Black Churches Step Up During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Before mainstream media began reporting the disproportionately high COVID-19 death rates among African Americans, Black churches were already on the move. As institutions on the frontlines, many of them knew immediately the additional ravage a pandemic would bring to the Black community. In the Bay Area, Pastor Michael McBride is one of many who sprung into action.

“Even before the pandemic, we were living in a crisis situation,” said McBride, pastor of The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley, Calif. “Now the pandemic has turned into a catastrophe.”

McBride joined forces with his friend, comedian W. Kamau Bell, to launch Masks for the People, a joint initiative with Live Free and the Black Church Action Fund. The purpose of the initiative is to raise $1 million to get Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer and testing kits to non-medical essential workers — those incarcerated, the homeless population and others in poor urban and rural communities.

McBride noticed that those who were serving in these communities — feeding the homeless or working to prevent violence — were without masks, ample sanitizer and more. No one was looking out for them.

“While we love and appreciate the frontline workers in the hospitals, there are other frontline workers in the neighborhoods and communities and we need to attend to them as well so we can help slow down the virus,” McBride told The Crisis, following the social media launch for Masks for the People.

Supporters of the Masks for the People initiative include Angela Rye, Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, gospel artists Erica and Waryn Campbell, Women’s March co-chair Linda Sarsour, Bishop Noel Jones and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr.

Lack of access to affordable housing and healthcare, unemployment, poverty and food insecurity were already issues Black Americans were dealing with before the pandemic. Historically, Black churches have stepped in to address these issues. They are now answering the call to serve during this time of the coronavirus.

Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Philadelphia and Jamal H. Bryant of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta are among the many faith leaders on the ground.

Prior to the pandemic, both Bryant and Waller’s churches operated food pantries and distributed toiletries and other essentials. Since the global pandemic, Bryant shared that demand has increased.

“We are now up to 1000 people a week where we were, prior to corona, [serving] 300 families a month, giving them free groceries,” Bryant said. “The demand has become so great that we are no longer doing it twice a week. We’ve now reduced it to once a week because of the numbers that are coming.”

Waller has also observed an uptick in demand as unemployment claims rise day by day.

“This is not just about a virus,” Waller cautioned. “This is about every aspect of our lives being brought to a screeching halt. And it is causing all of us to raise the real questions of what really matters. What's really important to you? Who's really important to you? And what are the holes in our proverbial ship that need to be patched in order to get back up and running?”

This new reality has also made it more challenging to honor the deceased. The wildfire spread of COVID-19 among the Black community in Albany, Ga., has been traced back to two funerals held February 29 and March 7. But it is not as easy to forego funerals altogether. Well into March, Waller had made the decision to oversee limited funeral services with 10 or less people present. To allow more people to pay their respects, Enon turned to livestreaming the services through Facebook Live.

“You can't control grief. You can’t control death, but there's something to be said about having a religious experience within that five to seven-day window of death that is a part of the healing process,” Waller explained.

Bryant, who was recently criticized for charging for COVID-19 tests, pointed out that we’re in uncertain times.

“This is really an area of unparalleled faith because we don't know when this will end and what life will look like when this is over,” said Bryant. “You've got a great number of people being furloughed and laid off. You’re talking about social distancing, and nobody is giving an account for people who already live by themselves.

“What is the psychological trauma for those who have emotional and mental challenges? The places where they would ordinarily go for assistance are unavailable. How do you do ministry innovatively to seniors who can't come out of the house and have to deal with food insecurity?” asked Bryant. “It’s a whole lot of moving parts.”

But if there’s one thing the African-American community has learned from past experiences is that it can’t rely on the federal government.

“It's going to now take Black people to look at the reality of this moment and forge our own strategies and ways forward,” McBride said. “If Black people wait for the federal government to figure out how to save Black lives, we're not going to save as many lives as we can.”

— Ronda Racha Penrice

Photo: Courtesy Masks for the People/Live Free