Black churches have certainly not been spared from the incalculable loss from the coronavirus pandemic.
Churches have long been a haven for Black communities, as places for spiritual nourishment, social connection, community organizing. But with the pandemic hitting Black populations disproportionately, communities are reeling from the loss of pastors and other faith leaders.
The deaths have tested churches’ resolve while expanding their imagination about how to function during and, eventually, after the pandemic.
“Covid-19 for the Black church has been devastating,” said the Rev. Eric George Vickers, lead pastor of the historic Beulah Baptist Church in Atlanta. “Church is community for us. It’s the place for spiritual guidance, social awareness, home training, encouragement, you name it. The loss this year can’t be properly explained or expressed. It can only be experienced.”
But with widespread sorrow, does come some sense of hope.
‘When a congregation loses its leader, congregants can feel rudderless’
Dozens of African American ministers and bishops from different denominations died from complications brought on by Covid-19. In many areas, that loss is not just for the church, but also for the broader community.
Bishop Nathaniel Wells Jr. of Muskegon, Michigan, who led his congregation at the Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ for more than 40 years, was a consistent advocate for affordable housing, education, transportation and child care. Bishop Gerald O. Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church was described as a bridge builder by community members in Richmond, Virginia; he even helped broker an agreement among the NAACP, the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans about how to acknowledge the city’s history. The Rev. Vicky Gibbs was so beloved by members of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in Houston that she and her wife had to wed in secret in 2016 so members who were not invited to their ceremony would not feel too hurt.
“I can’t recall anything like 2020,” said Terri Laws, an assistant professor of African and African American studies at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, who is a scholar of the Black church. “When HIV and AIDS hit, it was different in that it was a slower uptake. And there was a particular portion of the congregation that was hit harder than others. So I can’t think of another time like 2020.”
Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Black Pentecostal denomination in the United States, said seven of his bishops died from Covid-19.
Laws said: “When a congregation loses its leader, sometimes congregants can feel rudderless. They feel the loss, yes, of the pastor, a personal loss. But they also feel the loss of direction of the ministry, of the church. And that’s unsettling.”
The Rev. Henry P. Davis III, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover, Maryland, agreed, adding that the loss of leadership stretches to the community, as the church is an extension of its congregation.
“I think, early on, there were some who looked at the virus from a theological standpoint,” Davis said. “I surely believe in the theological, but you have to give credence to the science. It’s not a hoax.”
Davis recalled praying for a church member with Covid-19 “one month, and the next month was his funeral.”
“It’s been shattering,” Davis said. “And all of the leadership and knowledge that has been lost … the main voice of spiritual leadership and community involvement, the trusted voice … and it is difficult.”
How critical are Black church leaders? Bishop Claude Alexander Jr. of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he became part of a consultation group with the FBI. “And the FBI said: ‘If a terrorist organization wanted to do the most damage to a Black church, it would not shoot up a lot of people in the congregation. It would shoot the pastor.'”
How Black churches have survived and will endure
Through the trauma, however, the Black church has done what the Black church has done “since the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement,” Davis said. “That is, make its way.”
Alexander said that for many churches to survive during the coronavirus, they had to reimagine how they operated. Many smaller churches, stuck in their origins, did not use technology.
“Not even a website,” Vickers said. “No way to accept giving other than passing the plate.”
But for houses of worship everywhere, the pandemic has changed the ways followers can tithe.
“Many of our churches had ignored technology,” Vickers said. “Well, you have to have a website now. You have to use Zoom and social media. You have to use Cash App and Pushpay and other electronic giving apps. It has shifted out of necessity.”
Davis said an older pastor told him at the onset of the pandemic in March that a church member gave the minister a MacBook laptop. Initially, he did not know what to do with it.
“He said: ‘I was totally unprepared. I never thought I would have to use technology,'” Davis recalled. “But there’s a shift now for everyone, no matter what level or how much you did before, to figure this out.”
That shift shows up primarily on Sundays, when virtual services on YouTube, Facebook Live or other platforms have been streamlined, compared to pre-Covid-19 services.
“Covid has accelerated the innovation and creativity of Black churches,” Alexander said. “We are realizing there are some things we can do without and some things we can never do without. Pre-Covid, some Black churches were never a part of the digital space. Now, the question will be how much of the digital space will be used post-Covid.”
He said some church leaders have coined an expression, “phygital,” or a combination of physical and digital church services.
This story was first reported in NBC News