Battling the perfect storm: The Black church responding to the impact of the pandemics of 2020 and 2021

From March until December of 2020 – from Easter until Christmas – not a week went by without the death of someone in my church or community. Not one week. Sometimes calls came in as often as three to four times a week. Most devastating was the loss of a friend of 40 years, a sitting Superior Court judge, who died after contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, my entire community was under siege following the murder a young man by the Atlanta Police Department — an unarmed man who had merely fallen asleep in his car in a Wendy’s drive-through.

The summer of 2020 brought what could only be called the perfect storm. Rather than one pandemic, we saw three. For the United States – and the rest of the world – increased coverage of police violence against unarmed Black people was secondary to the ravages of COVID-19. For Black communities, fears surrounding both the virus and police brutality were exacerbated by the launch of the most racially divided U.S. presidential election since before the Civil War.

The sitting president had the power to mitigate the damage brought by the coronavirus, but he essentially abdicated his responsibility. In the face of COVID-19, he pushed for the reopening of businesses – many of which employed mostly Black and brown people – often against the advice of local leaders who sought to protect their communities. Rather than use his power to preserve life, the consequences often exposed people to death. This misuse of power extended beyond his response to COVID-19. He offered no support to the investigations of police officers accused of murdering unarmed Black citizens and refused to make any statements against the officers, even after they were charged with murder.

In “Necropolitics,”Achille Mbembe theorizes about a political sphere in which a person’s life comes at the expense of a more vulnerable person’s death. He writes, “The calculus of life perforce passes through the death of the Other.” Collateral damage justifies the death of millions of Black and brown people and the government rationalizes their deaths as the only means by which the majority population can lead better lives.

Mark Ogunwale Lomax, founding pastor of the First Afrikan Presbyterian Church and associate professor of homiletics and worship at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, described the previous presidential administration as “the worst possible realization of necropolitics in America.” He explained: “The president used social and political power to dictate how some people should live and how some must die. At one point, this man actually considered exiling sick people to Guantanamo Bay.”

In combat against these necropolitics, preaching takes on a heavy responsibility. Since our enslavement, Black people have been sold the idea that there is something virtuous in suffering throughout one’s life for the sake of reward after death. The only real earthly joy was to be found in labor. Our eschatological hope was ecstasy at the complete dissolve of all of miserable earthly burdens multiplied by the amount of agony we endured.

Though the crucifixion and the resurrection are cornerstones of our faith, to a people constantly bombarded with death, the preacher must speak of life. More than the newly introduced social movement Black Lives Matter, the Black church has long been the place where Black citizens were reminded that their lives have value. First Afrikan Presbyterian Church is an intentionally Afrocentric Christian community. Not only does this mean teaching and celebrating biblical personalities of African ancestry, it also means understanding the gospel as the redemptive purpose of God, designed to liberate the oppressed and set the captive free.

Lomax shared how, during the onset of COVID-19, he felt an urgency to ensure that people were able to connect with their pastor in worship. Certainly, most communities made similar efforts. However, the worship experience in the Black church is generally more interactive. The call-and-response, the “amens” and waving hands, and sometimes even the shouts from the worshippers are a signal to the preacher that she is connecting with the pain, grief and joys of the congregation. In turn, the climax or celebration in the sermon communicates that their cries are being heard and that God is still speaking.

During the pandemic, virtual worship presented issues for both the Black worshipper and the Black preacher. As pastor and professor, Lomax confessed that he “had to wrestle with the shift of how we previously conceptualized preaching and worship. The intimacy, interaction and intensity were lost. Both the people and the preacher felt distant. The new question became, ‘How to efficiently and effectively proclaim the Good News?’ ” Lomax shared the joy he felt as he and his students worked together to navigate the tumultuous terrain. He also acknowledged the importance of teaching and sharing preaching and pastoral care responsibilities with other ministers at First Afrikan Presbyterian Church. He was able to assist them in increasing their ability to “preach life” while expanding the loving arms of care around their community.

Gregory Bentley, pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, and co-moderator of the 224th General Assembly, took the conversation further, addressing both the political climate and the food and nutritional problems brought on by the multiple pandemics. In far too many cases, breadwinners were falling ill and dying. Job loss was highest among service industry workers, and specifically Black people.

Bentley explained: “Our food pantry had to shift into high gear. There were people who would depend on us almost entirely for sustenance. We were fortunate in two areas. The members of Fellowship were already stepping up before I could even get involved. These are people who know and love their community. Secondly, we have local farmers who contribute their surplus. There were some tight days, but overall, God supplied.”

Bentley recalls taking the necessary time to understand why the virus was ravaging the Black community more viciously. “There is something inherently wrong with a system that ties children’s nutrition to public schools and healthcare to employment. COVID is actually the inflection point that leads us back to the founding of the nation; the impact is rooted in that history.”

The data does not lie. Throughout history, Black people have consistently been diminished. And it is not “ancient” history. Research from the past two decades continues to demonstrate the disproportionate number of Black people who fall victim to disease. Factors include inequalities in economic status, education and occupation. In other words, as racial discrimination limits education and employment opportunities, Black people remain consistently uninsured or underinsured. Failure to take preventative steps to mitigate disease is not a cultural matter, but the natural outcomes of racism and capitalism.

An equally urgent factor that came into play during the pandemic was a long history of fear and suspicion of the healthcare system that permeates the Black community. For centuries, enslaved Black people and later those living in the Jim Crow South were victims of horrendous human experiments. In the latter part of the 19th century, J. Marion Sims gained fame (and was later named the “father of modern gynecology”) after performing procedures without anesthesia on enslaved women. In the more widely known “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” nearly 400 Black men were given a placebo rather than treatment so that researchers might track the progress of syphilis.

