Black churches in America have faced the challenges of wars, arson and racism written into the law.
Following several slave revolts, including Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, Virginia passed a law that required that a White person be present during service. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unprecedented challenge for Black churches which, in part, is financial.
In the wake of a killer pandemic impacting all businesses and local travel, African American churches across the U.S. have been forced to be innovative and make quick adjustments to hold services.
Paul James, pastor of CareView Community Church in Lansdowne, Pa, told the media that, “counterintuitive to most churches, especially the Black church… where we’re just glad to get together because of how hard life has been historically for us here in America. Church has been a safe place for us. It’s been a safe harbor.
"Now here we are faced with the inability to come together.”
On the first Sunday of the COVID-19 crisis in America, March 15, many churches either held service or cancelled it, as the initial news of the seriousness of the pandemic was just becoming public. President Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, just two days beforehand.
Now, weeks later, many Black churches are using conference calls, Facebook Live, Instagram, YouTube and other video conferencing technologies to hold services. A serious complicating factor for all churches is the inability to pass the collection plate. The revenue collected every Sunday pays salaries and the mortgage at many Black churches. Online fundraising has become an answer but for many churches, in-person cash donations are more effective.
The importance of faith and the church for African Americans in America is unquestioned. Church has not only been a place of worship but a refuge in times of trouble. It has been a meeting place away from white racism and oppression. Black church pastors provided almost all of the key players in the civil rights movement. The church was the headquarters and meeting place for planning and organizing in the African American struggle for freedom. In many Black communities the church is the rock and community cornerstone, particularly for seniors.
Dr. Willard Maxwell Jr., who is the pastor of the New Beech Grove Baptist Church in Newport News, Virginia, found another way to bring his flock together on March 29. Maxwell held service standing at a podium in the parking lot outside of the church. He livestreamed the service live on Facebook. Many parishioners stood outside of their cars during service while others sat and listened.
Dr. Chris Carter had service in church observing the “six feet apart rule.” Members of the choir at his church, New Hope Baptist Church in Hampton, Va. sang six feet apart from each other and were shown on a Facebook livestream. Both churches already had livestreams every Sunday but now the technology is essential for service in a way it had not been in the past.
On Sunday, March 29, President Trump extended the period for federal guidelines to deal with the deadly COVID-19 pandemic to April 30, 2020 — which would be after Easter Sunday — arguably the biggest gathering of churchgoers of the year.
The numbers of COVID-19 deaths continue to rise. In New York City, officials are currently setting up a field hospital in Central Park. That unthinkable scene was matched by the city setting up a hospital inside the Jacob Javitz Center on the West Side of Manhattan.
At Brookdale Hospital Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, a makeshift morgue was set up in a large trailer, after the hospital morgue, which typically can accommodate twenty bodies, quickly filled to capacity. Black churches and other institutions are now forced to plan for the unknown.
What history has taught us is that nothing has ever stopped the institution of the Black church. But COVID-19 is one of its most difficult challenges to date.
Lauren Victoria Burke is an independent journalist for NNPA and the host of the podcast BURKEFILE. She is also a political strategist as Principal of Win Digital Media LLC.