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'It's been shattering': Heartache and hope in America's Black churches

Black churches have suffered big losses this year. They've also adapted, and some are thriving.
Image: Pastor Henry Davis III
The Rev. Henry P. Davis III, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover, Md.Courtesy Pastor Henry Davis III

Black churches have certainly not been spared from the incalculable loss from the coronavirus pandemic.

Churches have long been a haven for Black communities, as places for spiritual nourishment, social connection, community organizing. But with the pandemic hitting Black populations disproportionately, communities are reeling from the loss of pastors and other faith leaders.

The deaths have tested churches' resolve while expanding their imagination about how to function during and, eventually, after the pandemic.

"Covid-19 for the Black church has been devastating," said the Rev. Eric George Vickers, lead pastor of the historic Beulah Baptist Church in Atlanta. "Church is community for us. It's the place for spiritual guidance, social awareness, home training, encouragement, you name it. The loss this year can't be properly explained or expressed. It can only be experienced."

But with widespread sorrow, does come some sense of hope.

'When a congregation loses its leader, congregants can feel rudderless'

Dozens of African American ministers and bishops from different denominations died from complications brought on by Covid-19. In many areas, that loss is not just for the church, but also for the broader community.

Bishop Nathaniel Wells Jr. of Muskegon, Michigan, who led his congregation at the Holy Trinity Institutional Church of God in Christ for more than 40 years, was a consistent advocate for affordable housing, education, transportation and child care. Bishop Gerald O. Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church was described as a bridge builder by community members in Richmond, Virginia; he even helped broker an agreement among the NAACP, the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans about how to acknowledge the city's history. The Rev. Vicky Gibbs was so beloved by members of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church in Houston that she and her wife had to wed in secret in 2016 so members who were not invited to their ceremony would not feel too hurt.

"I can't recall anything like 2020," said Terri Laws, an assistant professor of African and African American studies at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, who is a scholar of the Black church. "When HIV and AIDS hit, it was different in that it was a slower uptake. And there was a particular portion of the congregation that was hit harder than others. So I can't think of another time like 2020."

Charles E. Blake, presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, the largest Black Pentecostal denomination in the United States, said seven of his bishops died from Covid-19.

Laws said: "When a congregation loses its leader, sometimes congregants can feel rudderless. They feel the loss, yes, of the pastor, a personal loss. But they also feel the loss of direction of the ministry, of the church. And that's unsettling."

The Rev. Henry P. Davis III, pastor of First Baptist Church of Highland Park in Landover, Maryland, agreed, adding that the loss of leadership stretches to the community, as the church is an extension of its congregation.

"I think, early on, there were some who looked at the virus from a theological standpoint," Davis said. "I surely believe in the theological, but you have to give credence to the science. It's not a hoax."

Davis recalled praying for a church member with Covid-19 "one month, and the next month was his funeral."

"It's been shattering," Davis said. "And all of the leadership and knowledge that has been lost … the main voice of spiritual leadership and community involvement, the trusted voice … and it is difficult."

How critical are Black church leaders? Bishop Claude Alexander Jr. of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, recalled that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he became part of a consultation group with the FBI. "And the FBI said: 'If a terrorist organization wanted to do the most damage to a Black church, it would not shoot up a lot of people in the congregation. It would shoot the pastor.'"

How Black churches have survived and will endure

Through the trauma, however, the Black church has done what the Black church has done "since the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement," Davis said. "That is, make its way."

The Rev. Eric George Vickers, lead pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in Atlanta.Courtesy Pastor Eric Vickers Sr.

Alexander said that for many churches to survive during the coronavirus, they had to reimagine how they operated. Many smaller churches, stuck in their origins, did not use technology.

"Not even a website," Vickers said. "No way to accept giving other than passing the plate."

But for houses of worship everywhere, the pandemic has changed the ways followers can tithe.

"Many of our churches had ignored technology," Vickers said. "Well, you have to have a website now. You have to use Zoom and social media. You have to use Cash App and Pushpay and other electronic giving apps. It has shifted out of necessity."

Davis said an older pastor told him at the onset of the pandemic in March that a church member gave the minister a MacBook laptop. Initially, he did not know what to do with it.

"He said: 'I was totally unprepared. I never thought I would have to use technology,'" Davis recalled. "But there's a shift now for everyone, no matter what level or how much you did before, to figure this out."

