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.

I came to rest through exhaustion.

I went to the doctor thinking I had some serious medical condition, but all the tests came back negative. It turned out I was just totally exhausted.

Around this time, I was given a book called “The Rest of God,” by Mark Buchanan, which reintroduces the virtue of stillness. Reading the book started me on a journey of rediscovering rest.

I first learned that there are different sorts of rest: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual. We can all feel exhausted and may recognize our need for rest, but do we know the sort of rest that we need? How good are we at recognizing the areas in which we are drained, where we need to be refreshed, restored and re-energized?

Physical exhaustion is perhaps the area that we are most familiar with, and it may be that we have only ever thought about rest in terms of our physical needs.

However, for many today, work is primarily emotional and mental rather than physical, and we are just as likely to be emotionally or mentally exhausted as we are to be physically tired.

During a year of living with a pandemic, we have all been doing a lot of extra emotional, mental and spiritual work and are probably more drained in these areas than we would be normally, even if our jobs are physically taxing.

When we are physically drained, we know that we might need to eat or drink, sit down for a while, have an early night, or even take a nap. Do we have the same awareness about what we are supposed to do when we are emotionally, mentally, socially or spiritually drained? What can restore us in these areas?

When I was suffering from exhaustion, I thought I needed to stop and just do very little, to physically rest. But in fact, I found that even though I was doing very little, I didn’t feel any more rested at the end of the day.

Eventually, I discovered that my primary exhaustion was emotional, not physical. Physical rest wasn’t what I needed. Actually, in some ways, it made things worse, because “doing nothing” just gave me more time to focus on my anxiety and worry.

I gradually learned my personal ways of emotional rest. I discovered that being in nature buoyed me emotionally — in particular, spending time with trees.

There was something about their solidity, their rootedness, their age. They had been here before I was and would still be standing long after I was not. I was comforted thinking about how they went through seasons and weathered the effects of those seasons.

The different and bigger perspective on my circumstances brought me back down to earth and out of my own head. I found it peaceful and regenerative. In fact, I found that being in nature refilled me in other ways as well, giving me mental, social and spiritual rest.

Rest need not be inactive. For me, doing physical activity that requires focus can be emotionally restful. I garden, cook or create something. If I occupy my hands, I find that my mind wanders away from my concerns.

Active rest may sound counterintuitive, but resting can simply be stopping ordinary work. Doing something that might be work to someone else may be restful for you.

If you’re feeling exhausted, noticing the areas in which you are weary is a good place to start. Is your exhaustion physical? Or is it actually emotional, mental, social or spiritual? Or is your tiredness a result of a combination of these types of exhaustion? Discovering what sort of rest you need is key.

However, it is one thing to know what sort of rest you need and quite another to actually find that rest.

Today, perhaps more than ever, rest is contested. Eliza Cortés Bast illustrates this beautifully in her essay “Rest can be hard work.” There are many factors that can keep us from resting, even when we know what we need.

But Jesus has given us an invitation to come to rest (Matthew 11:28). Rest was even listed among the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8) — yet when was the last time we asked for forgiveness for not resting?

People in every walk of life are exhausted, but we have a God who gives permission to rest, who invites anyone who is weary to come to rest.

Rest need not be inactive.

Growing up the daughter and granddaughter of ministers, Thema Bryant was introduced early to the heavy responsibility placed on pastors for mental health counseling. The urgency was as close as the calls to her family’s home phone.

Generations of Bryants have served the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and she followed that path to become an ordained elder. Bryant also pursued a call to become a mental health care professional, earning her doctorate in clinical psychology at Duke University. She now leads the mental health ministry at First AME Church in South Los Angeles and is the president-elect of the American Psychological Association.

“I really do appreciate the blessing of my family. I was able to learn so much simply observing them and participating in the various aspects of the church. The AME Church is really founded on — along with the gospel — liberation and social justice, and that has been integral to my work,” she said. “It also is very much based in being of service to the community. It’s definitely not the kind of church that just opens on Sunday morning for two hours.”

Earlier this summer, Bryant spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne about how her two vocations intersect and about ways the church can grow increasingly responsive to the community’s mental health needs. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could we start by talking about your family’s relationship to the church and your relationship to the church?

Thema Bryant: My grandfather, Harrison James Bryant, was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and my grandmother, Edith Holland Bryant, engaged in missions work, community work, and did both social work and also promoting health within our community.

My father, John Bryant, became a bishop in the AME Church. When I was growing up, he was the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Baltimore, which was the largest AME church in that area. As a bishop, his first assignment was to have oversight for churches in West Africa. As a family, we moved to Liberia, West Africa. It was my mother, my father, my brother and I.

My mother, the Rev. Cecelia Williams Bryant, has over 40 years of women’s ministry in the AME Church, hosted many women’s conferences, has written several women’s devotional books, one of them being “I Dance With God.” My parents are now retired.

