One Black church’s COVID-19 response: ‘Alleviate, educate, activate’

In February 2020, I attended Super Bowl LIV amid early chatter about a virus in China. I was not alarmed when I developed a fever, lost my ability to taste and became bedridden days after my return to New York. However, just weeks later, I found myself on the phone with a member of our church who is a doctor of infectious diseases. That conversation informed our church’s decision to cancel in-person worship services, two weeks prior to New York state’s required lockdown.

New York’s Black church leaders expressed a mixed response to the lockdown. Some saw then-Governor Cuomo’s order to cancel in-person worship as going too far. They regarded this restriction as an opportunity to stand against an evil attempt to silence the church by continuing in-person worship. Others, including Hope City Church, where I serve as senior pastor, used the order as an opportunity to expand our reach.

I never saw the order as a mandate against being in the church. Instead, I saw the pandemic as an opportunity to be faithful to my calling. Paul speaks to this in the book of Ephesians, in which he outlines what I regard as the pastor’s job description — to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12 NRSV).

He also explains in 2 Timothy 3:17 (NKJV) that our goal is “that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” According to Paul, Scripture is to be used in preparation for preaching and ministry work. I believe that this “good work” is ministering to the needs of our community.

A decade ago, Eddie Glaude argued that the Black church is dead and offered reasons to explain the demise of its centrality to Black life in America. However, I was birthed in and profess homage to the Black church that is not restricted to a physical place but speaks to a collective experience that has moved through American history. This Black church, conceived in our African origin, delivered by the midwife of Jim Crow and matured during the civil rights era, now continues to grow through the Black Lives Matter movement. This Black church, in the spirit of Delores Williams, “is invisible” yet becomes visible through its impactful work.

As I reflect on the work of the Black church over the past three years, I would argue that the proof of life for the Black church is the thousands of lives that its work saved during the pandemic.

In addition to moving our worship services online in March 2020, my church went to work by implementing a three-phased initiative we called Alleviate, Educate, Activate (A.E.A.).

The community we serve in East New York (ENY) Brooklyn was caught off guard by the magnitude of deaths it experienced because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like other underserved communities, ENY residents face high living costs, increased crime rates, co-morbidities and decreased access to resources. ENY’s high population density (nearly 30,000 people per square mile), coupled with residents’ distrust of the government, exacerbated the spread of the virus and misinformation. A lockdown for our community meant no work and no way for residents to feed their families or pay their bills, which increased financial stress. So the church went to work.

Alleviate. To alleviate the financial stress in our community, I made a decision to model Christ and not the church. We made decisions by first asking, “What did Jesus do?” and then doing that. Our finance team created a system that invited anyone who needed financial assistance to text “HELP” to the church. Eligibility for this program was based solely on need rather than church membership or being a Christian. But this did not go far enough in relieving the pain that our people were experiencing. We went further and started working to address the distrust and misinformation in our community.

Educate. We used sermons to speak to the needs of our community members by providing present-day application of God’s word. Instead of using Scripture to explain the pandemic, our sermons illuminated God’s desire for how the church should work to address the community’s needs during the pandemic.

In addition, we hosted virtual open forums with local pastors and health experts. These events allowed the community to voice their concerns in guided discussions that dispelled myths about theology, the Black church, and the COVID-19 virus, tests and vaccines.

Finally, we made health professionals available at our church to answer questions and promote COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. It became common for community members to return with friends and family to walk them through the testing or vaccination experience after speaking with us.

Activate. We repurposed our physical spaces to combat distrust by activating community members to serve our community. We converted our sanctuary into a vaccination and testing clinic that saw thousands of people. We also provided free mental health services to address trauma in our community.

Faced with increased food insecurity, we transformed a building purchased months before the pandemic into a food distribution center. We designed a text-based contactless system that enabled us to keep our volunteers and our most vulnerable community members safe as we met food needs. In the summer of 2020, we fed over 100,000 people.

Black people no longer top the list of those dying from COVID-19, a reality that I believe churches like mine helped make possible. The Black church is not dead, and the lives saved as a result of our work during the pandemic serve as the pulsating proof of our impactful existence.

This Black church, conceived in our African origin, delivered by the midwife of Jim Crow and matured during the civil rights era, now continues to grow through the Black Lives Matter movement.