That shift shows up primarily on Sundays, when virtual services on YouTube, Facebook Live or other platforms have been streamlined, compared to pre-Covid-19 services.

"Covid has accelerated the innovation and creativity of Black churches," Alexander said. "We are realizing there are some things we can do without and some things we can never do without. Pre-Covid, some Black churches were never a part of the digital space. Now, the question will be how much of the digital space will be used post-Covid."

He said some church leaders have coined an expression, "phygital," or a combination of physical and digital church services.

"We're operating under the assumption that all people will not physically return to the church when we get past Covid — many will opt to continue worshipping digitally," Alexander said. "We have to make sure the experience is what it needs to be for both audiences."

But why, when part of the allure of church is being in the space and among the congregants?

"People have made the adjustment to online services and found that there are advantages to it," Vickers said. "Covid has shown us that we can be more efficient with the technology, the tools and time that we have. I get more engagement in Bible studies than I did pre-Covid."

He said his pre-pandemic services lasted about 90 minutes. These days, they average about 50 minutes. It's the same for others, too.

"Our services are shorter, about an hour, because there are no interruptions," Alexander said. "They are getting the best of church now, actually. When the choir misses a note during physical church services, they just keep going. But now, the songs are recorded, so when it airs, it is not the first take. So people are getting a better experience than if they had returned pre-vaccination."

Bishop Claude Alexander Jr. of The Park Church in Charlotte, N.C.Courtesy Bishop Claude Alexander

There is a flip side to worshippers' having access to services virtually. "Now the competition is keener," Davis said. "If you don't get it right, it's as simple as changing a channel to find a different service."

Barbara Hopkins, host of the faith-centered talk show "The Industry with Barbara Hopkins," said the adjustment to virtual services has been challenging "because I'm a people person."

"I prefer being in church and interacting face to face," Hopkins said. "But I understand the safety issues, and the virtual option has been convenient.

"We don't have to worry about finding a parking space or worry about going out into the rain," she added. "We can just flip on our TV and you're there. And some Sundays, I watch my sister's service in Birmingham, so that's another positive aspect of this change."

Churches don't run on faith alone

Through ingenuity, community support and aid from Church Relief, which offers financial assistance to churches struggling during the pandemic, the Black church has maintained — and in some cases expanded its growth.

"There's a lot going on among churches and congregations generally trying to stem the tide," said Laws, the church scholar. "Churches have been activated. Black churches are not sitting still. They understand African American religion has survived for hundreds of years. And scholars and leaders understand that the Black church will survive — not because everyone could see the future in past troubled times, but because they held out a hope that was beyond what they were seeing. And that's true in this particular moment."

In fact, Alexander said, his church membership has increased by 10 percent since March.

Davis said his church membership has "expanded in so many directions."

"We're taking this moment to strengthen the church," he said. "Black churches have the potential to be more powerful institutions post-pandemic because of what we're learning now."

For example, during a recent virtual Bible study, Davis told his attendees: "You have a chance to enhance the church. And the opportunity is there because social media allows you to do cyber evangelism. All you have to do is share on your social media pages the message. That's it. And you can go on with your evening."

But churches do not run on faith alone. They need money. But not having the offering plate to pass around has not hindered contributions at some churches.

"In fact," Alexander said, "we were preparing for a 30 percent decrease in giving, which was scary. But our giving is up 10 percent. I have members from other states now. The excuse 'well, I don't want to go to that big church' is all eliminated, because no one is attending the church."

Davis said he has "seen offerings go up" at Highland Park. "More than in 2019," he added.

"I don't know this as fact, but I am sure looking at the reality of death through this pandemic has impacted so many people," Davis said. "They know death is a real possibility and if they are faithful givers, maybe it will extend their life. With how bad Covid-19 has been, I understand that thinking."

The coronavirus has also forced Black churches to think about succession plans, which was not always the norm.

"It was 'You're anointed to lead this church until you die,'" Vickers said. "Probably in the last generation, there has been some thought of having a succession plan. But now it is imperative, as the vulnerability of life has been amplified during 2020."

Davis said: "The average Black pastor doesn't have a retirement plan. He stays for decades, and in his latter days, the church suffers. There's no question the pandemic has given everyone a chance to step back and re-evaluate what we're doing, how we're doing it and looking at the church's future beyond the now. 2020 has done that."

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