The Rev. Keith Norman is ready to sound the alarm.
The number of COVID-19 cases is at an all-time high. Hospitals are strained. Funeral homes are rushing to keep up.
Now, Norman, who is pastor of First Baptist Church – Broad and vice president of government relations and chief community relations officer at Baptist Memorial Health Care, is urging Black churches to go virtual once again and to restrict other social events.
If the gathering isn’t necessary, don’t have it, he says.
“I have been concerned all along that this variant is impacting the African American community,” Norman said. “We have to warn people to the vast number of deaths taking place so that people if they’re not going to get the vaccination will restrict their gathering.”
As of Tuesday, there were 8,808 active cases of COVID-19 in Shelby County. The active case count has never been higher throughout the entirety of the pandemic.
And the pandemic continues to have a disproportionate impact on African Americans, both due to the presence of chronic conditions that aggravate the symptoms of COVID-19 and due to a lack of access to healthcare.
Out of active cases in Shelby County, 44% are among the Black or African American population, while 34% had missing or unknown data reported for their race, according to data from the Shelby County Health Department. Just 18% of cases were reported among the white population and 4% among “other race.”
Of people who’ve died of COVID-19, 60% have been Black or African American, while 35% have been white and 5% have been reported as “other race.”
Norman never reopened his church. He understands the desire to be back in large gatherings, but is urging others not to.
“If we don’t have to gather, then let’s not do it,” he said.
It’s an especially important consideration as we near the holiday season, where gatherings are frequent and respiratory synctial virus, known as RSV, spreads rapidly among children.
Faith communities can also educate about the vaccine
The Rev. J. Lawrence Turner, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church (The BLVD), will join Norman on a call Wednesday night with the Black Clergy Collaborative of Memphis to speak with other pastors about what the data is showing about the pandemic in Shelby County.
Like Norman, Turner never reopened his church. He had plans to do so in September, but called those off when he saw the rise of the delta variant in the community.
“Far be it from me to put a demand on any pastor,” Turner said. “I think we can present them with the facts and they have to make that decision. I do believe gathering as a community of faith is essential, however I do think now it comes with significant risk as people have let their guards down, are moving about and becoming more social … So to invite persons into a church where there are persons that range from a senior citizen to children in school it just creates a scenario where a church might be a potential space for spread to happen.”
As communities of faith, he and others are aiming to also educate about the vaccines and encourage healthy practices and “to really lean in” as they head into the holiday weekend, Turner said. Events like the Southern Heritage Classic will also provide an opportunity to let people know that “if it’s not necessary, sometimes you have to opt out and hope for another day or another year.”
Turner wants to make clear that he’s not proposing shutting down businesses and restaurants. But staying away from social activities and church can make an impact, he says.
“If we’re talking about a record number of deaths, and we’re talking about a record number of cases, then why aren’t we talking about a record response to match it?” Norman asked. “Why aren’t we doubling down and redoubling our efforts?”
Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.