’t get the food because they are homebound or at too much risk, we find a way to get them the food.”

Fr. Emiel also finds hope in Transfiguration’s activities. Using Zoom meetings with him, eight couples are preparing to be married this summer and fall.


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