Glimpses of hope sustain Latter-day Saints in COVID-19 hotspots of Navajo Nation, NYC

Latter-day Saints living on the Navajo Nation continue to feel the sobering health and economic effects of COVID-19. 

Meanwhile, their fellow members in New York City are taking their first cautious steps in emerging from the ongoing pandemic.

“We’re still struggling,” said Tuba City Arizona Stake President Ollie Whaley. “We’ve had a few more positive cases, the numbers have gone up. But we haven’t had additional fatalities among our members — so that’s a good thing.”

The virus claimed the life of one Tube City stake member, a 31-year-old man, last month.

Members living in the east end of the reservation are apparently faring a bit better. Chinle Arizona Stake President Romero Brown reported that a veteran priesthood leader from the Pinon Branch in eastern Arizona was diagnosed with the virus and is convalescing at home. 

Meanwhile, the husband of an elderly Relief Society sister from the Chinle stake is being cared for at a Phoenix hospital.

“Fortunately, we have not had any deaths in our stake,” said President Brown.

Strict weekend curfew restrictions across the vast Navajo Nation — a Native American territory covering parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico — were loosened in recent days. A daily curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. remains in effect, the Navajo Times reported.

Tribal leaders “are still asking people to stay home, only go out when needed and to wear protective masks,” said President Whaley.

Latter-day Saints on the Navajo Nation in the thick of the COVID-19 fight

Health officials report almost 6,000 positive COVID-19 cases on the Navajo Nation, with 269 deaths. More than 2,500 people have recovered.

President Brown said limited openings of stores and other businesses will offer some economic relief to many in the Chinle stake. Most of those employed in government or public service jobs at, say, schools and hospitals are returning to work in some form. 

But those who rely upon the virus-weakened tourist industry continue to miss paychecks. “Our members who are artisans and jewelry makers are hurting,” said President Brown.

People wait in line for hours to fill their water tanks in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Roughly 30% of the population in the Navajo Nation lacks running water. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. Due to strict COVID-19 curfew hours that keep people home for 57 hours on the weekends, the water lines can get even longer on Fridays, since people need enough water to last them and their animals until Monday.
People wait in line for hours to fill their water tanks in Oljato-Monument Valley, San Juan County, on Thursday, April 30, 2020. Roughly 30% of the population in the Navajo Nation lacks running water. The Navajo Nation has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the country. Due to strict COVID-19 curfew hours that keep people home for 57 hours on the weekends, the water lines can get even longer on Fridays, since people need enough water to last them and their animals until Monday. Credit: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Local priesthood leaders serving the Navajo Nation are uplifted by the resiliency of members continuing to follow Christian impulses to look out for others. “Our bishops and branch presidents and Relief Society presidents are doing a good job calling the members and making sure everyone is okay,” said President Brown, adding ward councils are proving invaluable during the crisis.

“On a weekly basis, we’ve been sending out gospel messages and videos over the internet,” said President Whaley. “We miss a lot of people who don’t have internet access, but we’ve been sending out Church-produced messages and other messages that we have produced on our own.”

Members from the Tuba City stake have also been recording their own testimonies and conversion stories and sharing them with others.

Many Latter-day Saints are looking forward to worship again alongside their fellow members and friends at local meetinghouses once tribal leadership gives the okay for religious gatherings to resume.

“We’re still not gathering for Church meetings and probably won’t for at least the rest of the month,” said President Whaley.

Signs of recovery in New York City

Church members living in the United State’s other primary coronavirus hotspot — New York City — are hoping the worst days of the virus belong to the past.

“Things have calmed down quite a bit,” Brooklyn New York Stake President Robert Shull recently reported. “We’ve sort of made it through the panic and sickness stage.”

Manager Angel Ramos arranges shoes on a display in Top shoes, Monday, June 8, 2020, in the Sunset Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, after retail stores were allowed to reopen to customers, but with some restrictions, like curbside pickup on orders, and required wearing of face coverings, as part of the state's phase one reopening plan. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Manager Angel Ramos arranges shoes on a display in Top shoes, Monday, June 8, 2020, in the Sunset Park neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, after retail stores were allowed to reopen to customers, but with some restrictions, like curbside pickup on orders, and required wearing of face coverings, as part of the state’s phase one reopening plan. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) Credit: AP

During the peak of the virus outbreak, more than 100 members of the Brooklyn stake were sick. Five died. A few are still recovering, but circumstances are gradually improving. 

“People are anxious to get back to normal life,” said President Shull, adding social distancing and wearing masks remain common practices.

As in the Navajo Nation congregations, many New York City-area members still face economic challenges. Many have been laid off and remain unemployed — particularly those working in service industry jobs that have not returned.

How NYC Church leaders are helping Latter-day Saints navigate through COVID-caused illnesses, job losses and deaths

“Thankfully, with the government and Church resources, no one has gone without food,” said President Shull.

Understandably, many Latter-day Saint New Yorkers are looking forward to the day when they can again congregate and worship at Church meetinghouses. On June 6, state leaders announced that houses of worship in the Empire State will be allowed to operate with 25% of typical capacity. But that reopening phase will not include New York City for at least a few more weeks.

Pedestrians wear protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic as they enjoy warm weather in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Pedestrians wear protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic as they enjoy warm weather in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Tuesday, May 26, 2020, in the Queens borough of New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) Credit: AP

More than 377,000 New Yorkers contracted COVID-19 and over 30,000 died of it. About two-thirds of those deaths were in New York City, according to CNN.

So New York City members and families will continue to worship at home and rely upon technology and ingenuity to keep in touch with one another. Local youth leaders are playing virtual games and enjoying talent shows and other activities while they wait out the crisis.

“We’re learning, step-by-step,” said President Shull.