Christianity is not the white man’s religion. A tradition of Christian faith and practice emerged from the underside of America, from enslaved Africans in the antebellum South. There were no steeples, stoles, or stained glass. This tradition had no such luxuries. The Christianity of enslaved Africans was not a religion of privilege and position. It was a religion of freedom and revolution. Deep in the wilderness of the plantation slavocracy, enslaved Africans would escape to practice a communal spirituality that challenged them to love their bodies and their heritage, and to refuse any conditions that said otherwise. Welcome to the hush harbors, the invisible gathering places where enslaved Africans met to praise the God of the oppressed, pay attention to one another’s needs, and plot the abolition of slaveholding Christianity and the plantation economy. Hush harbors are a place to turn to refashion for our times a Christian community shaped by risky love.

The Terror of the Plantation Economy

The environment of chattel slavery was no walk in the park. Cultural artifacts like the film Birth of a Nation depict Africans as happy with being slaves. Such propaganda numbed and concealed what really took place in the plantation economy. Africans in America were legally and politically considered not fully human. They had no rights that white people were expected to respect and uphold. Any deference given to Black people was out of respect for them as the property of a white master. Black people were legally denied access to the kinds of privileges that uplifted and bettered white people, like government programs, economic self-determination, and voting. Without the honor of human dignity and any rights to ensure their well-being, as property of the plantation economy, enslaved Africans were treated for how they could meet white pleasures. Rape, forced “breeding,” mutilation through beatings, and lynching were only some of the violent bodily tactics white people used to punish and control enslaved Africans. Even the mundane parts of enslaved Africans’ lives were not respected. Enslaved Africans were forbidden to gather or assemble together except under the supervision of white folks. They had curfews to prevent their escape at night. Their leisure was policed to control as much of their time for work on the plantation and to ensure the leisure of the white master and his family. Even the term plantation does not do justice to the racialized economic exploitation Black people faced. Author Nikole Hannah-Jones in her book 1619 calls these Southern sites of oppression “labor camps.” The terror of the plantation economy was a totalizing vision. Every part of the lives of enslaved Africans was expected to be under the gaze of white supremacist, patriarchal capitalism.

Theology and Worship on the Plantation

What enables a race of people to exploit the labor of another race? To see them as their property? To colonize the land of Natives and the consciousness of Africans? What must a people believe about themselves to enact terror on another people and on the planet? “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything … , with reverence for the Lord” (Col. 3:22). These words summarize the theology of slaveholding Christianity. And from these few words emerged an entire culture and history of violent desecration of land and peoples. Enslaved Africans had regular opportunities to worship on the plantation in racially integrated churches led by white folks. These integrated plantation churches operated by a separate and unequal rule: Black people and white people sat in the same sanctuaries, but everything else about the worship experience was separated by race, from using different restrooms to separate seating, prayer and Communion rituals, and burial grounds and baptismal waters. Enslaved Africans could also attend segregated gatherings led by Black preachers under the supervision of a white minister and white religious customs. Worship in both of these plantation churches accommodated the terror of the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity.

The theology of the plantation said that God works through white men to bring the world into order and submission. Most white plantation owners used Christianity, especially the words of Paul, to make Africans docile and numb to their plight, to believe it was God’s will for them to be slaves. Other white plantation owners forbade the enslaved to be taught Christianity because they were worried biblical themes would incite revolution. How can Christianity hold within it these two contradictory possibilities? Race was the theological myth used by wealthy, white, male plantation owners to uphold the chattel slavery economy with a whitewashed, domesticated, heretical Christianity. Only a small percentage of wealthy, white, male plantation owners were actually at the top of the caste. When the owner was not around to be in charge of the plantation economy, wealthy white women were in control. When the owner’s wife was not there, either a poor white man or woman or an enslaved Black man was in charge. Black women and children were always at the bottom. All Black lives were disposable. Race is a powerful myth because the racial caste system has never been consistent. Myths are only as true as people give credence to them and as they function to maintain the status quo. From the beginning of the chattel experiment, poor and working-class white people have shared more in common with Black and Native people than with the white elite. The power of the slavocracy system was that it operated at the intersection of white supremacy, white patriarchy, racialized capitalism, and the theological heresy of slaveholding Christianity.

