I came up in a Black Church where there were few things as repulsive as “forsaking the assembly,” a practice derived from Hebrews 10:25.
It did not matter if you were sick or dying, when Sunday came around or the doors of the church opened, you entered. I remember my mom, an educator who often had early mornings and late nights attending to the needs of her students, being chastised by church leadership whenever I missed Wednesday Night Bible Class.
The Black Church in particular has a long history of gathering against the forces that would keep us apart. We have remained focused on keeping people united and cohesive.This is even more true in times of chaos, oppression, and pain. During enslavement, our people understood that Black Spirit could not be contained despite the circumstantial violence inflicted upon their bodies, minds, and spirits.
Yes, they met on Sundays, but they also carried spirituals with them into the fields and incited the holy invocations of old spirituals when escaping to freedom.
In the Civil Rights movement, Mass Meetings were held to encourage, inspire, and prepare freedom fighters for the work done on buses, bloody bridges, and barstools.
Today, many Black Churches pride themselves on having strong involvement in the works of justice.
But the goals of The Black Church or any church for that matter cannot be met if everyone is too ill to continue the resistance movement forward.
Now as a Minister, I have chosen to worship with a community that has closed our building indefinitely to worship online. I am adjusting to what it means to follow a liturgy through a computer screen. Just a few weeks ago, my dog barked loudly seconds before I was supposed to speak. And I am not alone in leading, participating, and even preaching in online settings.
An increasing spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has caused artists, business owners, government officials, and people of faith alike to count up the cost of gathering.
Despite encouragement from officials, several pastors have admonished their congregations to continue to assemble on Sunday mornings. Some churches have downsized to smaller in-person meetings, but many have praise teams and other church leaders join the minister in the sanctuary for live streaming or pre-recorded messages. Because of asymptomatic carriers and an extended incubation period even this can pose a significant risk.
As a whole, the issue of not forsaking the assembly has caused a great deal of controversy in communities of faith. Bishop Paul Morton, who once led a fellowship of thousands, tweeted the following when a young Black woman minister questioned services not being halted,
“No matter how bad things get in shutting down a City in a Crisis. At least 2 entities hv 2 remain open. Hospitals & Police Departments. But God’s Church must be on that list. The Spiritual Hospital The Spiritual Police Department. Don’t cancel God out. We can’t do it without Him,” Some others cite the need for fellowship or trust in God.
The trouble with Bishop Paul Morton’s theological analysis of Hebrews, is that it relies on a literal reading of the English words translated in the King James Version of the Bible. Upon a closer look at the original Greek text, it is possible to understand the admonition of the writer of Hebrews (presumably speaking for the divine) as being less focused on people literally gathering in the Temple, and more focused on the community of believers staying strong, and supportive of one another–especially when in crisis. The phrase “the assembly” in Greek “can refer to [both] the act of assembly or the corporate body so formed.”
Additionally, the warning “not to forsake” in Greek can be understood as condemning “not simply neglect, but wrongful abandonment.” The author’s concern in this passage of scripture was not keeping people inside of a church building to show how much faith they had. The author’s concern was, instead, keeping the community of believers together so that they remained “united and cohesive.”
Yet, I am more persuaded by the Hebrew writer’s encouragement to be united and cohesive, which requires us to be alive. As this crisis progresses it is marginalized people who continue to suffer the ravaging effects of this pandemic. Let’s act now and to stay in this fight for the long haul! It is up to the Black Church and the Church universal, not the building, but the active body of a Brown Skinned Palestine Organizer Rabbi Jew Jesus to return to our ethos as a place of refuge and resistance.
At least eleven (11) members of the well known Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination’s leadership have tested positive for COVID-19. Several have been hospitalized or died. Throughout the country the virus continues to spread among both congregants and leaders, especially in churches that have continued to hold in person meetings over the last few weeks.
According to Pentecostal Womanist, Dr. Valerie Landfair, for the COGIC church, the largest African American Pentecostal Denomination, with nearly 8 million members, the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic was more than enough for Bishop Charles H. Mason to cancel Holy Convocation despite his belief in divine healing.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), those who are above the age of sixty (60) or with underlying cardiovascular or respiratory diseases are at increased risk should they contract the virus. Already, per the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading killer of African Americans with stroke trailing closely behind. To make matters more complex, many hospitals around the world have had to ration care due to a lack of ventilators and many in the US are considering what to do if this becomes a reality within the states. In some cases, stringent criteria to receive care weighs factors such as age, underlying illness, and Body Mass Index (BMI). In major cities such as New Orleans, Chicago, and St. Louis, Black people make up a large percentage of COVID-19 related deaths. Just this weekend a Georgia church that reopened was forced to close again after numerous families became infected with the coronavirus.
Black Church is both a place of refuge and resistance and it cannot afford to be disconnected from present day realities. While the work often catalyzed within its four walls, it was never intended to stay there.