A 2016 study conducted by the University of Virginia found that white medical students believed that Black patients were biologically “stronger” and did not feel pain as acutely. The study also revealed antiquated beliefs based in the pseudoscience of 19th-century slaveowner, Thomas Hamilton, that Black people have thicker skin and less sensitive nerve endings. These assumptions subsequently caused the medical students to make inadequate pain treatment recommendations.

To combat the fears connected to America’s treacherous medical practices among Black people, pastors like Bentley and Lomax encouraged many over the past year by receiving the COVID-19 vaccine and sharing their experiences. They researched the vaccine and shared their findings with the community. Bentley prayed publicly for the vaccine so that his community would understand that his faith was not in the vaccine, but in God. He posted on social media when receiving both his first and second vaccine doses.

Immediately following the announcement of the pandemic, in a sermon titled “The other side” from Mark 4:35-41, Bentley offered these words of comfort to the Fellowship community: “We have no idea how long this may last because we are headed into unchartered territory. But however long it takes, God will get us to the other side.” Though the virus was new territory, voter suppression and other American political shenanigans were all too familiar.

Ezekiel Bell, the founding pastor of Fellowship, was a well-known and powerful voting and civil rights activist. Bell immersed himself in the desegregation efforts of Huntsville. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the church hosted strategic planning meetings for nonviolent sit-ins and marches. It was Bell who urged Martin Luther King Jr. to go to Memphis, Tennessee, to stand with sanitation workers. As affirmation of the continuation of Bell’s legacy, Bentley preached “Upon this rock” as his initial sermon upon his arrival at Fellowship; this was the same sermon preached by Bell over six decades earlier. As the 2020 election became more contentious, the people of Fellowship and surrounding Huntsville, in recognition of the profound legacy of their ancestors, actively worked to get people to the polls.

From September 2020 through January 2021, the air around America, thickened by the most contentious presidential election in modern history, became even more unbreathable. Families and communities were divided. For four years, a sitting United States president had fanned the flames of racism, which caused the rates of violence against Black people to rise higher than the country had seen since the civil rights era. Though Black citizens refused to be deterred from their right to vote, polling places were sites of threats, distrust and utter chaos.

Yet no one could have predicted the events of January 6, 2021. For weeks, the defeated president had urged his supporters to go to Washington to protest the certification of the election results. By midday, a mob of insurrectionists had breached barriers, scaled walls and overtaken the United States Capitol, the seat of our democracy.

As the events unfolded, my phone exploded with panicked calls and texts, asking, “If they have lost control of the White House, who is going to protect my Black home?”

From the very beginning of the virus and throughout the invasion, Cecelia “CeCe” Armstrong, associate pastor of St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and board chair of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, prioritized answering the question, “How do you remain connected when you can’t connect?” She said, “The most vulnerable of our community, our senior citizens, were the churches’ biggest concern.”

As is the case with many senior citizens, our older members were not tech savvy. The digital divide ran much wider in Black communities and most of our energy was channeled toward enabling communication. If any good came from the pandemic, it was that it galvanized us to work on closing this divide. We were able to bring together members of the community to help each other. It was a joy to see many people eager to teach and an even greater joy to see others willing to learn new skills.

According to Armstrong, “Funerals were especially difficult. … I would say that we invested more time in planning funeral arrangements than regularly scheduled worship.” Friends and family gathering to celebrate and console is a hallmark of funerals for Black family members. The tradition was strengthened after the end of slavery, reconnecting families splintered by forced separation. “Homegoings” offered deceased Black people respect in death that they rarely received in life.

As the devastation from the COVID-19 outbreak grew, Black death and funerary traditions were catastrophically disrupted. Hospital gatherings were strictly prohibited. If allowed at all, funeral services, normally punctuated with songs of lament and culminating in rousing sermons celebrating the life of the deceased, were truncated. Funerals typically running two to three hours now lasted less than an hour. Many were held graveside with only the immediate
family present.

Though not unique to Black communities, recognition of “fictive kin” is far more common than in communities that are largely white. In the more local family unit, women who have close bonds may call each other sisters. These sisterhoods are often closer than biological siblings. The children of these sisters recognize them as aunts. Men regularly share the same brotherhood with their longtime friends. Funeral services that once provided space for the collective mourning of fictive kin were no longer available. This absence dramatically increased the need for pastoral care.

Armstrong noted that fictive kin also provided shelter and transportation for those who were in need. “The great news of our church is that we are like one giant family. We already knew who would need assistance getting groceries. We already knew who would need communion brought to them. Because we had dealt with lack before, that part was not that hard. We knew survival.”

While the rest of the country is seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the same cannot be said for Black communities. Yet, as of March 2021, nationwide, Black people continued dying at 1.4 times the rate of white people. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, Black people, who make up 12% of the country’s population accounted for 15% of COVID-19 deaths where race was known.

Vaccines are helping, but the battle is far from over. I and other Black church leaders continue to feel the incredible burden that these multiple pandemics and their complex interplay is having on our people — and their negative impact will be felt for years to come.

Yet, we vow with faith in God alone to fight daily for justice and for our people. In the words of the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” we will “march on until victory is won. Shadowed beneath God’s hand, may we forever stand, true to our God and true to our native land.”

Carlton Johnson

Carlton Johnson serves as the coordinator for Vital Congregations for the PC(USA). He and his wife Cara split their time between Atlanta and Louisville.