About 20 Durham pastors gathered under a breezeway of a church south of downtown on Thursday morning and announced that their churches would remain closed for Sunday worship services to protect their congregations from the novel coronavirus.

The late morning press conference took place at the Mt. Vernon Baptist Church on South Roxboro Street. The church’s pastor, Jerome Washington, recalled the black church’s origins when believers would worship in secret embedded deep in the woods, far from the censorship of their white kidnappers who made fortunes from their forced labor.

“Worship has never been confined to a building,” Washington said. “In our tradition, worship first begins in the heart. Historically in the African American tradition, we worshipped when there was no building. … Our worship is not confined to a building. As a matter of fact, we did not need the governor to tell us to close our churches. Our love for our people told us to close our churches.”

The pastors’ announcement came a week after conservative church leaders filed a federal complaint against Governor Cooper, arguing that his executive order prohibiting indoor gatherings of more than 10 people, even for religious services, violated their religious freedom. Two days later, U.S. District Court Judge James C. Dever issued a temporary restraining order allowing congregations to meet in larger numbers for at least 14 days.

Washington said he was “not at all bothered” by Dever’s order or Cooper’s prohibition of mass gatherings for worship services. He added that Christians should be mindful of those who pose as Christians while pushing a political agenda.

“One does not need to show up at the cross with a Make America Great Again hat on,” he said.

At the crux of the pastors’ concern is the impact the novel coronavirus is having on African Americans, who account for a disproportionate number of COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina and across the country.

North Carolina health officials report that while blacks make about 22 percent of the state’s population, they account for about 35 percent of the state’s COVID-19 deaths. 

Washington said the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on black people is the latest in a line of adverse conditions that have affected the community, including members of their congregations.

“Many of us serve people who are vulnerable every day,” he said. “They’re vulnerable socioeconomically. They’re vulnerable with regard to the justice system. They are vulnerable with regard to health care. We dare not make them vulnerable with regard to their worship space.”

There’s a reason why the places we worship are called sanctuaries, he added, “and we do not want to compromise the Godly integrity of sanctuary.”

“This virus has an impact, and it’s a serious matter,” said Calvin Brooks, pastor of the Mt. Zion United Church of Christ in Henderson. “Our congregation—which is not a very big church—we have already experienced two deaths, and we have also had a number of members that have been affected personally. It is important that we use our platform as ministers to talk to our laypeople and get them to understand the seriousness of this virus, and for us to take to mind what the governor is saying. We’re not looking to go back into services right now because we need to make sure we are safe.”

James Blake, who serves as pastor of the Fisher Memorial United Holy Church in Durham, said he has elderly members and others in his congregation who have underlying conditions like hypertension and diabetes. He said it would be wrong to open up his church knowing those members are especially vulnerable to the virus.

“We’re going to lead them through this pandemic, and we’re going to lead them with information,” Blake said. 

There were a handful of white pastors in attendance at the late morning gathering, including Deborah Cayer, lead minister of the Eno River Universalist Fellowship in Durham. Cayer pointed to front-line employees who work each day to provide residents with essential needs like food, health care, and sanitation pickup.

“I just came from the grocery store, and they are there,” Cayer said. “And so this is an act of love. This is an act of justice. This is an act of solidarity.”

Washington—who, like all clergy present, wore a face mask—said the pastors there were members of Durham Clergy United. The lockdown, Washington said, has prompted them to rethink worship services and pastoral ministry in creative ways. They are spending more time on the phone with parishioners and have taken to borrowing ideas from one another.

Washington still arrives at his church at 10:00 a.m. on Sundays to preach a virtual service. He’s the only person in the building and tries not to give in to melancholy. 

All of the pastors who assembled under dreary, overcast skies missed their congregations. But they believed in a higher cause. While waiting on a word from the Lord, they also await scientific assurances. 

“Let’s be clear. We have not closed the church. The building is closed,” Washington said. “We don’t take our cues from Raleigh or the city and county of Durham. I think our congregations are more informed [about COVID-19] than the general public because that’s what we have to do on a daily basis. We might be doing more. I know I am.”

Contact staff writer Thomasi McDonald at tmcdonald@indyweek.com. 

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