My brother is a pastor now, in Atlanta, Georgia, of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. Before he became the pastor there, he was the founding pastor of Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore.

F&L: How did your background and religious formation contribute to your decision to pursue psychology?

TB: My father was very active with pastoral counseling; we often had people calling the house. I talk about this in my book “Homecoming” — that my first time working a crisis hotline was in my home growing up as a kid, because people are more comfortable reaching out, often, to their pastor than reaching out to a therapist. I’m glad we’re having some progress in that area, in terms of destigmatizing mental health.

But I was aware of pastoral counseling and just have always had a heart for people. As a child, I would have been called sensitive. I could feel things deeply, and when I learned that it was a career in and of itself, I felt very drawn to it. When I got to Duke University, in that second year when you need to declare your major, I was very clear in my commitment to psychology.

F&L: Can you talk about the stigma associated with mental health needs and how you think we overcome that?

TB: There’s the grassroots aspect of that, and then there’s the policy piece. On a community level, what really helps destigmatize it is both a bottom-up and a top-down approach. The top-down approach is people who are considered to be leaders in the community speaking up about mental health — even perhaps speaking up about their own use of therapy or the importance of addressing mental health. I think that gives people permission and a freedom to know that it is not shameful.

I used to attend a church where the pastor very openly talked about going to therapy and talked about also her recovery from addiction. That created an atmosphere of transparency, where a lot of people felt that it was OK then to name challenges and to go and get help and that it was very encouraged.

A number of churches now have counseling centers, whether that is with laypeople who have gone through training or whether with licensed professionals. People have to look to see who is providing the care, but even those [programs] that are led by laypeople, I think, can often be structured in a supportive way — like a support group around bereavement that’s based in the church. Sometimes they will have it around recovery or around trauma.

From the bottom up, even when people don’t have leaders who are speaking up about it, we see many more people talking about mental health and about their therapists, even in social media and among their friends. That helps open the door for other people to either say, “Oh, I have a therapist, too” or, “I wonder what that would be like. Tell me about why you went or how that helped you.”

That brings up policy and the need to continue to advocate for support for people to access mental health care, as is the case with physical health care. That’s one of the things I appreciate about the work of the American Psychological Association. Not only do we have researchers, practitioners and educators, but we also have psychologists and staff that are involved with advocacy to try to really promote access to quality mental health care for all people.

F&L: Churches are natural places for both direct service and advocacy. They’re central to communities. We would hope that they are places people see as compassionate and caring. There’s space for them to be models.

TB: Definitely. That can really be a shift. I think we have examples within our faith communities of those who have been antagonistic to mental health and those who have been promoters. Some faith leaders, unfortunately, have discouraged mental health treatment by saying, “If you prayed about it, you should be fine” or, “You don’t need to go to outsiders; we have enough with our faith.”

I know that that has been very harmful, with people who needed help either not seeking it or those who sought it having shame or embarrassment, thinking their faith must be insufficient.

We also have wonderful folks across denominations who have promoted these messages of compassion and care and collaboration. I really appreciate a number of pastors who now have referral lists and provide pastoral support and possibilities in the community for mental health services as well.

F&L: So it is not necessary for every church to have a counselor on staff, but every church can provide resources and entry points.

TB: Absolutely. Depending on the mental health professional you’re talking to, sometimes it is preferable for them not to be a member. Because if someone is a member, they would have to have very clear boundaries, or Sunday worship can turn into crisis response for the mental health professional who is coming there to worship. That would just have to be clear.

F&L: What would your advice be to a pastor who wants to be a good model or provide resources? What could be a starting point for a church that recognizes this need but might be stretched thin?

TB: One resource is Mental Health Ministries. They have a number of ready-made resources that deal with this integration of faith and mental health. In addition, I would say integrating mental health in the liturgy. So when you’re having prayer, include those who are facing depression, those who are living with anxiety, those who are struggling with addiction, those who are grieving.

When you have health fairs at the church, be intentional about making sure there’s a table for mental health. Not only do we have screenings for blood pressure and everything else, but if you just contact a local agency or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, they have a number of volunteers who in most areas would be willing to come out for health fairs or as speakers. Do not feel like you have to know everything about every disorder. Collaborate with experts.

The other real starting place, I would say, is to find out if in your congregation there are any licensed professionals. If you have therapists, social workers, psychologists, then if you all have a part of the service for announcements, they could do a mental health minute once a month or once a quarter. During those announcements, they could come up and just give some tips about mental health.

If you are still printing physical bulletins, you could include some resources in there or some quick facts about mental health. In your sermons, I would say think about trauma-informed sermons, which is really just being biblically based. There are many stories in there of trauma, of abuse, of despair.

