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Covid And The Black Church

Covid And The Black Church

Every Sunday at 10:00am for the last two years, I sit on my couch and settle in for church service. My iPad is propped against a stack of books on the coffee table, and with one click, I’m able to live stream my way into the service. Even better, I can switch to another service if I so choose. Most Black churches are still closed, and even those that have resumed services are finding most of their members would rather live stream from home.

Speaking for myself, I’ve gotten comfortable. It’s my new normal. Even though I miss the fellowship at church, somehow not having to get dressed, drive, and possibly get stuck in L.A. traffic wins out.

As I sat in my pajamas on Easter Sunday, I thought about how Easter has always been a high-spirited holiday for Black folks. From the Saturday following Good Friday to the day itself. Black hair salons are booked and busy, smelling like hot irons. Black children practicing those Easter speeches, and the clickety-clack of little girls’ new patent leather shoes hit the ground. We, in our best suits, dresses, and hats, congregate in the sanctuary and prepare to hear the pastor preach on the resurrection.

The Black church has always been a safe space; protection from the white gaze; a shield from hate. But over the years, the church has become a place for extreme beliefs, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, and even a way to silence women. In the middle of all this, there is COVID — a global pandemic that has many Black churchgoers questioning where religion fits, if at all, into their lives. Instead of just doing away with church altogether, the Black church is being reimagined into something that welcomes everyone to the altar.

COVID has been at the foundation of social change and sociopolitical issues and has affected us all in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We have been forced to engage with the discrepancies of race, class, and discrimination. As church services went online during the pandemic, it presented an opportunity for people to hear and discover different pastors – which meant different theologies. While these opportunities existed, many churches may have been focused on viewership, which means those seeking to explore their faith in new ways were left out.

I believe most people found themselves at a crossroads of needing faith but being unwilling to return to harmful doctrines. Some ideas about God were responsible for driving them away from the church in the first place. Black people wanted a God that loved them for who they were because it was clear that the world did not.

Jumping onto Zoom or Facebook Live to watch church service has been the new normal. Black folks can be a part of the church in ways that matter to them. Truth is, that’s how it should be.

I grew up in the Baptist church. My Nana served on every committee there was, but women were not allowed in the pulpit. But even at a young age, I could see that something was wrong with that. Women did all the work. They planned, organized, and executed everything that needed to be done.

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By the time I was an adult in the Church of God in Christ, women were slowly being allowed into pulpits to preach. Still, so many rules. Often the judgment that could be dished out always bothered me. I remember watching a teenage girl being forced to apologize to the church after she had become pregnant. It was heartbreaking to watch, and I questioned how shaming her was part of God’s plan. I questioned how this was right on any level.

I thought about that teenage girl when reading Candice Benbow’s debut book, Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough. The book is Benbow’s journey, which starts with her late mother, Debra Louise Benbow, being pregnant out of wedlock and refusing to apologize to the church. The book continues with her mother’s death, which pushed Benbow to explore God in new, authentic ways.

The book is a love letter for Black women and an invitation to seek God for themselves. “You might not wear lipstick at all. You might be a gloss girl or somebody who’s like, ‘Carmex is all I need.’ But to be a Red Lip theologian is to believe that who you are at your core is good and that all these ebbs and flows of your life are holy,” she says. “But it does require walking away from certain harmful theologies.”

COVID has caused in-person attendance at churches to decrease, particularly within smaller congregations, and it’s no different for the first Black church founded in the San Fernando Valley, Greater Community Missionary Baptist Church in Pacoima.

Revered Jeffrey Martin says his membership took a hit from COVID, but so did the church’s lack of a social media presence which has made it easy for members to live stream from the comfort of home. “We call them bedside Baptists,” Martin says. “They never set foot into a church.”

When Black communities were slow to accept the COVID vaccines, Black churches helped take on the task of undoing distrust. It wasn’t an issue of Black people not being able to think for themselves, but the church was able to reiterate faith — which is what the Black church is based on. As Black people could “attend” different church services via the Internet, the message remained consistent — Black people need to take the vaccine. That message coming from the pulpit brought many Black folks to become vaccinated.

The truth is, the medical community alone couldn’t resolve the lack of confidence Black people had. The church has always been a safe space, and Black church leaders held themselves obligated to speak the truth to their members. The alternative was that we continue to die from COVID disproportionately.

As COVID continues to be a glaring concern in the Black community, the Black church is centrally positioned to address challenges whether we are sitting in pews, or curled on the couch like me. Allowing ourselves to reimagine what “glad to be in the service” really means to each of us is something we can thank the pandemic for.

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