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COVID-19’s Burden on the Black and Brown Church

I have been home since March 13, 2020, a few days before the government called for “sheltering in place” nationwide. That is a total of eight weeks (two months). On certain days, I wake up with anxiety or a terrible, heavy-breathing spirit of depression that wants to attach itself to me, and, here’s the thing — I am no longer a pastor. I have pastored and planted, and I remember how incredibly difficult those days were, how ill-prepared I felt on most days, and how challenging it was to build something from nothing. Now, as I work alongside planters and pastors through my organization, Passion2Plant, and as I listen to their struggles in this new age of COVID-19, I realize that I never saw a true blight in church planting. Until now.
Those who follow Latino church planting may have already seen the study indicating that, before COVID-19, Latino churches did more with less money, but this new season ushered in by the virus is making that vastly more difficult. While church leaders, no matter their race, are dealing with the same challenges, their means of finding solutions, as always, differs starkly because of social location.
The media have already reported how Black and Brown communities in the U. S. are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and how the crisis has impacted Black and Brown churches. It has hit me close to home as my brother-in-law pastors a church in Manhattan and a friend pastors a church in the Bronx that has been hit with 13 deaths. This does not surprise those of us who grew up in the ’hood, but it surprises everyone else who is watching because, for the most part, they paid no attention to the folks who lived there anyway.
Ever since people have studied the social determinants of health, it has been proven that those with the least get sick (and often die) the most. Epidemiologist Sir Michael Marmot published a groundbreaking study in 1978 showing that those with better jobs were less likely to suffer from certain diseases or die from them. He argued that social determinants, such as income, social status, type of employment, and education, correlate to a person’s health status. All these things determine where you live, and where you live determines how long you live. To put it in COVID-19 terms, “Ignoring social determinants is equivalent to treating patients with unwashed hands and wondering why disease keeps spreading.”[1]

So, let’s first address what is happening on the front lines and then consider how all this points churches to the “what’s next” in this new normal. In a recent survey of 86 pastors and planters conducted by the Passion2Plant Network, we found that:
  • 56.5% of respondents were from urban communities, with many major cities represented
  • 28.6% identified as Latino/a
  • 13.1% identified as African American
  • 63.4% of respondents have pastored for more than nine years
  • 65.4% pastored a very mixed intergenerational church

Over 60% of the respondents have already seen finances reduced by over half, which has led to some losing their rental locations or not being able to purchase the technology needed to transition with an adequate quality to digital church. Among the respondents, 17. 4% have already had to restructure their staff, with a majority of those opting for layoffs or a reduction in hours. Some have revised job descriptions to reflect the new world we live in while others wait to see how long this will go on before making changes but are concerned that they may not be able to hold on much longer.
A majority of the respondents graded their mental health as a B, described as feeling some stress but having boundaries in place, and one-third of the respondents graded themselves as a C or D, feeling lots of stress but reaching out to those who could help them. The remaining respondents graded themselves an F, feeling that they could not continue in this crisis as they were and sharing that they were suffering from “exhaustion,” and “insomnia. ” As in no other time in history, pastors must be self-motivated to care for their well-being.
Everything about how church was done has changed, and the sand has shifted under the feet of pastors and planters everywhere. Of our survey respondents, 38. 4% felt that individuals could help by continuing to tithe and that church-planting organizations could help by sending money. Help with technology was desired by 23. 3% of the respondents, which could take the form of assigning a tech intern from a church with resources to a planted church to devise a technology plan for that church. This is important because 48. 8% of those surveyed said that becoming a digital church was their main plan going forward.
Perhaps the time has come to read books focused on technology and religion to learn how best to use this vehicle for God’s kingdom, to read practical books such as Creating Church Online, 2020 Digital Church Strategy: How Churches Can Use the Internet to Expand Their Reach and Glorify God, or even to read books that will educate pastors on the inequality that technology often fosters — the digital divide that many pastors have already experienced in their congregations. In our survey, pastors mentioned that they “thought everyone had a smart phone” or said “I couldn’t believe the various levels of internet access or people not having any” and noted how that has impacted social inclusion.
So, what is the Black and Brown church to do going forward? I offer these suggestions.
1. Commit and Continue. Urban church planters and pastors made commitments to their communities before COVID-19. Recommit to your city, and continue to be the church that is needed “at this time. ” None of us knows when this will end, but we do know that the need for the church will never end. Morph to what is needed right now. Continue to speak out and fight against the injustices that make our communities more susceptible to illness, and commit to caring for your own well-being during this time. We’ve never been in this situation before, and you’ve never needed self-care more than now!
2. Combine and Conquer. Alan Hirsch speaks of the APEST model, based on the fivefold ministry shared in Ephesians 4 (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds, Teachers) and there are people all over your city and even in your congregation (as it was) who never functioned in those roles because your church did not make room for that model or because pastors saw themselves as the “celebrity” and would not let go of that power. The script has been flipped. You must do what you never imagined. Use technology to find the people who function in those roles, and give them a place to serve. Micro-churches can unite with other micro-churches permanently or for “such a time as this” to collectively serve their community and bring all the talents in the house together for the greater good of the city. Combining might alleviate financial pressure, bring much-needed human resources to the team, and help you conquer the COVID-19 crisis in your area.
3. Consider and Create. Perhaps the next stage for your church or collective of churches is to address the social determinants mentioned earlier. Perhaps your church adopts a school or starts one that will further the educational achievement of Black and Brown children in your city. Two pastors I know in New York City did just that by establishing charter schools in the Bronx, and the Family Life Academy and Bronx Academy of Promise are doing great things. Consider thinking of ministry outside the bubble of first having a church. Perhaps you may want to investigate how to start an online school at the elementary or high school level. They are relatively inexpensive to begin and there are various open source platforms to deliver online education. I am currently working with a group that is doing exactly that, focused on leadership and justice. Perhaps your church or collective could come together to address food insecurity, preaching from the pantry by collaborating with a food bank in your area; as people wait in their cars, you could provide some music and a message. Perhaps a megachurch and a few smaller churches in the neighborhood can collaborate with a health clinic to start an extension in a poor neighborhood. Sit down with your team, consider, and create.
History has shown that the Black and Brown church survives and thrives in times of crisis, but never has it faced as many challenges simultaneously as we are seeing today. With that said, the Black and Brown church, historically, has always exhibited a prophetic imagination, incredible resilience, and prevailing persistence. We go through and we grow through. Our journeys have involved rising up against countless obstacles that challenged the church in the past, but the church rose up, and, as my friend Dr. Robert Chao Romero says, “This time is no different. ”[2]

[1] Veronica Squires and Breanna Lathrop, How Neighborhoods Make Us Sick: Restoring Health and Wellness to Our Communities (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2019), 25.
[2] Robert Chao Romero, Brown Church: Five Centuries of Latina/o Social Justice, Theology, and Identity (Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 2020), 25.

The original article was posted on Dr. Elizabeth Rios’ Medium blog.