The revolution will not be in the sanctuary but by way of the people, wherever the people are.
Here are some ways we might practice refuge and resistance in the face and aftermath of COVID-19:
Continue to suspend all in-person services and operations indefinitely. Stop attending in-person worship services or any non-essential gatherings.
Human life is sacred and it is God-honoring to protect lives by following public health recommendations around in-person gatherings and social distancing. COVID-19 not only has social, physical, and economic implications, but is an opportunity for the demonstration of sound ethical, moral, and theological praxis. In terms of flattening the curve, those of us who can, should, and People of Faith must lead the way.
Attend to the immediate needs of the people and yourself.
Jesus often concurrently dealt with people’s real-lives, trauma, and spiritual needs. He did not ignore his humanity or that of others. When the woman with the issue of blood touches his garment, her physical healing proceeds even the proclamation of her relenting faith. Check-in on elderly and at-risk members of your church and community, offering to run errands or facilitate non-contact delivery of goods. Call the High School or College Senior who’s graduation is canceled and tell them how proud of them you are. Eat. Take a nap or three.
Prioritize ongoing self, community, and collective care.
For some, this will look like receiving and/or offering pastoral care digitally or by phone. Use deacons, elders, and other practitioners to create a sustainable system of assessing and meeting community needs. Partner with mental health professionals in your church and community to facilitate healing spaces. We are collectively experiencing trauma as we stare death dealing forces in the face and right now the end is not in sight. Even during this time, some homes are not safe places and being unable to gather for routine worship might be triggering to those in our midst. Several national organizations are offering free or low cost support and resources for spiritual care including: #destressinplace Community Care Network and Faith Matters Network’s Community Care Hours. AA and NA both offer a list of online meetings.
Exercise creativity and resourcefulness.
Everything cannot and should not become a Zoom meeting or Facebook live. More than that, not all communities have access to the tools or personnel needed to produce a high-quality stream or digital service. Zoom burnout is real. Yet, the pressure to compete, retain members, and gather a collection is real. Now is the time to do what feels right for your community and people, while prioritizing health and safety above all else. Maybe it’s time to offer a contemplative practice like breath prayer or journaling to your community in lieu or alongside a traditional message or study. Model grace in meeting people (and yourself) where they are, while taking this opportunity to dream and imagine new ways forward.
This crisis has already begun to expose the demonic illnesses of economic and racial injustices so prevalent in our nation and world. Still, many want to return to life as it was. In demonstration of hegemonic leadership, politicians, such as Dan Patrick, want to sacrifice even our elders for the sake of the economy. Too often, the currency of this market is the very lives of the last, lost, and the least among us.
Faith Leaders and People of Faith can offer a moral conscience to social discourse and justice work. At every turn we must advocate for the well-being of all living beings, while giving attention to those typically left out and ignored. In the immediate future we can: Urge widespread COVID-19 testing and the production of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Access to testing allows for Public Health officials to adequately assess and monitor the spread of the virus, which helps to estimate needs for hospitalization, ventilators, and more.
On the other hand, PPE provides frontline healthcare workers with the tools necessary to provide life saving care like gloves, gowns, face-shields, and masks. PPE keeps these care providers safe and healthy, so that they can not only continue to provide care, but safely return home to their families and livelihoods. The responsibility to secure large scale testing and PPE falls on our government officials, who in essence work for each of us. Contact your state and local officials and demand that they work to secure widespread testing and the production of PPE.
Support grassroots organizing, mutual aid efforts, and policy change during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organizations across the country have launched campaigns particular to the COVID-19 crisis in Black, Brown and incarcerated communities in addition to mutual aid efforts. A group of faith leaders launched a national campaign led by Faith in Public Life to “Rebuke a COVID-19 Easter Massacre” after the President of the United States called for the nation to reopen by Easter. Now is a great time to work alongside grassroots organizations on the ground in your community and on the national scale in responding to emergent needs.
Interrogate the larger issues that ungird the COVID-19 Crisis and commit to ongoing advocacy.
We must ask and answer the hard questions. “Why are Black people and poor people most affected?”, “Why is healthcare not considered to be a basic human right?”, ”Why are people not afforded a living wage?”, “How can Black and Brown students be consistently set up for success?” It is not enough to just ask these questions, but they must be answered during and after this crisis by way of policy, systems change, and resources that center the most vulnerable.
Wash your hands and wear a mask when you must have contact with others.
Right now, loving your neighbor as yourself looks like getting back to the basics of hand washing. Our Jewish siblings have even offered a blessing (https://www.ritualwell.org/ritual/blessing-washing-hands-during-pandemic) for Washing Hands During A Pandemic. Another step that we can take to potentially slow the transmission of the virus is to wear a mask when we are in contact with others. I like this no sew pattern from Masks in the Wild (https://www.masksinthewild.com/diy-masks).