Sometimes, we go into what I call a psychological prosperity gospel — “If you love Jesus, you’ll be happy all the time.” It’s just not accurate. It was not true for David. It was not true for the disciples or the prophets. It wasn’t true for Jesus. It’s important for us to really pay attention to the ways psychology shows up in the text that will allow our ministry and our preaching to be more relevant to where people are in their lives.

When we have these various retreats and conferences, if we have a youth conference, think about having a workshop that has to do with mental health. Many of our youth are really struggling. Yes, it’s important for them to know the Bible; we also want them to live. We see rates around suicide and other challenges, and so we need to be holistic in our planning of our retreats and conferences so it is spiritual, emotional and physical health all being encouraged as the will of God for people’s lives.

F&L: You had a wonderful quote in a prior interview: “To require people to only feel joy and gratitude is dehumanizing. It does not give space or permission to honor their humanity.” I’m wondering what you might say to that balance we’re all trying to strike between honoring the trauma and keeping ourselves going.

TB: Holding space for both and leaning more into the ways that we can honor time for our stillness and healing. I think many of us cope by busyness, and that gets celebrated in our communities, because you’re giving back and you’re volunteering for everything the church needs. Sometimes, we’re not tuned in to the person who is doing a million things — what may be going on on the inside of them that is motivating that. Can they tolerate stillness and silence?

Pay attention to the different warning signs of how the effects show up. It can show up with depression. It can show up with irritability. It can show up with anxiety. It can show up with numbness.

If you’re seeing all these things happening and you feel nothing, that’s also a trauma response, and so being compassionate with ourselves as we take note of that and then being mindful of our healing practice like, “What do I do for my wellness?” That can include our journaling. It can include talking with family and friends, but also I hope people will consider therapy as well. Often, we just try to stuff it down and say, “I prayed about it; I’m over it.” But it still bleeds out in different areas of our lives.

I would highlight the commandment that we love others the way we love ourselves. We often focus on the others — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We focus outward, but if I am to love you as I love me, then I have to also love me.

Does the way that I give myself permission to rest look like love? Does what I choose to feed my body look like love? If I loved myself, would I set some boundaries I’m not currently setting? Love ourselves and lean into some of the stillness so that we can really heal.

When doing the research for her new book, “The Soul of the Helper,” Holly Oxhandler found that the lessons emerging from her study of mental health care providers would also apply to all caregivers, even those outside health care.

Looking at the degree to which mental health care providers were integrating their clients’ spirituality or religion into their mental health treatments, Oxhandler found a positive relationship with the quality of care — and a personal mission to help people acknowledge their own spirituality when caring for others.

Soul of the Helper book cover

“[Recognizing one’s own spirituality] is really applicable to everyday helpers, especially given the large percentage of folks who identify as being religious or religion being important in their lives,” Oxhandler said.

Across all sorts of care professions, having a healthy spiritual life oneself can correspond quite closely with being able to provide spiritual care to others, she argues in the book.

Oxhandler is an associate professor of social work at Baylor University and has a background in spiritually integrated mental health.

She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and the hope she has for caregivers to recognize and care for their own souls before caring for others. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Who are the readers you wrote the book for, and what did you hope they would learn?

Holly Oxhandler

Holly Oxhandler: The ideal readers that I had in mind with this book are the everyday helpers for whom faith is important, and perhaps they are wrestling with mental health struggles or they love someone who is wrestling with mental health struggles or they are bumping up against those edges of burnout.

They continue to go and do and help and serve in whatever ways they are uniquely equipped to care for others, but they’re realizing that in their efforts to serve, they just get exhausted. They are realizing that they need to find new ways to refill their own wells as they go out and serve others.

Especially after these last couple of years, the book is for parents, teachers, faith leaders, mental health care providers and general health care providers, but also the everyday helpers like the baristas and our engineers and our community organizers who are still serving others in their own unique ways. It’s those informal caregivers especially I was thinking of when I wrote this book.

F&L: How would you go about convincing people who don’t think they are caregivers that they are providing care?

HO: First of all, I think that each of us has the capacity to be a caregiver or to be a fellow helper in one way, shape or form.

As we go about our days, we are tending to and supporting and helping and loving those around us in a number of different ways, whether that’s through our volunteer service or in connection with our friends or family members or the people that we interact with at work. On a daily basis, we’re engaging in some form of helping or serving or just connecting with those individuals.

I really would hope that those who are serving in these myriad ways recognize that the ways that they interact and support and serve and help and care for others are profound and have a big impact on the lives of those around them, whether that’s a close loved one or a complete stranger.

As someone who identifies as Christian, I think about the idea of loving my neighbor as myself. That really does have a strong emphasis on recognizing that I am serving others in some capacity, even just as someone who identifies as a Christian or who is trying to embody and live out a life that follows what Jesus taught me. I mean, I would really push and try to encourage folks to recognize that we all have the capacity to be a helper in one way, shape or form.

