For the past nine years Fatima Vacacela, 37, has attended services three times weekly at Ministerios Dios de Pactos, an Evangelical church in Jackson Heights. Located in a chapel on a semi-residential street, the church drew about 75 people weekly for services. Vacacela found a sense of community as well as spirituality
A practicing Catholic for 29 years, Vacacela, always thought something was missing from her religion. A key part of her new church liturgy is close reading of the Bible, unlike the Catholic practice. She reads the Bible daily and interprets the readings to help her with everyday life.
“I feel like I get the knowledge about things that I don’t know to make decisions. Like using a GPS when you are driving to an uncertain place,” said Vacacela, a human resources manager.
Finding a sense of meaning has been especially true with the onset of the coronavirus which she believes was predicted in the Bible, especially by the use of the word “pestilence.” Vacacela refers to Bible passage on Mathew 24:7,
“For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.”
Another passage is Luke 21:11,
“and great earthquakes shall be in divers places, and famines, and pestilences; and fearful sights and great signs shall there be from heaven.”
These passages and others hold deep meaning for Vacacel and thousands of others who turn to the Bible for solace and answers during the pandemic. Americans seem almost evenly divided about Bible predictions of this pandemic. About 44 percent of Americans who said they believe the coronavirus is a wakeup call to turn back to faith in God and the signs of coming judgment, according to a survey by The Joshua Fund, an education organization. However, the same survey found that 47 percent of Americans believe the coronavirus has nothing to do with the Bible or God’s prophecy.
Leslier Uribe, 21, a human resource assistant, also believes the coronavirus was predicted in the Bible. She attends the same church in Jackson Heights as Vacacela. She too refers to the Bible’s use of the word “pestilence,” and says it’s a sign of the end of times. She cites the book of Revelation chapter 22 verse 12,
“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”
What does give her hope is the increase in the number of people who have joined her church for online services, including some non-believers. “I don’t know if after this happens if people will continue with the same enthusiasm, desire, and the same need if seeking God,” said Uribe.
The coronavirus can change people’s behavior, although sometimes only on a temporary basis. It’ll be like a sugar high,” says Juan Hernadez, a professor of Biblical Studies at Bethel University, “It’ll change it for a while and go back to normal. But others will learn lessons from it and perhaps plan better.”
Professor Hernandez does not believe the coronavirus was predicted in the Bible. He said that for centuries people have turned to the Bible to make connections to current events. “If there was a candidate for a physical fulfillment, it might be the Black Plague where one-third of the world population was devastated; this doesn’t compare.” said Hernandez.
He explains that the Bible can be read as a historical narrative or as a prophecy. While the coronavirus can be linked to the use of “pestilence,” it’s important to read the full passage. “The descriptions are so vague that they have multiple applications,” said Hernandez.
Herandez recently hosted a live screening online with a pastor where both answered questions from people who believe the pandemic is a reflection of God’s judgment. “Irrespective of whether it is judgment or not, it is an opportunity to reflect and recalibrate who we are and what we’re doing,” he said.
Some other Christians wonder whether the pandemic is a sign of the return of Jesus Christ. In a study made a decade ago, Pew Research surveyed that forty-one percent of Americans expect Jesus to return by 2050 while forty-six percent disagree.
Mayte Felix, 22, doesn’t believe the pandemic is a sign yet of Jesus’ imminent return, “Before Jesus returns there are going to be all kinds of things that are going to happen but no one knows,” said Felix. “It’s going to be like a thief in the night, so it can be one of the signs or not. We don’t know exactly when to expect God.”
Felix attends “Sobre La Roca,” a Pentecostal church in San Diego, California where her parents are pastors. Although she sometimes feels a little discouraged she prays and has faith that everything will be alright. After losing two jobs because of Covid-related layoffs, she has sought God more through prayer.
Mayte’s mom, Maythe Felix, is among those who believe the coronavirus was predicted in the Bible. “I definitely don’t believe the end of the world is right now, but I do believe we are seeing the last signs of the end of times,” said Felix, a pastor at a Pentecostal church. “After this pandemic, the world will never be the same, it will be harder for humanity.”
Because of social distancing the church closed and now offers online service three times a week. About 75 homes are tuning in to their online services reaching more than one person per home. “I believe we have grown as a church. People tell us, I’ve shared the link to my dad, I’ve shared it with my brother, with my friend,” said Felix.
The people have been asking Felix and her husband, Carlos also a pastor, about the last signs and our thoughts. “We responded by saying we must prepare because nobody knows the day or time he will come, but we must be ready.” However, now going into the sixth week people have calmed down and have been praying more.
During the service she and her parishioners have been studying the Bible more and reviewing the prophecies of Christ’s return.
“We are praying more, asking God to restore our hearts, clean us, and prepare us because the Bible says without holiness no one will see him,” said Pastor Felix. Hernandez agrees with that approach. “The bottom line with the Bible is not so much when but to persevere, to be faithful, irrespective of the circumstances,” he said.