By Clint Confehr
NASHVILLE, TN — During the coronavirus pandemic, religious ceremonies in closed spaces can lead to life or death situations, so Bishop Joseph Walker, III, senior pastor of the historic Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Nashville, feels obliged to implore faith leaders to find an equilibrium between medicine and religion.
“All of our messages regarding theology ultimately end up talking about life and death,” Walker said, accepting a responsibility to address conditions affected by these facts of life. “I want people to be led by the science. I want folks to live.” Walker advocates worship in virtual space like millions who grieved during televised funerals for C.T. Vivian and John Lewis.
Shortly before Walker spoke up, state health officials announced a 50 percent surge in new COVID-19 deaths July 17-23 compared to July 10-16. That’s up from 86 to 129 souls lost weekly. “We see the numbers trending higher,” he said.
Half of Mt. Zion’s 30,000-member congregation worshiped through video links before in-person attendance at Mt. Zion was suspended nearly four months ago. All do now. Member-owned cellphones and free websites are available at no additional cost for worship, so the mega-church preacher asks all faith leaders to “be innovative and creative about how to carve out opportunities that can be more beneficial” during the pandemic.
Mt. Zion’s senior pastor has posted programs on Facebook and held a cloud conference with free classes so faith leaders could see what’s possible. “It’s important for them to understand the implications of their decisions so they’re not making them in a vacuum,” said Walker who recognizes a “tension that technology brings.”
Asked to estimate technology’s use, Walker said, “Based on what I’ve seen, we have about 90 percent of the churches now in virtual space. It’s the 10 percent that scares us to death. It’s not so much those who go to worship there, but those who engage us after they leave. Without a vaccination, we’re putting people at risk.”
Katina Beard, CEO of the Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center, 1035 14th Ave. North, agrees,“We should all be avoiding large crowds that increase our risk of transmitting the virus to each other. People should even be cautious about small-group gatherings.”
About 4-5 members among 15,000 contracted Covid-19 at work one day after the suspension began. “Can you imagine the effect of that on Nashville? We could have been a major carrier of coronavirus. By us not having services, I believe, saved lives,” Walker said.
Now, driving to church for a Sunday telecast, he passes various churches with full parking lots. Congregations gather together people who believe in community, fellowship, hugging, high fives, loving on people in sanctuaries. “But it’s just risky.”
Mt. Zion has medical advisors who provide distilled and focused information. They are: Dr. Stephaine Hale Walker, MD, Mt. Zion’s first lady who specializes in neonatal-perinatal medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center; Dr. Kimberly Lamar, deputy director for child health in the Tennessee Department of Health’s Division of Family Health and Wellness; Dr. Andrea Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee; and Dr. Jacqueline Butler Mitchell, the Tribune’s “Tooth Talk” columnist and proprietor of Integrity Dental at TriStar Southern Hills Medical Center and her Smyrna clinic.
Mt. Zion’s congregation is 80 percent African American, a demographic group recognized as at greater risk from Covid-19.
“I trust in God, but I also use wisdom,” he said. “We must reimagine what faith looks like while making the health of our nation a top priority.”