What You Don't Know Could Hurt Everyone: It'll Take Community Resistance to Fight COVID-19

Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, bottom right, leads his three-member choir from the main aisle of an empty Enon Tabernacle, during the church’s live streaming Easter Sunday Service in Philadelphia, Sunday, April 12, 2020.
Reverend Dr. Alyn E. Waller, bottom right, leads his three-member choir from the main aisle of an empty Enon Tabernacle, during the church’s live streaming Easter Sunday Service in Philadelphia, Sunday, April 12, 2020.
Photo: Michael Bryant (The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)

Last week, I was diagnosed with COVID 19.

I am asymptomatic so the diagnosis came as a surprise.

But what was even more surprising? Discovering my status as a result of the free testing event I’d hosted at my church.

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I am the pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, the largest church in Philadelphia. To help ease the fears of my members I volunteered to be tested during last Wednesday’s event, co-hosted by Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, at Enon and other churches around the city. Like many of America’s other densely populated cities, black people lead COVID-19 deaths in Philadelphia: We are dying at a rate of close to 40 percent or higher compared with the rest of the population across the city. And because the COVID-19 test is invasive—doctors have to stick a swab up your nose in order to take a sample— I wanted to model to others that one, it wasn’t as bad as it looks, and two, that it truly is on all of us to do all we can to protect ourselves and each other from this deadly virus.

Including me.

When I tested positive, my mind immediately flashed to all the other unsuspecting people across Philadelphia—people just like me—walking around carrying COVID-19, potentially putting others at risk.

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I thought about all the beloved church members I had come into contact with the month before—socially distanced, of course—who could still have contracted the virus from me.

The irony is, from what I can tell, my fellow church officials and I did everything we could—short of conducting temperature checks and rapid-testing each other every time we walked through the church doors—to protect ourselves and others from the virus.

We stopped conducting in-person service weeks ago, moving it online.

We limited the number of people who could access the sanctuary each Sunday to live-stream service to just a handful to include myself, a couple of members of our choir, the organist and others. We moved our popular Bible studies to Zoom.

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All ministry activities, meetings, practices and rehearsals were canceled, and we restricted the number of people who could participate in church-facilitated funerals to 50, socially-distanced. (One update is that until further notice we are putting an end to church-based funerals and only conducting ceremonies graveside) Finally, we instituted a curbside pick-up policy only for emergency food pickups and donations at Enon.

And still.

Not only did I test positive for COVID-19 but 11 other members of the church did too, including my assistant. Unlike me, she is not asymptomatic and as of this writing was battling a fever and other symptoms. (We have since learned that unbeknownst to any of us, one of our choir members contracted the coronavirus weeks back and unknowingly brought it into the church as we gathered there to conduct virtual service—that person was also asymptomatic.)

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As of this writing, I am still awaiting test results for my wife and daughter.

But what sits with me most profoundly as I quarantine—far away from my beloved church family for their own good—is that had I not taken the test, I would have potentially gone about my duties as pastor and unknowingly infected more people than I perhaps already have; people like the four Enon church members we have already lost to COVID-19, folks, may they rest in peace.

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What also sits with me as I sit at home for the good of others is just how sad and angry I feel watching black people in cities like New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia clearly not taking the virus seriously.

The “Plat” is the name of a popular park here in Philly referenced by Will Smith in his classic song “Summertime.” It’s the party spot—where guys go to drive their freshly cleaned cars and the ladies go to kick it with their girls. This past Sunday, The Plat was packed—I mean, a parking lot full of people. Turns out someone cut the lock on the gate to the park even after city officials had shut it down. He or she chose, selfishly, to disregard their own life on top of the lives of innocent people by not practicing social distancing—all because they wanted to hang out with their friends.

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To that person or persons: know it could be you or your loved ones that contract the coronavirus next, because of actions like yours.

And here’s another truth—there’s a reason why Republicans are swinging the door open to states like Florida, Georgia and Texas, even in the face of daunting numbers of deaths and reported illnesses within their borders: The faces of those impacted in these states are largely black and brown.

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Listen, if you know that “they,” in the words of Kanye West back in the day, “don’t care about black people,” why would you volunteer to help them destroy our communities?

Yes, our people have to work. Some of us are indeed essential workers like doctors, nurses and other medical staff. But many of us are not. Many of us have low-wage jobs that cause us to brave the virus to make a living. But we have to ask ourselves: Is putting in long hours at Target or for Amazon truly worth it if we might die anyway?

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True, there are real systemic reasons black people are catching and dying from this virus at a higher rate than anybody else. They are tied to systemic injustices and disparities that have existed, pre-coded in many of the health industries. On top of that, black people tend to live in densely populated areas and bring other commodities to the disease. We also tend to not be tested as much as we should be, as widespread testing remains scarce across the country. That being said, we have to act like we understand the fight and not give our politicians—or the virus—ammunition to work with. We must resist being complicit in our own demise. If not, as more and more governors move to open up their cities and states, and more and more businesses move to sue the federal government for mandating shelter-in-place in an attempt to force their hand, it will be black people who will continue to die.

I get it. Folks want to go back to work. They want their kids to go back to school. They want to go on with their lives as they did before. I do, too. But if we rush back into the world, there’s a risk of an even greater outbreak with an even deadlier outcome.

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For the people who are concerned about being able to make it financially if they stay at home: consider leaning on the church. At Enon, we take up a consecration offering for times like this. Traditionally, if we have a member who falls behind or needs help financially, the deacons go to them and talk to them about what’s going on; if they find they are in need, the church will cut them a check. Following a Biblical mandate, we have paid rents or helped out with groceries using this offering, long before the coronavirus. Helping citizens in need is why Christians began taking up offerings in the first place. We will continue to do this in support of our people as they continue to stay home.

In the immortal words of California Rep. Maxine Waters, who herself has a sister currently fighting for her life following a COVID-19 infection, “resist” the government’s move to bring us out of our homes.

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Resisting is what I plan to do—regardless of what other pastors, congregations, cities and states do.

My prayer is that you will join me.


Dr. Alyn Waller is the Senior Pastor of Enon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA.

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DISCUSSION

Many of us have low-wage jobs that cause us to brave the virus to make a living. But we have to ask ourselves: Is putting in long hours at Target or for Amazon truly worth it if we might die anyway?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t