The church I grew up in was the same church my grandmother grew up in. Going always felt like reconvening with distant relatives and the church itself served as a kind of home-away-from-home for me. The church was where I met and developed childhood friendships. When folks discovered my gift of singing, the church celebrated and nurtured me. It was in church where I learned about the power of community—the sweet smiles and words of church elders covering me with affirmations of love. The women of the church, including my grandmother, used their fashion sense to give us all a lesson in resplendence: vibrant dresses and stunning hats that reached towards the heavens. Like a good and safe home, the church always felt like a place where I, and really all the Black folks I knew, could exist as our most authentic and loving selves.
I’ve been thinking about the church a lot since the pandemic started. While I have fond memories of it from my childhood, it’s been a while since the church felt like home. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I remembered the strength of my earlier connection to church as I witnessed countless loved ones resist church closures even as COVID-19 numbers escalated. As I scrolled through Facebook posts lamenting about how it was spiritual warfare to shut down churches, I understood their resistance even if I disagreed. To them, the church was a safe haven, a place of God where no weapon (or virus) formed against it could prosper.
This sensibility has deep roots. Since their inception, Black churches have served as a much-needed refuge for Black people. I talked to Rev. Earle Fisher, Senior Pastor of Abyssinian M.B. church, who shared, “Most people who have studied the Black church or the Black community would say, the Black church is generally the only autonomous Black institution that we have in our communities.”
Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a church both “unapologetically Christian and unapologetically Black,” would agree. Wright preaches that a prophetic theology of liberation has been foundational to the Black Church. In a country governed by white supremacy, Black churches have developed a theology that offsets the psychological and spiritual bondage of anti-Blackness. In this light, closing the doors to one of the few safe spaces for Black bodies in this country felt riskier than a deadly pandemic.
Even though I understood people’s struggle about whether or not to close churches, it was scary to watch it unfold as danger seemed to loom ever closer. When I spoke to my grandmother up north whose pastor had not yet cancelled services, it made me both concerned and resentful. I was well aware of how much power pastors had over their congregants. I did not blame folks for trusting the judgments of their leaders; I blamed the leaders for being irresponsible with the lives of their congregants.
Over time it became clear that the pandemic was disproportionately impacting our communities. Despite making up roughly 12% of the United States, Black folks account for 34% of coronavirus deaths. As the staggering impact of the virus weighed on our community, more and more Black churches began to close. And when both of my grandmothers informed me that their services had been moved online, I exhaled.
Even with their doors closed, Black churches still worked to take care of our communities. For many pastors, the work did not slow down, and in many instances, the difficulty of guiding and caring for their community increased exponentially. Rev. Rhonda Thomas, the co-pastor of New Generation Missionary Baptist Church in Opa-Locka, Fla., described the closings as “hurtful” and “painful,” especially due to the disruption of traditional homegoing services.
Before COVID-19, Black funerals often served as an impromptu family reunion where loved ones came together to mourn, laugh, hug, eat good, and in some cases dance and drink the night away in a celebration of the memory of their loved ones. Ida Harris, who has researched Black funerals extensively, observes, “For African Americans, the homegoing is the ultimate form of liberation. It is one of few Black spaces that has not been permeated with whiteness.”
But with the coronavirus, all of that had to change. Rev. Thomas discovered this stark difference as she officiated homegoing services during the pandemic. “The heartbreaking thing now,” she shared, “is having funeral services in a socially distanced way. We are people that are known to comfort one another. It’s horrible to see that extended family cannot attend the funerals.”
Not being able to do something as important as attend a funeral added to the isolation of the pandemic. As we got deeper into 2020, months went by with me having virtually zero contact with anyone outside of Zoom. I wasn’t doing well, and I could tell my family wasn’t either. I could hear the sadness in my grandmother’s voice as she complained about being so far removed from her church community. Our conversations reminded me of how necessary church, and the community it offered, was for keeping many folks grounded.
Then, less than a year after Breonna Taylor was murdered by police in her home, the world watched in horror as Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. The video was everywhere, and it renewed energy in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Historically, the Black church has been the place for organizers to galvanize the community to act against oppression. For Bishop Carolyn Coleman of Tabernacle of Alpha & Omega Church in Jackson, Miss., “the Black church has always been the foundation for civil action … that civil action has to do with your citizenship…your political awareness of what is going on around you in your communities … [and] your ability to understand you are a community servant.”
That foundation of civic action was visible during Jim Crow and even earlier, when Black churches were the only spaces Black people could exist independently of whiteness. Within those church walls, Black people could organize bus boycotts, sit-ins, and other programming focused on the social, political, and economic advancement of Black communities. During the civil rights movement of the ‘60s, organizations like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference established freedom schools to educate, organize and empower young Black Mississippians. Movement leaders housed many of those schools in Black churches.
Despite its historical role in the civil rights movement, Black churches have struggled to find their way in current movements against white supremacy. At Abyssinian M.B. Church, Rev. Fisher has cultivated a ministry committed to Black liberation and community empowerment. He has noticed that often, Black activists do not feel supported or welcomed in churches. Rev. Fisher worries that “too often [the Black church] is structured against Black power.” His observation rings particularly true for Black women and Black people who are also a part of LGBTQIA+ communities. Both women and LGBTQIA+ folks have worked tirelessly to offer a more intersectional re-imagining of Black liberation, often in the face of criticism and even outright opposition from Black churches.
Growing up, my home church felt like a place where myself and others could show up as the truest versions of ourselves. But over time, I realized that privilege was conditional. For more than a handful of us, this space put limits on what parts of ourselves were worthy of love. For those and other reasons, I stopped going to church regularly many years ago, but I never stopped remembering the church. The memory of it lives in my body. As I became more depressed due to the pandemic and persistent police violence, the memories were a lifeline. So I leaned into building a healthier practice of praying every day. Cooking became both a personal and ancestral ritual. Negro spirituals, the same ones I grew up with in church, lulled me into much needed meditative states when I was too overcome with anxiety to be productive. Slowly, over the course of 2020, I discovered a way back into church, if not into the building, then within my home, through my own practice. It’s different from what my grandmother has, but it feeds my soul nonetheless.
The Black Church has existed in spirit since our feet touched the soil of this land. It deftly mingles our ancestors’ languages, customs, rituals and all other things this country has sought to take from us into a life-giving force. For me, the pandemic served as a very loud, and difficult to ignore, reminder of our responsibility to ourselves and our communities, near and far. That sense of responsibility comes, in part, from my understanding of the Black Church as a home-away-from-home for so many of us. A home in spirit, in practice and in love.