Hush Harbors and the Plantation

Even if only temporarily, enslaved Africans escaped the plantation economy and slaveholding Christianity by organizing hush harbors. Drawing especially from documented slave narratives, hush harbors have been a treasure trove of study for religion scholars and theologians. The literature on hush harbors has centered two rich debates. First, there is the debate of erasure versus retention of African cultures or Africanisms. Much of the early literature about the period of slavery in the US claimed that the psychic and bodily trauma of the Middle Passage — of Africans being violently forced from their homelands in Africa by European settler-terrorists on ships under the most inhumane of conditions — stripped the first generation of enslaved Africans of much if not all of their memories of their African cultures and customs. Certainly, this cultural knowledge was not passed down to successive generations, the argument went. This psychological and cultural violence was strategic in making African peoples more susceptible to being chattel for white plantation owners. Other scholars contended that hush harbors provided evidence to oppose the erasure thesis. Hush harbors depicted a rich continuity of Africanisms — music, language, religion, stories, and more — that enslaved Africans disguised for their own safety when under white surveillance. Because of the need to disguise Africanisms, the unaware observer could not readily see how enslaved Africans did in fact retain a variety of African customs and practices.

The second debate is over the nature of the Christianity that enslaved Africans practiced. Did enslaved Africans practice the Christianity of the slaveholder, which accommodated their own oppression? Christianity was an empire religion that accommodated the status quo. For enslaved Africans, to accept Christianity was to accept their plight on earth as they awaited their true freedom in the afterlife. Again, by peering into hush harbors, this thesis has been contested. Through the testimonies of enslaved Africans themselves, scholars discovered that Africans in the Americas not only practiced an otherworldly Christian religion that accommodated their oppression; hush harbors that enslaved Africans organized were sites of protest against the dominant Christianity of the slaveholder. In hush harbors, enslaved Africans made plans for permanent escape to the northern parts of the US. Additionally, enslaved Africans carried a hush harbor mindset of freedom with them onto the plantation to both cope with daily terror and plot for abolition without being caught by white plantation owners. This mystical hush harbor was as much a site of interior protest as the material hush harbor was a site of physical protest. These protest actions and mindsets were rooted in particular Christian beliefs that enslaved Africans initially discovered from slaveholding Christianity and then reinterpreted toward revolutionary ends.

These debates have unearthed a rich legacy of the genius of enslaved Africans’ beliefs and practices. In recent times, however, Black prophetic leaders have grappled with the importance of hush harbors not only for their historical relevance but also as a site of contemporary reflection on a more radical model of church and activism.

From “Buried Seeds,” by Alexia Salvatierra and Brandon Wrencher, ©2022. Used by permission of Baker Academic.

Almost a decade after they committed to reading James Baldwin together, Jamie McGhee and Adam Hollowell are encouraging others to consider the late writer’s calls to action.

The two first met when McGhee was a student at Duke University and Hollowell was working at the university’s chapel. After the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of the man who shot him, they looked for something that might help them process the moment. McGhee and Hollowell turned to canon, Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.”

Out of the shared experience of reading and then writing together, they have co-authored “You Mean It or You Don’t: James Baldwin’s Radical Challenge,” a book that pairs reflection on Baldwin with an invitation to activism. The authors write about finding the courage to change, embracing a radical moral challenge and looking to a community of collaborators.

“When one helps or when one steps into a different [context], they will end up changing,” McGhee said. “Their viewpoints might change, or they’ll find things they’ve never seen before…If you keep going, you’re going to be confronted with realities you might have been blind to or opinions that might differ sharply from your own. You will change the person [you are], but the process can be a bit terrifying from the outset.”

Hollowell added: “Baldwin often brings readers to a moment of decision and asks for a response. We call that Baldwin’s radical moral challenge. You mean it or you don’t. But we also wanted to leave the reader feeling like they are a part of a community when they experience that challenge.

“Most of our action prompts involve connecting with other people — looking for groups that are already working in your community or partnering with colleagues, neighbors, friends in work for justice. We wanted to accept the intensity of Baldwin’s moral challenge but also equip and empower the reader to feel connected to others in their response to that challenge.”

McGhee and Hollowell spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne this summer. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: There are a lot of books that are meant for thoughtful discussion. This one is thoughtful discussion — and then you say, “OK, here’s what you can do next.” What was the impetus behind that?

Adam Hollowell

Adam Hollowell: When we started writing [in conversation] with Baldwin, I was at a church and was writing prayers on a weekly basis for worship, and I was also working in student ministry and was praying with students as a part of my day-to-day job. The first project that [Jamie and I] wrote was a series of prayers, and those felt like an important spiritual resource for this particular moment.

When we returned to the project four years later, the same things were happening in the country over and over. We wanted to write new words that were more focused on concrete actions.

