Illustration for article titled As Easter Approaches, Black Pastors Cope With the Weight of Coronavirus
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In a pivotal scene from the 2000 film Remember the Titans, team captain Gerry Bertier confronts new teammate Julius Campbell. Bertier, in awe of Campbell’s talent, believes he’s throwing it away with his unwillingness to be a team player and his bad attitude. After chronicling all the ways Bertier failed to step up as team captain, Campbell simply says “attitude reflects leadership.” Those three words get to the heart of any real leadership development and training.

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As the ineptitude of the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic remains on display, many state and local officials have emerged to provide their constituents with model crisis leadership. Black community leaders continue to provide the stability that enables their communities to navigate the instability of this moment. Among those leaders are black pastors. With roughly 80 percent of black Americans identifying as Christian, many are in direct connection with a church and its leadership. And as the high holy holiday of Easter approaches, it is vital to understand how black congregations and their pastors are adjusting to the global pandemic and remaining connected during it.

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As COVID-19 began to spread, an immediate shift required congregations to cease gathering for traditional worship. While many outside of church leadership saw this decision as an imperative, pastors knew it also meant many of their congregants would not have the weekly engagement that church attendance provides.

“Church is family and church is community for so many people,“ says Charles Goodman, senior pastor of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. “The opportunity that church provides some people to simply get hugs and see people each week is now gone. As pastors, we feel that deeply.” The pain can be felt as Goodman discusses members living in nursing homes who have had to be visited through glass windows. “This is [a] new reality for us, and it hurts.”

The attempt to compensate for missed traditional worship services pushed congregations online. Though many congregations already streamed main worship services, they moved to platforms like Facebook Live and Zoom for all worship services, bible studies and meetings. Zoom reported a profit increase of 85% as a result of institutional transitions during the pandemic. Facebook also said it has seen a 50 percent increase in users watching live videos since February. To stream services, churches are also using the Church Online platform which streamed to a record number of 4.7 million unique devices the weekend of March 15 and continues to see an increase in users. “We have to go where our people are,” says Anthony Bennett, senior pastor of Mt. Aery Baptist Church in Bridgeport, Conn. “So many of them are already on social media so it makes sense for us to use the tools social media provides.”

In this moment of social distancing, many pastors are using social media to directly connect with their members. Cynthia Hale, senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Atlanta, considered her social media usage prior to COVID-19 as minimal. “I would just log in, scroll a bit to see what was going on, post a few things and that was it.” But Hale says the lack of traditional connection requires her and her colleagues to be more intentional about their engagement. “Now, I make it a point to wish people [a] happy birthday and check in. These are all the things I would do on Sunday and throughout the week but, without that in place, they have to still know that you care.”

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Though social media provides an opportunity for pastors to remain connected with their members, it also privies them to heightened critique. In early March, many pastors received harsh criticism for not canceling traditional worship services. Those conversations and others about the overall performance of black pastors have continued and, as these pastors interact with their members online, they see them. “Often there’s a push to have grace for everyone but the pastor,” says Bennett. Goodman agrees and believes the lack of empathy can often lead to unfair characterizations. “This has changed everything,” he says. As pastors deal with the misconceptions, Goodman believes the best thing they can do is to keep doing the work. “We will never be the same but the core of our call–loving God, loving God’s people and loving God’s word–has to be the constant.”

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Pastors want to be with their members. Bennett says the inability to do so weighs heavily on the heart. “We’re accustomed to one model of pastoral engagement and not being with our people is hard,” he says. “We’re grieving what we thought would always be there while embracing the opportunity to connect in different ways.” Hale believes many may not understand the emotional toll this takes on pastors who cannot be present with their members as they navigate this crisis. “As a pastor who is present with families when a loved one transitions, it’s difficult to just be in touch by the phone.” The rapid nature of COVID-19 deaths and burials is in stark contrast to black traditions and rituals, including the homegoing service. “We’re making adjustments to that as we need to but the idea that we cannot say goodbye in the ways we are accustomed is painful.”

But pastors say all the shifts have not been difficult ones—and some are inviting them to use theological innovation to create community. As many churches are embarking on their first Easter Sunday without a traditional communion experience, many pastors are getting creative. For last Sunday’s communion service, Goodman recorded a video for Tabernacle encouraging them to use whatever elements they already have at home. Many other pastors are doing the same. “We’re not telling anybody to endanger themselves by going out to buy anything special,” Goodman says. “Instead, we’re all going to gather what we already have at home and bring it together and honor how we can still be sacred in this new way.”

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These shifts are almost reminiscent to that of the first-century churches during Christianity’s infancy. It is precisely why Bennett believes pastors should see this moment as an opportunity. In an ever-evolving moment, he believes the authenticity of pastors is what can sustain them. “The degree to which a pastor is given permission, by themselves and by the people, to have authentic presence signals anticipation for what is to come and not grieving what we’ve left.”

Remaining stuck on what used to be and not acknowledging what must be can create stagnant and ineffective leadership. “You can’t be married to decisions in this moment,” says Goodman. “Pastors have to give themselves space to pivot and change.” Hale agrees and says the fluid nature of the times requires pastors fully depend on God and their people. For some pastors, the latter may be difficult but Hale says pastors have to “trust that we’ve equipped our members to check on and care for each other in ways that are needed.”

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For Ray of Hope Church, members reporting back has kept leadership informed of members who have positive COVID-19 diagnoses and members in need of financial resources and food. “The work of the church doesn’t stop just because we can’t get inside the building,” Hale says. Like Ray of Hope, Tabernacle and other churches have had to provide benevolence to families who were in immediate need because of the pandemic. “This has exposed how vulnerable many in our communities already were,” says Goodman. “And, with no end in sight, we have to be prepared to help more.”

And churches can’t help without financial resources. As black pastors are often characterized as money-hungry, many leaned into those tropes when discussing the refusal of some to close churches during the earlier stages of the pandemic. And, as messages reminding members to give online appear on social media, many reduce the pleas to pastors seeking to line their pockets. Yet for most pastors, that’s not the case; many are having to confront the hard reality of budget cuts. As most pastors would rather continue the necessary financial assistance being provided to church and community members, that might mean staff cuts. “No pastor wants to think about laying off staff in a moment like this,” Bennett says. “Their families matter, too.”

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Even in the uncertainty of the moment, these pastors are confident that we will see the other side and encourage their colleagues to deliver the same message. Hale believes how pastors lead during the coronavirus pandemic reflects a renewed mission for the church. “What we do now will help the community see a value in turning to God in a way where the church can be helpful,” she says. And, like Campbell in Remember the Titans, Goodman believes leaders set the tone for those who follow them. “True leadership endears you into people’s hearts,” he says. “They will believe that we’re going to get through this because you believe it.”

Candice Marie Benbow is a writer and theologian who situates her work at the intersections of beauty, faith, feminism and whatever Mrs. Knowles-Carter does to snatch us all bald.

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