Coronavirus Is Forcing Black Churches to Make Tough Choices
What responsibilities do pastors owe to their congregants to keep them safe?
For many, this was an issue of public safety. That, while Sunday has always been symbolic of Black faith, traditional worship now had major health implications. After a Covid-19 outbreak within a congregation and the news that many can be asymptomatic and unknowingly spread Coronavirus, many pastors transitioned away from traditional worship. With the third Sunday being a primarily senior-led worship experience, Pastor E. Dewey Smith Jr. (House of Hope Atlanta) couldn’t reconcile loving his congregants and ignoring breaking news. “I just couldn’t have any peace putting God’s people in that kind of jeopardy,” he says. House of Hope created a fully online worship experience and encouraged members to host small groups in their homes.
There were pastors who understood the risks and still believed it was important for people to be able to have traditional worship. “This week has changed everything and we will never be the same,” says Pastor Courtney Clayton Jenkins (South Euclid United Church of Christ of Ohio). As pastor, Clayton Jenkins took the necessary precautions to ensure the sanctuary was thoroughly sanitized and encouraged most vulnerable members to stream online. Known for opening her sanctuary following major crisis moments, Clayton Jenkins grounds that decision in her experience processing 9/11 in her undergraduate chapel and local church. “There is something about being in the house of the Lord when there is so much trouble beyond you.”
“We know that the average Black church is between 75 and 100 members. Missing a service can mean the difference between lights on and lights off for many congregations,” says theologian and ethicist Keri Day.
As the conversation of whether to hold service continued, many saw the decision to continue on with regular programming as another example of Black pastors’ greed, regardless of church size. Yet, for many congregations, it was not that simple. All of Louisville, KY’s Hughlett Temple AME Zion Church’s monthly bills are due this week. Pastor Valerie Washington could not ignore that. Additionally, their tithes and offerings pay the salaries of church employees and aid in emergency benevolence.
“We know that the average Black church is between 75 and 100 members. Missing a service can mean the difference between lights on and lights off for many congregations,” says theologian and ethicist Keri Day. “Many of our congregations are vulnerable financially because we are vulnerable financially. And yet what would it mean for the ethical response of pastors in this moment to honor what our officials are saying and have the faith they preach about when it comes to the church’s finances?”
As coronavirus continued to make its presence known on American soil, many pastors could not help but honor the information presented—even if it contradicted their initial position. Bishop Clarence Laney (Monument of Faith Church of Durham, NC) was set to go through with Sunday’s service until he watched Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ “Pastoring in a Pandemic” Saturday afternoon. As an ordained minister, licensed therapist, and pastoral care professor, Walker-Barnes offered pastors with concrete issues to weigh as they consider moving forward with traditional forms of worship. “After watching that and learning many of our seniors still planned to come as a sign of faith, I knew I couldn’t do it.” Consequently, there was no service at Monument of Faith.
Beyond the decision to host services, many bemoaned the theological responses to the coronavirus crisis circulating on social media. Among them was the belief that, if Christians significantly adjusted their lives as a result of coronavirus, it signaled a true lack of faith. Founder of one of the largest denominational bodies among Black congregations, Bishop Paul Morton cautioned against the closure of churches as they are a “spiritual hospital” and “spiritual police department.” There was also the creation of the C.O.V.I.D. (“Christ Over Viruses and Infectious Diseases”) acronym and meme. This illuminates the growing consensus that Black pastors do not take pressing community concerns seriously and seek to numb Black Christians to reality with over-spiritualization.
“We can’t explain a virus theologically,” says theologian and Africana studies professor Monica Coleman. “But we can respond to a virus theologically.” Coleman suggested congregational leadership calling members and working with them to ensure the practical needs of medicines and groceries are met. Coleman also suggested churches think critically about providing their members with information regarding powers of attorney and other legal protections. “The more we plan, the less stress we feel. If pastors can alleviate stress, that’s what they should be doing.”
Laney concedes that, had certain technological investments been made at Monument of Faith, canceling Sunday’s service wouldn’t have been necessary.
As new guidelines suggest gatherings of no more than 10 people, pastors must assess their willingness to concede to forces beyond their control. “Most of us wrestle with the theological and social implications of a decision because our skills may not be as sharpened as we think they are,” Bishop Laney says.
This flexibility may include finally listening to those who have been calling for congregations to embrace various forms of technology for the last decade. Laney concedes that, had certain technological investments been made at Monument of Faith, canceling Sunday’s service wouldn’t have been necessary. “So many of us have been resistant because we viewed technology as an alternative to the brick and mortar,” Laney says. “But that’s not the case at all and this has really shown me its importance in ways I didn’t see.”
Transitioning to online connection and growth groups, South Euclid UCC will be using this as an opportunity to stretch the boundaries of what church looks like. As pastor, Clayton Jenkins is also exploring what that means for baptism and communion. “Are we going to trip if it’s not unleavened bread and grape juice? If I say go grab a ritz cracker and some water, will you be okay with that? This moment will force us to use divine imagination and ensure that it is theologically sound.”
As a pastor and senior executive at an educational institution, Braxton also believes this is a prime opportunity for his ministerial colleagues to understand themselves as part of a larger public health apparatus. “I honor the ways the epidemiologists, public health officials, and physicians provide necessary care for our community,” Braxton says. “As a pastor, I lead a community that contributes to public well-being. Knowing this, what is our responsibility to contribute to public health?”
“I believe this is a time when fan-based ministry will fail,” Clayton Jenkins offers. “We love to say ‘where two or three are gathered together’ but could two or three survive for six months if we’ve not really prepared them? If we have not been authentically and earnestly making disciples, it will show now.” Smith agrees and believes the Covid-19 crisis will call pastors into deep reflection. “This is really just the beginning of a season of unknown,” he says. “There are a lot of things we can be right now but none of them are more important than being the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Sunday is coming and many will not gather at their respective houses of worship to celebrate victory over the forces of death. To do so would give those forces permission they must not have. Yet, as a Sunday kind of people, we bear witness to our faith and resilience every day. And, on the day we consider most holy, we have an incredible opportunity to reimagine the ways we honor that truth.