That doesn’t mean we are done with prayer, and it doesn’t mean that prayer is inaction or inactivity. It means that there are times when you feel like all you can do is pray, and there are times when you feel like praying is not enough. Both of those are important feelings. This book is very focused on concrete action, and it is very committed to helping readers activate in their local communities as a complement to the work of prayer.

McGhee

Jamie McGhee: It’s not that prayer is inaction, but when people stop at the thoughts and prayers, that is fully insufficient. This book is not replacing the earlier project focused on prayer but rather a step beyond. I do believe a lot of people have really good intentions and either they don’t know a lot about a certain subject, such as mass incarceration, for example, or it doesn’t directly affect them. They’d like to know more, and if they knew about things, then they could get involved. But they also don’t really know how to get involved without causing more harm.

There are so many logistical barriers to entry; this book is an attempt to overcome some of those barriers and invite people with an easy road map of how you get started with the things that you believe and want to do to help.

F&L: You began 10 years ago, and Baldwin predates that. But much of the book feels of the moment; systemic oppression has always been there. It’s almost like you all anticipated some of the last few months’ issues — the resurgence of book bannings, ahistorical teaching, legislation around gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation. What is the continuum you see?

AH: We wrote this project with a very attuned sense of the words that were Baldwin’s and the words that were ours. Many of Baldwin’s writings and speeches feel timeless or eternally relevant in the United States. Baldwin speaks with just enough specificity for you to know that he’s speaking directly to you, but just enough generality for decades and decades and decades of readers to connect with his work. We wanted to capture the intensity of Baldwin’s perpetually relevant prophetic voice while also doing our work to meet Baldwin in this particular moment.

This book is full of references to community groups, URL links to databases of organizations, switchboard phone numbers for elected representatives, and those specifics won’t be relevant forever. We know that. We’ve written it that way on purpose. Baldwin supplies the connection to American history and the enduring nature of the challenges that we face. We aim to meet Baldwin with a sense of intensity and specificity about the demands of the present moment, right now.

JM: I really like comparing [Baldwin’s] earlier work with his later work to see his transformation as a person. One way he really transforms is in his hopefulness or not. I believe in his early writings he directly addressed America: “This is what you need to do; this is what needs to change. I’m very hopeful about what America could do if we just address those things.” Then over the span of the next 20, 30 years, he sees continually those things aren’t being addressed and the same cycles are continuing and continuing and continuing. And they were continuing through his death in the ’80s.

I think Baldwin is a prophet, and he has a wonderful way with words, because words could probably span different cultures and span time periods on their own. On a practical level, a lot of the reason they are still relevant is because, as an American society, we keep continuing the same spirals over and over and over again without really addressing all of the problems. A lot of the same problems we have today are some of the same ones, maybe on a different scale, that Baldwin had when he was writing.

F&L: Could you talk about liberatory horizons?

AH: There’s been a public debate in the last few years about Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Some writers and activists have said that knowing the moral arc of the universe is essential to joining sustainable justice work. Other writers and activists have said that the only way the arc of the universe changes is if we bend it. Sometimes Christians are in the first camp, and sometimes Christians are in the second camp.

For us, liberatory horizons are the things that you hold to when you want to let go of the work. We don’t know exactly what those horizons are for each leader. We don’t need to know. We don’t need to weigh in on the debate about the moral arc of the universe, but we do want readers to identify for themselves what sustains their commitment.

The section on liberatory horizons follows a few paragraphs on activist burnout. We know, both from personal experience and from the research literature, that some people rush into activist work with a brightly burning fire but it doesn’t last very long. Some of the longer-term workers on a particular issue can be frustrated, harmed, set back, displaced by that new-activist energy. The section on liberatory horizons is about identifying and connecting with what sustains you in the long term so that your commitment to the work doesn’t burn out too quickly, doesn’t burn up the people around you, but remains steady for you to approach the horizon as a part of a community.

JM: We emphasize the fact that everyone has their own liberatory horizon, and that’s going to look different for everyone. There’s no single way to do activism. When I was starting at 16, 17, 18 years old, I thought there was one way to do activism, to be in the street protesting, because that’s what I saw. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that I didn’t see, and a lot of other small things, a lot of cogs in the giant machine, that I think a lot of people with good intentions aren’t really aware of.

Some people do burn out, because they haven’t quite found their place, because they don’t know all of their options. Finding your own liberatory horizon comes with trying out a lot of different things and then figuring out what, personally, gives you life and then going with that.

