The streets surrounding Saint James A.M.E. Church on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Newark were eerily quiet, devoid of the typical Sunday bustle of churchgoers heading into the popular house of worship.
Like churches all across Newark, and the entire state, Saint James shuttered its doors to comply with Gov. Phil Murphy's executive order requiring residents to stay inside in an effort to beat back the spread of the coronavirus.
Inside the church, row after row of purple clad pews that would normally be packed were empty. But the church was not quiet. Hymns calling on the Holy Ghost to help humanity in the face of illness and death were sung loud, proud, and strong.
"God uses dark places to prepare you for your next assignment in life," said the Rev. Dr. Ronald Slaughter, Saint James's pastor, as he addressed the empty rows. "Let's stay connected during this crisis. The building might be closed, but the church is still open."
Slaughter may have been preaching to an empty church but he was speaking directly to his members, some 3,000 of whom watched as the service was streamed live on Facebook.
"I never thought that we'd be in this situation, and it's going to last a while. Living through this pandemic, if people ever needed their faith before, it's in times like these," said Slaughter, wiping the sweat from his brow after delivering a sermon evoking the Old Testament about Moses suffering and surviving a long period of trial and isolation.
"The church has to be bigger than the four walls that surround us," Slaughter said. "This is the way to take the church to the streets, and into the homes of people, to encourage them. We will do this as long as we have to."
Murphy's executive order has virtually shut down the entire state, including all non-essential retail as well as large gatherings typically found on Sunday mornings in churches across New Jersey. As a result many churches in Newark and the rest of the state are using various forms of 21st Century technology to continue spreading the Word of the Lord.
Slaughter, noting that Saint James has always used Facebook live to broadcast services weekly, spoke to how the current crisis has forced change upon pastors leading their congregations through a uniquely trying time.
"We have no other alternative but to take advantage of technology," Slaughter said. "If we don't, then we miss the opportunity to minister to the people that God has placed in our midst. We are dealing with depression, the loss of jobs, and the loss of loved ones. Therefore, we all must preach hope, faith, and encouragement. Have no fear. The Bible has passages about plagues. We have to have faith that this plague will be over soon."
In his words broadcast through Facebook, Slaughter talked about how to face the fact that for many, the four walls of their shelter-in-place location could start closing in, creating a mental hell on earth.
"Some of us might need to be quarantined to finally deal with our meanness, nastiness, and bitterness. This time is an opportunity for growth and development for all of us," Slaughter said. "Don't give in to nastiness. Don't give in to narcissism. Do not shut down. Do not be unproductive. Instead, be willing to help somebody from their dark place."
Shifting from matters of church to state, Slaughter alluded to President Donald Trump's recent intemperate behavior towards reporters, among other groups, alluding to how Moses learned leadership skills during his time of tribulation. Now, as America endures a period of prolonged purgatory, Slaughter looked to a future where tomorrow's leaders are being forged in the crucible of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Today, children are being inspired to be doctors and nurses. They appreciate their sacrifice," said Slaughter during his sermon. "Somewhere out there, some young person is preparing to be president, getting ready to really lead us through the next crisis."
And the end of his sermon, Slaughter shouted to the rooftops of his empty church as he tried to fire up the hearts and soothe the souls of a congregation dispersed by disease and fighting a war against despair.
"This too shall pass. Can I get a witness?" Slaughter called out as the church's psalmist singer and three-member band cried 'Amen!' "After all this will come joy, healing, and glory. God bless you and keep you. I love you all."