A matter of Faith versus Fear: Will Detroit’s Black Churches Survive COVID-19 Pandemic?

By Donald James

Special to the Chronicle

 

Since mid-March of this year, Detroit, like most cities across America, has been fighting the deadly COVID-19 virus.  However, unlike most cities in the country, Detroit, with a population of 669,610 people, 82 percent of whom are African American, is the nation’s Blackest major municipality.  Per capita Detroit has more Black houses of worship than any other major city in America with approximately 4,572 Black churches.

While the Motor City is proud of its large population of Black people and its incredible number of Black churches, it has witnessed the disproportionate impact that the deadly coronavirus has caused in Black communities across the country.  Yet, in every one of the communities, Black churches – many of which are historically designated – have been and continue to be beacons of light for underserved and underrepresented Black people.

These churches, in this era of the COVID-19 pandemic, are being called on more than ever to creatively sow seeds of hope and faith to respective congregations as they worship God in new, innovative ways under challenging circumstances.

“We had to make serious adjustments to how we offer in-person worship services,” said Rev. Jim Holley, senior pastor of the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church.  “Our church seats 1,400, but we have about 150 members attending our worship services.  We do everything that we are supposed to do, in terms of safety protocols, such as having much smaller congregations, practicing social distancing, taking temperatures, and requiring the entire congregation and ministry to wear masks for worship services.”

Holley pointed out that Little Rock is using social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook, to get the word of God to the people who cannot attend in-person worship services. Holley said people can also watch The Rev. Jim Holley Ministries’ two-hour worship service held every day from noon to 2:00 p.m. on Comcast Channel 90.

While it’s difficult to measure how many Black churches are holding in-person Sunday worship services versus using online and social media platforms, it is believed far more churches are opting for the latter.

“We stream live on Sunday mornings,”  said QuanTez Pressley, lead pastor of Third New Hope Baptist  Church (TNH) on the city’s west side.   “I want to make that distinction because some churches pre-record their services and air them on Sunday.  But, about ten church leaders are in our sanctuary along with our music ministry to live stream our Sunday worship services.”

Pressley said God has continued to bless Third New Hope in many areas during the pandemic, inclusive of strong online attendance and church members giving in multiple ways. Pressley, 34, began his tenure the first of this year as Third New Hope’s lead pastor following the retirement of Dr. E. L. Branch after 42 years of service as senior pastor.

“I have been mind-blown by God’s faithfulness that even in this pandemic the majority of the believers at Third New Hope has remained consistent with tithes and offerings which has allowed the financial health of the church to stay strong,” said Pressley.  “Through God’s favor, although we have had to make adjustments in how we do ministry, we have not allowed it to stop us from engaging in meaningful ministry work and leaning heavily on making the work of God our unstoppable mission.”

Pressley is proud that even in the pandemic, TNH continues to be a blessing to the community.  Through the church’s Mary Cole Food Ministry, and in partnership with Gleaners Community Food Bank, TNH engages in frequent food giveaways to people in need.  On Thursdays, said Pressley, the church, in an ongoing partnership with Henry Ford Health System, is providing free COVID-19 testing and flu shots at TNH’s west campus on W. Warren near McGraw.

Bishop Edgar Vann, senior pastor of Second Ebenezer Church, is also pleased by the volume of community engagement that his church is involved in during the pandemic.

“We have not decreased our outreach to the community, it actually has been even stronger during this time,” said Vann.  “Whether it is connecting people to jobs or involving food distribution in times of food insecurity or COVID testing or administering flu shots, our church’s outreach has been busy.”

Now ten months into the pandemic, Vann is proud of how his church has risen to the task of doing God’s work.

“Our church has remained resilient and very strong,” said Vann.  “Our church is continuing to grow online and I’m very pleased as to where we are despite this pandemic.  Of course, among the biggest loss during this pandemic is the loss of fellowship and human interactions but I think we have pivoted well online in every way.”

Dr. Audry L. Turner, senior pastor of Nehemiah Baptist Church in Detroit, has also pivoted well after making the decision to shut down in-person worship services following Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s issuance of the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order signed in March.

Turner turned to social media platforms to replace in-person worship services at her church.  She credits DTE Energy with providing training which allowed her to present online worship services through Facebook Live and other platforms.  Those platforms have allowed Turner to reach more people than ever.

“With God, there is nothing new under the sun, so I believe the Black church is being impacted for the greater of what God wants from us – and not the worse,” said Turner.  “And, even though it seems like the worst of times with this pandemic, you can still see God’s blessings even greater on things that we probably took for granted.  I believe this pandemic is pushing us towards the greater to build up God’s kingdom.”

Turner said the absence of in-person worship services has allowed her to follow through on what God revealed to her before the pandemic:   start a church without walls ministry.

“We are now a church without walls,” said Turner.  “We go deeper into the community and provide events and resources that bring the community together.  God has strategically set me up for this pandemic to carry the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ outside the four walls.  This is what I’ve been commissioned to do.”

Turner also hosts an hour-long radio program every Thursday at 11:00 p.m. on WCHB (1340 AM).  The program, which she started at the onset of the pandemic, is called Q&A with Pastor Audry, an outreach ministry of Nehemiah Baptist Church.  Turner also chairs the Commission of Mental Health Council, under the auspices of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity, where she facilitates self-help care modalities for pastors which ultimately help congregations better manage anxiety, stress and acquire coping skills, especially in the era of COVID-19.

As the pandemic roars on with almost 9,000 Michiganders dead from COVID-19, two questions loom bigger by the day:  When will the pandemic end?  Will things ever return to normal?

“I don’t think that we will go back to what we’ve known as the traditional Black church and its traditional practices – and in many cases, I don’t think we should,” said Rev. Dr. Steve Bland, Jr., president of the Council of Baptist Pastors of Detroit and Vicinity.  “We must develop an action plan for the Black church to embrace the future.  We have to rethink everything, such as pastoral care, baptisms, funerals, passing trays of any kind, the way we usher, special events and a lot more.”

Through the Council, Bland, who is also senior pastor of Liberty Temple Baptist Church, has his hands on the pulse of approximately 250 area Black churches along with their respective pastors, ministers and other faith leaders.  The Council has become one of the leading bodies of Black pastors and ministers in the country to tackle issues such as slowing and stopping the disproportionate infections, hospitalizations and deaths of Black people due to the virus.  Bland said the Council will be at the forefront of informing Black people in Detroit about the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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