Gwen McKenzie Knoxville Vice Mayor

By Vivian Shipe

KNOXVILLE, TN — It was Friday evening at 5 pm, a hard hour during the best of times to call for an emergency meeting. However, Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie knows these are not normal times and with a sense of urgency; she and New Directions Executive Director Cynthia Finch sent out a request for all African American church ministers and faith-based community leaders to join her in a conversation with University of Tennessee Hospital Chief Medical Director Doctor Keith Gray.

It was important to get ahead of the announcement of Executive Order 30 from Tennessee Governor Bill Lee who released guidelines for opening churches in 48 hours.” The church has always been the foundation in the African American community” said McKenzie. Along

Cynthia Finch
New Directions Executive Director

with Cynthia Finch, Vice Mayor McKenzie hoped to form a faith-based community coalition to work together as they began to open their church doors and to also solidify working together to educate, uplift, and empower people of color and under- served communities as it relates to their health and well being. It was an important conversation to begin, would the pastors heed the call? 

As Finch said. “It is time to plan, prepare and pray.”

It was 5 pm. One by one, the calls began to come in, so fast it was hard for Finch to record each name as they announced themselves and placed their phones on mute. They were the leaders in their churches and communities and they had come to listen and to learn. Over 30 churches would be on this call; from all religious groups, across all denominations, men and women pastors, old and young, elders, community leaders, even the city mayor. Over the next few days, McKenzie, who gave the pastors her personal cell number so they could send her their church information and contact emails, would hear from even more pastors who would join this “circling of the wagons.”

The conversation was over 90 minutes long. There was no postulating, no arguing, “You see, as Bishop Kevin Perry said, when he spoke of the new years prayers that all churches did, “we didn’t see this coming.”

Dr. Keith Gray, who is the First African American to head the University of Tennessee Medical Center, spoke of the testing being done, the death rate, and the spread. He spoke

Dr. Keith Gray
UT Hospital Chief Medical Director

of contact tracing and also addressed the need to deal with the disparities of unequal health care access going forward. He warned there is no vaccine and spoke of those who are asymptomatic who can spread the virus to others while not being affected themselves. Gray also discussed the different test types and shared an article by Dr. Selwyn Vickers on how COVID-19 has created a crisis within a crisis as African Americans are reaping the deadly consequences of the disparities in health and health care in America.

Dr. Gray asked the church leaders to set the example, to speak to the people from the pulpit. Gray shared a situation he and his wife encountered when entering a very busy store earlier that day where they were the only two wearing a mask. The easing of the stay at home order has created a false sense of security. That concern echoed in the words of Rev. Valentino Neal’s comments as he spoke of the developing cognitive dissidence. “Blacks are not expendable. It is not a green light to go back to normal. The virus has not magically disappeared.”

As Vice Mayor McKenzie reminded the pastors to send her their contact information so that

Rev. Charles Lomax
City Director for Community Engagement

she could begin setting up the next weekly meeting to discuss a pandemic work group to see what opening would look like for each church; Rev Charles Lomax, the new city director for  community engagement for the city of Knoxville, shared the need for those who would decide to open to practice the guidelines.”If you open, follow the rules.”