One of France’s largest megachurches gathered this fall to remember those lost to COVID-19. The memorial service was intensely personal, “a very trying time” and “a real heartbreak,” said senior pastor Samuel Peterschmitt, because of how dramatically the congregation had been affected by the virus.

Just nine months before, Eglise La Porte Ouverte Chrétienne (the Christian Open Door Church) in Mulhouse, France, held its annual worship conference, where participants prayed for the sick, celebrated miraculous healings, and praised God alongside 2,200 attendees, most from Europe but some from as far away as Africa and South America.

But the four-day event, held weeks before France’s lockdown, spurred one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks in the region. At least 500 people from Porte Ouverte were infected, 82 were hospitalized—including Peterschmitt himself—and 32 died as a result.

The Pentecostal congregation grappled with the spiritual and physical toll of the aftermath. Worse, Porte Ouverte was quickly blamed by neighbors and the media for its supposed recklessness, though the February conference began before health directives had been made in earnest. While isolated and grieving, church members faced insults and death threats; leaders required security as they returned to the building to livestream services.

Peterschmitt, whose father founded the 54-year-old congregation in northeast France, felt the strain of doing ministry during the pandemic. From his sickbed, he prayed with his congregants over the phone, including a sister in Christ whose husband died in intensive care while she was also hospitalized. It was “meager consolation” just to be able to offer her ...

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