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COVID-19, the Big Apple, and Loving Our Neighbor

Nate and Katie Carey* have served as MTW missionaries for more than 20 years—first in Europe, and then ministering to the South Asian community in New York City since 2013. They work with a local PCA church, run an after-school tutoring program for kids, and teach English as a Second Language (ESL) to adults—all the while building relationships, sharing the gospel, discipling new believers, and loving their neighbors well.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Empire State, the Careys’ normal ministry activities, and normal life, ground to a halt.

“The South Asian community in New York has been hit really hard … so there’s a lot of fear, a lot of worry,” said Nate. 

At the time when Nate and Katie were interviewed for this article, about 200 of the approximately 17,000 COVID-19 deaths in the city were from the small South Asian community with which the Careys work. Local leaders fear those estimates are low.

By mid-May, the pandemic (and the resulting stay-at-home orders) had been in New York City in full force for two months. According to Nate and Katie, many families in the South Asian community had not left their apartments that entire time. Just before lockdowns were put into place, most families stocked up on bulk groceries, buying hundreds of pounds of rice and other staples. For months after, many of these families refused to open their doors or even windows—ever—for fear of catching the virus.

“Everybody knows somebody who has died from COVID-19, so it’s created this huge amount of fear in the community,” said Nate.

A Tragic Toll

Their fear is not unfounded. Across the United States, minority communities have suffered higher death rates than white Americans, and New York City had among the highest infection and death rates in the country.

In the agency where Nate works as a nurse for adults with intellectual and physical disabilities—located smack dab in the pandemic’s epicenter—40% of the patients contracted COVID-19. One in 10 died. Four of Nate’s immediate coworkers contracted the virus and died as well. The Careys were not spared either—Nate, Katie, and their college-age son all contracted COVID-19, leaving them very sick and stuck at home for nearly three weeks. In their immediate community, the mother of two little girls in the tutoring program—a friend of Katie’s—died of COVID-19 in late March.

“The toll on the city, across the board, is hard to even imagine on some levels,” said Nate. “It’s just been atrocious.”

Understandably, the Careys have had to temporarily shut down both their tutoring and ESL programs—their primary avenues for ministry. But with their community hurting, they’ve been busy nevertheless, and God’s people always find a way. When the mother of the two little girls died, the Careys chipped in to help the family out however they could—taking them food, helping the girls process their grief and the death of their mother, and mobilizing the community to raise funds to cover the cost of the funeral.

It’s Both/And

The virus has taken an economic toll too. With a lockdown in place, many families’ bread winners (often taxi drivers or restaurant workers) were out of work and quickly running out of money. In response, the Careys began organizing relief efforts for their Big Apple community—raising funds to help families pay for food and utilities. Meanwhile, Katie has started doing online video calls with kids from the tutoring program—often leading craft times or games.

“A lot of that has come from talking to parents who just say: ‘No, we don’t want our kids tutored right now. They really just need somebody to interact with. We want them to be able to have fun,” Nate said.

Similarly, though the ESL classes have stopped, Katie and Nate still meet weekly online with their students, checking in and sharing what’s going on in their lives.

Even as the pandemic has taken lives, obliterated jobs, and disrupted any semblance of normalcy for New Yorkers, Nate and Katie have been able to deepen ties with their community through their Christ-driven relational ministry.

“It’s been neat to see God open those doors,” said Katie. “If we’re not engaged in people’s real needs and real lives, what are we doing? But also, if we’re not talking about Jesus, what are we doing? It’s both/and.”

Serving the Community with the Love of Christ

As the pandemic continues, so do the Careys’ relationships. They call and text their students, check in on parents, and organize financial help for hurting neighbors. Katie reads stories to lonely, stir-crazy kids trapped in their apartments. Nate has conversations about life and faith over the phone with a local Muslim man with whom he’s been building trust. Katie builds on years-long friendships with South Asian women—having honest conversations about God and beliefs, heaven and hell, and cultural differences. Nate mentors eighth-grade boys—an effort made up of equal parts video games and talks about life and faith and Jesus.

Slowly things are getting better in New York City. At the outbreak’s peak, the emergency room down the street from the Careys’ apartment was so overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases that the line to get in wrapped outside and around the hospital—an eight-hour wait. Sirens blared constantly—all night, every night for a week straight. Now, the space between sirens is slowly getting longer.

And yet, the loss—of lives and jobs and school years and savings accounts—has still taken its toll on the five boroughs. The uncertainty and fear—of what each day will bring, where next month’s rent and this week’s groceries will come from, if friends or family or one’s own self will live to see the next year—still remains. But when the dust settles, when the lockdowns lift and a vaccine is found and the world begins to rebuild, one community in New York City will know that they were not forgotten in their darkest hour. They’ll remember Katie’s stories and Nate’s talks and the groceries showing up on their doorstep, and they’ll ask: “Why? Why did you love us like this?”

And the answer will be: “Because of Jesus. Would you like to know Him too?”

*Names have been changed.

Andrew Shaughnessy, New York City United States Jun 23, 2020
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