While COVID-19 has impacted all sectors of Alabama’s population, studies show that African-American communities in Alabama are experiencing disproportionately higher rates of infection and death, a trend that has been played out throughout the United States.
In Alabama, African-Americans, while comprising about 27 percent of the population, account for approximately 40 percent of COVID-19 infections and 44 percent of virus-related deaths, according to data released May 20 from the Alabama Department of Public Health and alreporter.com. In Montgomery, where about half the city’s residents are black, a spike in positive coronavirus tests in the past two weeks landed the metro area on a White House list of locations to watch.
Pew Research reports that 38 percent of black adults, compared with 28 percent of white adults, are very concerned about unknowingly spreading COVID-19 to others, and 31 percent of black adults, compared with 18 percent of white adults, are very concerned about becoming infected with COVID-19 and requiring hospitalization. Additionally, Pew Research reports 44 percent of blacks said that they or someone in their household had experienced a job or wage loss, compared with 38 percent of whites.
More than statistics
As disconcerting as these statistics are to many Alabama Baptists, Dewayne Rembert, pastor of Flatline Church at Chisholm, Montgomery, knows COVID-19 is about more than statistics; it’s about individuals.
Flatline Church at Chisholm is in a “very impoverished and somewhat neglected community,” Rembert said. COVID-19 has only intensified the challenges of living in Chisholm.
“While many people are privy to updates throughout the day, that’s not the case for many of our residents,” Rembert explained. When updates are received, confusion seems to be a typical response, with some residents downplaying the seriousness of the issue while others take it seriously.
“Some of our residents’ water and lights were already off before the quarantine” because of widespread poverty, he said, which makes sheltering in place more difficult. Due to depression and worry, many residents are consuming more alcohol and illegal drugs, while others turn to socializing, Rembert noted.
“Many want to come out and socialize due to the relief that it brings you when you feel like your life is depressing,” he said.
“Escape” is gone
Young people in the community, who often found “their escape” in churches, schools and after-school programs that are now closed, “are reporting some hard things they are having to endure at home due to sin,” Rembert said.
“The manual labor jobs that most of our residents were on have now ceased,” he noted. Yet residents “still need to eat and just survive.”
Grateful for the stimulus checks provided by the federal government, Rembert said receiving them is not without challenges for Chisholm residents.
“The problem arises in the African-American communities of not knowing where to send the checks since many of them are staying at their relatives’ homes. Also, most of our residents don’t have a bank account. We were in the process of trying to address this issue before COVID-19,” he explained. Some residents are concerned it may take months to “track down” the stimulus checks.
“So the needs are still saving the lost, strengthening the weak and helping the poor,” Rembert said.
“Let’s be intentional about making sure they (Chisholm residents) are being treated fairly because they are made in the image of God, just like you and me,” he continued. In the midst of the bleakness, Flatline Church has continued to “get the Word to our people” through online streaming, television and radio. Additionally, the church has distributed food to, prayed with and counseled many in need.
Reopening churches and recovery
Still, COVID-19’s disparities along racial lines could make it more difficult for African-American Southern Baptist congregations to recover from the pandemic, said Marshal Ausberry, president of the National African-American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention. African-American communities, he confirmed, “have experienced higher unemployment along with higher mortalities when compared to the national rate for other populations,” which will “lead to increased poverty and homelessness” among African-Americans.
In considering when and how to resume onsite worship services, African-American church leaders must address these disparities as well, balancing the need and desire to gather for worship while also protecting the health of congregants.
Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle in rural Ringgold, Georgia reopened its doors April 26 after having been closed for several weeks. According to a Christian Post article, approximately 25 percent of congregants participated in onsite services. Church leaders said the decision was made, in part, because of the “low volume of [COVID-19] cases in our area at the time.”
All social distancing requirements were followed at the onsite services, leaders reported. Within two weeks, several church members had contracted COVID-19 and the church, under the leadership of Pastor Justin Gazaway, once again canceled services.
“Our hearts are heavy”
“Our hearts are heavy as some of our families are dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 virus, and we ask for your prayers for each of them as they follow the prescribed protocol and recuperate at home,” the church said in a formal statement, the Christian Post reported.
Rembert, too, asked for prayer: “Please continue to lift us up in prayer and ask the Lord to deal with each one of us on what it is He is trying to teach us in this season.”
Prayer is vital, agreed Ausberry, who also serves as SBC first vice president. “Some congregations may be on the verge of closing and not reopening (their) doors. This may be an opportunity to connect with an African-American … congregation to develop relationships with the pastors and (members). I believe it all begins with prayer,” he said. (Baptist Press contributed)