Will South Carolina's Black Churches Be Another COVID Casualty?

May 13, 2020

Rev. J.T. Barber delivers his sermons and Bible readings online to his older, but definitely plugged-in congregation at Boyd Hill Baptist Church in Rock Hill.
Credit Rev. J.T. Barber / YouTube image

The inequities of COVID-19 are complicated, but one trend stands out above all others – African-Americans in South Carolina are affected by – and dying from – the disease at much higher rates than Caucasians.

So what does that have to do with church? 

Well, the relationship between African-Americans and most public institutions is also complicated.

“There is an angst and an anger that comes from the black community about how we’ve been treated from the medical field, as well as from the government,” says Rev. Dr. Jarrett Fite, campus minister at Clinton College in Rock Hill. “At some point we’ve got to find a medium to say, ‘Who can we trust? What can we trust, so can protect our people?’”

For centuries, African-Americans have turned to church as their main social advocate. For many African-Americans, church has been a refuge not just for the spirit and the soul, but for the body. Church members sheltered escaped slaves; stood the line during times of segregation; and marched for civil rights, when the response from public institutions turned brutal. They continue to help young people get college educations and social guidance and they remain a place for making deep community connections.

In the age of the novel coronavirus, black churches have become a haven for information delivery, and the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) is putting a lot of effort into getting the word out where they know African-Americans are listening. DHEC’s Faith and Health Resource Guide predates the pandemic, but gives information on how faith communities can teach about healthier living in general. And as information about COVID-19 develops, the agency is delivering that information directly to faith leaders, who, in turn, share it with their members.

But that’s complicated too. Or at least highly nuanced. This, after all, is 2020. The definition of what a black church is has evolved – and might evolve itself into extinction.

God, Online

The traditional image of an African-American church in the South is one of a small building in a small neighborhood with a small, traditional congregation. The contemporary image isn’t much different, except for the age of the people who attend.

In Rock Hill, small churches with predominantly black congregations, like Boyd Hill Baptist, are getting older. Most members are above 70. Its pastor, Rev. J.T. Barber, is 80. Its oldest member is about to be 101.

Younger black churchgoers aren’t joining this small congregation. The same can be said for other churches in and near Rock Hill.

“A lot of people are doing church online,” says Tadean Page. The 24-year-old is referring to people in general, but to young people in particular. Young people, he says, are not as drawn to small, traditional, neighborhood churches.

Page also says that the coronavirus pandemic has shifted the way people are experiencing church.

So what doe that have to do with delivering information about COVID?

Well, while Page says he respects the historical place small churches have in communities of color, this pandemic could show bigger churches – a.k.a., megachurches, with slick online and social media presences – to be the more valuable when it comes to getting the word out.

“DHEC using churches to [get the message out about COVID], I think that’s great,” he says. However, “going to X Baptist Church [to do so] might not work anymore to provide this information to people, because a lot of people our age are not going there. And we’re the ones having to inform our older generations on what’s going on.”

Page says that getting information across to church members, black or not, is simply more far-reaching and more efficient when done online, rather than talking to leaders of small churches who, in turn, can only inform a few members at a time.

Page also cautions that while prayer is important, it’s not enough. One must pray for guidance and strength, he says. But one must also remember to wash one’s hands.

Ayana Crawford, who is 26, agrees that the need for rapid, good information at a time like a pandemic may be best done online. She worries that small churches might not be able to bounce back from social distancing restrictions that could keep donations and other funds from finding their way to small churches.

“I hope they don’t fail,” she says. But she’s not sure they won’t.

For Crawford, the internet offers a strong way forward for churchgoers.

“The media team at my church does a great job of connecting with people,” she says. “I hope small churches can do what’s feasible for them.”

Online services ramped up across all faiths once stay-at-home orders and generally prudent caution about social gatherings kicked in. But even beyond these pinch-hit services, online ministries are on the rise. A 2019 article in the Christian Post highlights the massive social media congregations of ministers like Marcus Rogers in Chicago and Rick Warren in Los Angeles. Both have built followings in the hundreds of thousands.

Closer to home, Charlotte’s Elevation Church boasts 14,000 members and 17 church campuses in the Carolinas. It has a few more in other states and is growing. The Movement Centre, to which both Tadean Page and Ayana Crawford belong, is expanding from Fort Mill into Rock Hill because it’s growing too.

Meanwhile, older black churches are getting smaller as their congregations age.

The Word, COVID Edition

While DHEC is connecting with the larger faith community, small-church pastors like Rev. Barber say they have not been in contact with state health officials.

“Not a one,” he says.

That’s left him in the position of having to minister based on what he’s heard about the coronavirus – which is to say, not much more than anyone else has heard. So far, his counsel has been this:

“Don’t worry, but be concerned.” He says worry can make things worse, whereas caution is just being smart.

Yes, getting the word out about COVID is another thing that gets complicated. For Rev. Fite, the flurry of information makes it difficult to get a good bead on what to say.

“We have different messages coming from different people,” he says. “There’s no cohesive conversation.”

Rev Fite is, in part, referring to a growing chasm that lies on the fault line of political ideologies. He says this forces ministers like himself to choose what to listen to.

He too has not been in touch with state health officials. He has been in touch with local officials in Rock Hill, about whom he feels confident when it comes to acting on behalf of black residents. He was part of the development of the city’s MyRide bus, a free-to-ride, all-electric fleet that was developed to serve poorer (mostly black) areas of Rock Hill when launched, and says he’s been in contact with local leaders to weigh in on how the outbreak could affect the city’s large black population.

But it’s as a church leader, both at the historically black Clinton College and at his church, New Mt. Olivet AME Zion, that allows him to most get the word out about COVID-19. Like Rev. Barber, Rev. Fite urges taking the situation seriously until more information is known.

In the meantime, he is ministering to the questions older – and younger – members of his congregations ask. Questions of how to cope with a scary situation.  The answers are a blend of the practical and the divine.

“The church has a responsibility to, on one hand know what the world is saying and what our experts are saying,” he says. “But on the other hand, we’ve got to have a bible in our hand. We have to do our part to make sure our people stay safe.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan