Pandemic and racial unrest test black religious leaders on dual fronts
For black clergy across the United States, the last 10 days have been a tumultuous test of their stamina and skills.
For weeks, they had been striving to comfort their congregations amid a pandemic taking a disproportionately heavy toll on African Americans. Then came a coast-to-coast upsurge of racial tension and unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck as he pleaded for air.
“We’ve got a coronavirus and a racism virus,” said the Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.
Here’s a look at what McKissic and three other black religious leaders have been doing and how they’ve been coping:
Even without the flare-up of racial unrest, this week would have been challenging for McKissic. After weeks without in-person services due to the pandemic, he’s expecting up to 400 worshipers at an evening service on Sunday to start what he calls “The Comeback.”
His staff has been brushing up on disinfecting techniques and ordering face masks by the hundreds. Worshipers will be required to wear masks and will be seated in accordance with social distancing guidelines in a venue that can hold 1,800 people.
“Just trying to pastor effectively in a pandemic world — that alone has been a full challenge,” McKissic said. “Then all these race riots break out, all over the country and right next door to me.”
Last weekend, he recorded a fiery, four-minute statement that he aired on social media, denouncing the police actions that have cost Floyd and other black people their lives.
“America now has seen exactly what black America has been knowing for a couple of hundred years,” he said. “No one can now say that racism is a myth.”
He plans to expand on that theme in the sermon he’s preparing for Sunday. He’s also been conferring with fellow pastors, liaising with local political leaders, and comforting his older congregants.
“This reminds them of the ’60s,” he said. “They had hoped we were past this kind of incident.”
When news of Floyd’s death reached Charleston, S.C., there was a visceral reaction among congregation members at Emanuel AME Church. That’s where avowed white supremacist Dylan Roof killed the pastor and eight worshipers, all of them black, at a Bible study in 2015.
“We are familiar with pain. We are familiar with murder,” said the Rev. Eric Manning, the church’s pastor since June 2016.
Last Friday, Manning’s daily Bible study — being conducted via conference call during the pandemic — was devoted to the fallout from Floyd’s death.
“The whole study was talking about how we are feeling as a race,” Manning said. “It’s a painful reminder there is so much work still to be done when it comes to race relations.”
On Saturday night, Manning and his son headed toward downtown, hearing there was trouble brewing at a protest march. Manning said he got a whiff of tear gas as he tried to reduce tensions between police and youthful black protesters.
Afterward, he updated his Sunday sermon so it would reflect “the reality of the social unrest.”
“The things we are seeing are not OK,” he said. “It’s not OK to see a law enforcement officer lean his knee on the neck of an African American.”
The sermon was delivered online. There’s still no timetable for Manning’s church to resume in-person services as the denomination’s regional leaders weigh various options.
“Every day there’s something different,” Manning said. “How do you minister to a community in so much need?”
At a recent Minnesota rally, Imam Makram El-Amin joined thousands in chanting George Floyd’s name. At another gathering, at Floyd’s memorial site, El-Amin addressed a crowd, encouraging them “to use their voice,” be peaceful and organize for change.
Over the phone, the imam of Masjid An-Nur in Minneapolis prayed with members of the mosque’s congregation.
One such call, he said, was with Minnesota Atty. Gen. Keith Ellison, who has been given the lead in prosecutions related to Floyd’s death.
“He has a specific burden that he is carrying right now because of the weight of this case,” said El-Amin, who has been offering spiritual advice to Ellison.
With the coronavirus outbreak, El-Amin’s days already had been hectic as demand for food and other needs increased at Al-Maa’uun, a faith-based nonprofit of which he’s the executive director. Then, came Floyd’s death and the protests.
“People want justice. People are at their wit’s end and the emotions are raw,” said El-Amin. “This is something that has been brewing for a long, long time.”
At such times, faith leaders need to be “a voice of calm” and justice, he said. “We need to be comforting the afflicted in this moment and also afflicting the comfortable.”
He has been talking to law enforcement and elected officials, business owners and other community members, including some “very distraught” young men.
“They were angry,” he said. “They have a lot of anxiety, but most and foremost, I registered their fear.”
Back in March, the Rev. Horace Sheffield III — one of Detroit’s most prominent pastors — was stricken by COVID-19, along with his wife. They’ve both recovered; Sheffield rates his current health at 90% and tries to take a brisk 30-minute walk every day.
His workload, as pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship Church, requires energy and multitasking skills.
The church operates a large food distribution program and offers testing for the coronavirus. It is tentatively scheduled to resume in-person services on June 14.
Sheffield also has a weekly radio show; last weekend, he used it to discuss the wave of unrest in Detroit and elsewhere sparked by Floyd’s death. He’s been on the phone conferring with fellow pastors and with his daughter, Mary Sheffield, who is president pro tem of the Detroit City Council.
Sheffield, 65, said he and one of his best friends shared memories last weekend of the turbulent ’60s, including antiwar protests and the struggle for civil rights.
“We witnessed that whole whirlwind of upheaval,” Sheffield said. “We were both wondering if we’re on the edge of another seething cauldron.”
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