A pastor fights for flock in war against an invisible enemy

JOHN MINCHILLO
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Virus Outbreak Lost Parishioners

Leonardo Cabana cries over the casket of his father Hector Cabana who died of COVID-19 after a funeral home service given by Fabian Arias, a Lutheran pastor with Saint Peter's Church in Manhattan, Monday, May 11, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — Fabian Arias arrived in New York City from his native Argentina for what was supposed to be a six-month trip. But the hardships of the Latino immigrant communities he encountered overwhelmed him, and inspired a life-long mission.

“I was young and upset and I listened to God’s voice, and he said that this is my place in this moment in my life,” Arias said.

Eighteen years later, he's an ordained Lutheran pastor of Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan. And he reflects on the pressures of consoling the living and performing funeral rites for the dead during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected the city’s Hispanic community.

“It’s very difficult for me to take a normal life and I can’t sleep,” said Arias, 56.

“I don’t know why but I feel more strength, as if God put it there in me, when I see people in a bad situation.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shock waves through New York’s social strata, bringing into sharp relief the inequalities burdening families that are the backbone of the city’s essential workforce.

As businesses remain shuttered, many have begun to rely on makeshift food donation programs such as the one Arias operates six days a week with the help of a small legion of volunteers fanning out across the boroughs.

As loved ones die in isolation, their grieving families struggle to provide services such as those that Arias delivers in their homes. He’s aware of the risk but he knows they need an alternative to busy funeral homes that have become prohibitively expensive during the virus outbreak.

The death toll has neared 40 people among the roughly 400 parishioners of his church’s Spanish-language services.

On a recent Sunday, he offered services from his spartan apartment in the Bronx via live stream. It included a reading of the painfully long list of the recently deceased from his congregation.

Arias also printed funeral Mass cards for a service in the Queens apartment of Graciela Ruiz, who died of complications from the virus.

A day earlier, he prayed in the streets in several boroughs before he handed out food to hundreds of masked and weary New Yorkers, imploring them to remain vigilant and protect themselves from exposure.

There are no breaks. There are few pauses. Food must be purchased, sorted, and delivered. There are endless phone calls from crying, grieving families and their sick, sometimes coughing into the receiver and begging for prayers. Prayers and funeral rites must be given.

Arias’ tenacity is of no surprise to those who know him well.

“I see him as the leader of the immigrants,” said Hermes Espinoza, 28, of Mexico, who was just turning 18-years old when Arias became his legal guardian, the first of many who consider him a second father figure.

“He’s a hero to the people and he is just doing his job,” Espinoza said. “He’s a humble person and a beautiful person, inside and out.”