F&L: Why do you think considering one’s own spirituality is so important in offering care?

HO: The heartbeat of this book is recognition that caregivers and helpers have got to wake up to the sacred, to that divine spark, that image of God within themselves as they go out and serve others.

We need to wake up to the fact that we are worth caring for and tending to — the gift of our precious and sacred life. And that this life is not promised, and that it is a gift to get to steward it.

We have to wake up to it within ourselves so that we can care for ourselves well, especially so that as we go out and serve others, we’re better positioned to discern and best meet the needs around us and to recognize and tend to the sacred, the image of God, that divine spark within our neighbors as we go out and serve.

In part, my fear is that if helpers are not taking that time to tend to their own inner landscape and all of those layers within them that make up who they are, there is a risk of them imposing the pain, the difficulty that many of us experience through our lives on those around them as they’re trying to help.

Father Thomas Keating writes about “programs for happiness” — that many of us will go through our lives aware or unaware that we are seeking power, control or affection. And my fear is that helpers are not paying attention to the sense of their own belovedness, that they are worth that love and care, and they will unintentionally go out and seek those programs for happiness as they serve others and unintentionally cause harm in that process.

F&L: What kinds of beliefs and practices do you think lead to burnout for caregivers?

HO: I want to emphasize that the contribution to burnout comes from individual but also systemic sources. Individuals may be wanting to seek the affirmation, the accolade, just the addictive dopamine bump that they get when they’re giving and serving and helping others, but also they may have been surrounded by systems that communicate that their worth is dependent upon what they do. If their value is dependent on their productivity, or the way that they help and serve, they just go without even realizing the ways that it could potentially be hurting themselves and others.

Then the other piece, especially around those systemic issues, is when we have organizations and systems set in place that don’t allow the helpers to truly heal and rest and recover from the occupational hazards of the work that they do in serving others.

Without having systems in place to support them, burnout is inevitable in some ways, because of the ways that health care providers, faith leaders, other caregivers are exposed to secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and more. Without having systems in place to allow them to heal, I think, it just really increases their risk of burnout.

F&L: What are some things that need to be realigned to create more sustainable habits or more sustainable conditions for caregivers?

HO: What would be implemented would be unique based on the individual, the organization, the system, the region, the type of caregiving and things like that.

Some of the things that need to be put in place, though, are individuals starting to recognize their inherent worth and that they are worth a slower pace, and beginning to advocate for others to have access to this as well.

This is a big part of what social workers do, and I love that I get to be a social worker and the ways that we can advocate for more policies and systems to be in place for things like, for example, a paid maternity leave.

I do hope to see more helpers modeling the need to do this work — to slow down and to ask for help, to learn to ask for help with humility, and recognizing that the previous helpers were not able to do everything for everyone all of the time. So learning how to humbly ask for help and to receive — not just ask but receive — that help.

That’s not easy for helpers. I don’t think that’s easy for many of us, but when we have picked up that narrative that we are the helpers, we do all the service, it’s really hard to humbly allow others to care for and help us. So I think some of that modeling is important. And the advocacy piece, I think, is important.

Advocating for more mental health care would be something that I would just love to see more generally.

We know that about half of all lifetime cases of mental illness in the U.S. pop up by the time kids are 14, and about 75% by age 24. So we see this in younger individuals. And then again throughout life, over 80% of us meet criteria for a mental health struggle at some point.

Having space for mental health treatment to allow us to do some of this self-reflective work, I think, is really important too, alongside our spiritual practices and religious practices that help us connect to God, to whomever we believe in in terms of our higher power.

F&L: What is your Namaste Theory for helpers?

HO: I found that mental health care providers who were more deeply motivated to live out their belief (whatever it was that they believed in) and were more deeply connected with the divine within themselves tended to have more positive views and were more likely to actually integrate their clients’ religion or spirituality into treatment.

And it wasn’t just in my sample of social workers, psychologists, family therapists, counselors and nurses, but we saw this in other samples where the mental health care providers who had higher levels of religiosity — were more frequently engaged in their religious practices — tended to integrate the clients’ faith in more.

Namaste, which translates to mean “the sacred within me recognizes the sacred within you,” really brought order to what I was finding within my research.

As I talked with other helpers, it made sense to them too. When folks are more deeply grounded in what they believe in, they’re able to hold that space for those around them to explore and to ask questions and to wrestle with their faith in a nonjudgmental way.

Translating that to the everyday helper is really where the heartbeat within this book is. And recognizing that we as helpers — it’s really on us to pay attention to our inner landscape, including that divine spark, that image of God within ourselves, as we go out and serve others so that we can recognize it within others while recognizing that we are worth the love and care that we give to so many others.