A lot of times, it won’t just be the [demonstrations]; it won’t necessarily just be the protests. It might be, but there are so many other things. And I think the invitation to find your liberatory horizon is also an invitation to explore and to figure out where you fit and want to fit into the wide open.

Baldwin supplies the connection to American history and the enduring nature of the challenges that we face. We aim to meet Baldwin with a sense of intensity and specificity about the demands of the present moment, right now.

F&L: Something Baldwin talks about and that you held up is this notion that there’s the individual piece of activism but there’s also a community piece, and finding that community. American culture puts so much emphasis on the individual and individualism. Could you speak to community in this?

JM: I think there’s such an emphasis on individualism that can be truly detrimental to long-term work. I think community is, at its base, what will change the world. It won’t be one person, contrary to the narrative that we are fed, specifically in the U.S. On a practical level, community is there for challenging you on beliefs, planning greater movements. Community is there for people who have done this before, people with experience.

Sometimes it might be easy to get siloed into a single way of thinking or a single way of “I have to do one thing; I have to be the one to change something.” Really, it is a larger community effort, whether it’s battling burnout or trying to figure out how to mobilize a massive group of people on a national scale.

It really starts with connection, and the connection is what will sustain people, especially at the beginning of their journey into this. I think that’s one of the most important elements of long-term sustainability — having people around you who are also doing it with you. So you don’t take on the mantle of saving the world by yourself.

AH: It’s also important to me that community describes something that’s very painful for some people, and community describes experiences of redemption, judgment, pressure, harm. Baldwin knew better than most that there are times when you have to leave the place that you’re in in order to save yourself. But that was not Baldwin’s final word. In his final days in France, as his body was breaking down, a community of people gathered around Baldwin, and that gathering was a witness to the people who made him the person that he was.

In the book, we aim to honor the reader’s need to step away like Baldwin did, but we also try to call the leader into connection, as the people who loved Baldwin called him into connection.

I’ll add one more thing. The title of the book is “You Mean It or You Don’t,” which is taken from an exchange Baldwin had with a student in the ’80s. But the last line of the book is, “Either we mean it, or we don’t.” And that is our subtle nudge to Baldwin — that the moral demand presses us into relationship with one another.

F&L: What more would you like people to know about this book that we haven’t discussed?

JM: I think the art-speech aspect of social change can be sometimes undervalued and overlooked. Every time I look, there are so many articles about whether art can be used as activism. What is the role of art in activism?

Baldwin described himself very much as the artist. Some people don’t necessarily consider themselves artists but can find an outlet, find something useful, in art. At the end of the book, we do encourage people, just even for themselves, to express whether they’re angry, confused or hurt, to take those feelings and put them into something artistic. You don’t have to show anyone. It doesn’t have to have any wider significance. It doesn’t have to change the world. Just make something. Express something.

For me, making art really brings me back into my humanity. If I read something, I’m just so overwhelmed with the state of the world that I have to pause. I primarily write fiction, so making some sort of art, some sort of fiction, even if it’s not connected at all to the world, helps me to remember that I’m human, my voice is important, and I can create something. I don’t have to lie helplessly and watch the world burn. I can go out, make and create and build beautiful things. Things are being destroyed, yes, but also goodness can be brought into the world.

I also think art is useful for social change. Art can [prompt] subtle changes that might not be immediately apparent. Baldwin, for example, talks about how reading as a child really opened his mind to so many things. I don’t think we’d have the fiery Baldwin we have now if his mind weren’t opened through all of the many, many books that he went through as a child. Books essentially changed his life; they saved him.

For a lot of people, that is true. You go to a play or see any movie, watch a performance — it might not change anything explicitly. You might not come away from reading “Giovanni’s Room” and go, “Wow, I need to go advocate for more LGBT rights now.” That’s not the point of the book. The point of the book can be to be a more compassionate, humane person, to make you think, put yourself in the shoes of people, to open your mind a bit to the world going on around you and make you more able to see, more able to look for the small details, more willing to accept a reality different from your own.

I think it’s a very subtle change that, over the course of time, can lead you into different avenues of compassion and activism. The last chapter of the book, about art, is really just an invitation for people to explore that, play and see what is the art going on in your community. It gets overlooked. It gets undervalued. But I do think it’s a beautiful part of this whole process.

I think community is, at its base, what will change the world. It won’t be one person, contrary to the narrative that we are fed, specifically in the U.S.