It was March 15, 2020, and I was standing in my after-worship service. Nervous and anxious about the pandemic, I had been sending texts and making calls to clergy colleagues across the nation asking, “What are you doing to get through this?” They’d mostly said, “We’re praying and doing our best to survive.”
That evening, just after 6 p.m., TV broadcasts broke from normal programming and cut to Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker. He had recently given notice that the state was limiting the number of people gathering in a building to 250; now the limit would be 25. You could see and hear the frustration in his voice; some people were not taking the crisis seriously, he said.
After the press conference, I quickly tried to follow those rules. I wanted to lead well but did not want to walk in fear. The time for good leadership was now; I couldn’t hide in a closet and wait until it was over. I had to make quick decisions repeatedly. I sent emails, texts and voice messages telling parishioners to stay home and keep safe until further notice.
Finding out that we could no longer open our doors to the congregation was heartbreaking. What were we going to do? Were we going to make it through this? What could we cut to get through this season? Would the church close for good?
Pastors and preachers started figuring out Zoom calls and Facebook livestreams. It was a time of uncertainty, filled with stress. The pandemic caused leaders in the Black church to get in touch with their raw emotions.
Black pastors were doing funerals at an alarming rate, and our churches went from being places of safety to places of terror. Services became superspreader events. Bishops, superintendents and pastors lost their lives after going to church and worshipping.
A Feb. 29 funeral in Albany, Georgia, became a story that horrified Black communities. At the homegoing service for 64-year-old Andrew Mitchell, thought to have died from heart failure, mourners hugged, cried and consoled each other. There was a repast afterward at Mitchell’s house, and a sister hosted another gathering. At least two dozen members of the family later experienced flu-like symptoms, and several died.
A month later, the town was a hot spot, its hospital overrun with sick and dying patients. Izell Williams Jr., the pastor who had delivered Mitchell’s eulogy, had also fallen ill. He died from the coronavirus March 22 at age 58.
Soon it became clear that people of color nationwide had higher rates of COVID-19 illness and death compared with white people.
Black pastors began to advocate and lead in ways that people had not seen in decades. The death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic formed the perfect storm.
Black pastors began to survey their communities and then mobilize to meet the needs they discovered. Black leaders and coalitions became stronger and pressed for ways to provide food, vaccines and wireless internet. Volunteers filled boxes with toiletries, fresh food, sanitizer and other items people needed to survive, and churches used their parking lots as drive-through distribution sites.
In my region, we saw a remarkable response. The Rev. Willie Bodrick II of historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury said his church served more than 200 families a week in 2021.
“We’ve been working tirelessly during this pandemic to make sure we’ve been serving our communities,” he told WBZ NewsRadio.
Pastors were concerned about saving bodies, not just souls. In my capacity as the associate director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, I along with others reached congregants through social media and webinars to ensure that our communities had accurate information. Some webinars attracted more than 1,000 views online.
Once the vaccine became available, we promoted the strategy of “when there’s an event, there’s a clinic” so that people could have access to it at safe gatherings. And the creativity of the Black church became a tool for turning basements, fellowship halls and parking lots into places of health care and healing.
People were now seeing the Black church not as a place where the pastor was gaining wealth and fame but as one where people cared deeply for the people in the community. The push to serve people — and not just those who showed up in their Sunday best — was a breath of fresh air for community members who now felt that they did belong.
Re-imagining the purpose of Black churches will continue into the future. As in other organizations, the key to their thriving will be their willingness to adapt. Churches have begun to reconfigure spaces to remain relevant and to use their entire campuses, an adaptation that will help them connect to the communities they’re called to serve.
COVID-19 has pushed all faith-based organizations to re-imagine their purpose. The pandemic has reinvigorated Black churches to live into their ancestral power. Black churches have learned to use their collective strength to help their communities get through tough times.
The need to be creative and imagine a just life for all is what propelled Black ancestors to establish Black churches, HBCUs and other organizations.
I think a movement from the leader-centric model to an empowerment theory model is the perfect answer for today. Marc A. Zimmerman, a developer of the theory, suggests that empowerment is a process centered on the people in the local community “through which people lacking an equal share of valued resources gain greater access to and control over those resources.”
This approach, empowering and supporting the community, may help keep the Black church relevant. Advocating for the least of these gives the church a pathway to make an impact. In the future, Black pastors will no longer have the luxury of pushing prosperity; we need to lean into the prophetic.
The job hasn’t ended with the pandemic, of course. The need to activate Black churches is pressing as state governments and local school districts ban African American history and literature, the housing crisis grows, and the health care and educational systems continue to fail Black people. A strong Black church must stand and cry out for the future of its people.
The push to serve people — and not just those who showed up in their Sunday best — was a breath of fresh air for community members who now felt that they did belong.