On November 3, 1918, Frances Grimke delivered a sermon at the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. Reflecting on the lessons of the flu pandemic, he posed the questions, “What is the meaning of it all? What ought it mean to us?” The “us” in his statement resolved that all Americans were susceptible to the virus, despite the prevailing color line. Vanessa Gamble states that though Black people were underrepresented in the number of infections and deaths during the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic, racism and segregation limited access to health-care facilities, and stereotypes about Black immunity shaped public discourse.1The term “Spanish Flu” is consistent with the popular term used to refer to the illness caused by the H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 flu pandemic. The origins of the virus are widely disputed. The earliest cases were identified in Kansas and US military camps in the spring of 1918. However, the high infection and mortality rates in Spain during the summer of 1918 gave the flu its moniker. In keeping with the author’s commitments to challenging racist discourse that surrounds the origins of the current coronavirus pandemic, the article will refer to the “Spanish Flu” as the 1918 flu pandemic.
What we know about Black people’s experiences during the pandemic was reported mainly by the Black press. These sources, as Gamble elaborates, provided Black people with “visibility and a voice” to challenge mainstream racist news stories. The Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro-American, and the Philadelphia Tribune reported on Black mutual aid, health-care efforts, and the scores of community members who became sick or died as a result of the 1918 flu pandemic. Black newspapers documented the temporary closure of Black churches, and the open-air and home services to “keep the fires of the spirit burning . . . .”
In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, Nyle Fort describes the loss of vibrancy in Black mourning practices. Opportunities to gather in person to grieve, celebrate, and fellowship have been severely curtailed. What language and frameworks do we draw upon to name the impact of the violent conflation of global state-sanctioned antiblack violence, health-care disparities, and the limits on in-person collective mourning to grieve and honor our dead and dying? In what ways do Black religious traditions and institutions provide respite and aid during these troubling times?
To compare Black religious responses in 1918 and 2020, Bishop Yvette Flunder, the founder of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, notes that “religion basically acts the same way from one pandemic to the next.” Flunder advises that Black religious leaders need to think “panoramically” about the needs of their faith communities. She further explains, “If we begin to think panoramically, we begin to think systemically. We’ll be able to understand how all of these realities are connected. And how the issues that come from these realities are connected.”
Thinking “panoramically” or systemically helps us make sense of the weight of the pandemic on Black religious institutions against the long history of antiblack and racist practices that conspire to limit Black flourishing. Studies have shown that ongoing health disparities generate higher risk factors for Black communities and people of color. A microcosm of this can be seen in the passing of high-ranking ministers and church mothers in the Church of God in Christ, the largest and oldest Black Pentecostal organization in the United States. Religion scholar Anthea Butler reckons that “this is a moment of real crisis for [COGIC].”
The grief resulting from the ongoing loss of leaders and congregants stands alongside the financial exigencies that weigh on Black churches. Black pastors report challenges in accessing forgivable loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) under the CARES Act to avoid church staff layoffs and salary reductions. Despite reports of religious institutions in Michigan receiving millions in federal PPP loans, Reverend Kenneth Flowers of Detroit observed that “there’s a pattern here of minority businesses and black churches not receiving the funds.” The pattern is that privileged churches with hired accountants, more personnel, and stronger relationships with banks, were likelier to receive loans. The pattern is a lack of responsiveness on the part of banks that reviewed loan applications, and discrepancies in reporting how much was allocated.
Access to these funds would undoubtedly lend Black religious institutions the financial support necessary to weather the pandemic. As I write this, we approach a potential second lockdown given the rising number of infections and Covid related deaths, meaning Black worship spaces will once again face potential closures and financial exigency. According to theologian Keri Day, as reported by Candice Marie Benbow, the average Black church is between 75 to 100 members. As a result, “missing a service can mean the difference between lights on and lights off for many congregations . . . Many of our congregations are vulnerable financially because we are vulnerable financially.” In a recent study by the Barna Group, members of Black churches with less than 100 members were less confident in their church’s ability to thrive over the next three to five years.
Enslavement and racial terror have forced Black religious traditions to adapt and change. Religion has offered Black people a framework to shape a relentlessly antiblack world into an image of one where survival and community were possible. Black religious institutions, however, have been reluctant to bridge the generational divide in adapting digital technologies and continue to marginalize women and exclude queer people of faith. The creativity and innovation of Black religious world-making are evident in the pre-pandemic digital platforms developed by practitioners of traditional African religions, Black women conjurers, and womanist theologians. The conversation around digital Black religion was the focus of a roundtable organized by the African Diaspora Religions unit of the American Academy of Religion in 2019. The panelists raised important questions on the use of digital technologies for initiations, spiritual readings, and divinations, and the implications for tradition and ritual practice. In a time where the internet expands our witness of police violence against communities of color, it also extends the reach of community organizing. Similarly, digital Black religion during this moment of social distancing, lockdowns, and exponential death generates new challenges and opportunities to mourn, inspire, and share (virtual) space.
To return to Grimke’s provocative question that frames this essay, it is important to document and develop an archive of how Black faith communities attempt to create meaning during this pandemic. Similar to Black newspapers that documented health-care disparities, antiblack violence, and systemic racism during the 1918 flu pandemic, there are current digital humanities projects that foreground Black life during this moment. On religion in particular, the National Black Muslim COVID Coalition conducts research on the experiences of Black Muslims confronting Islamophobia and antiblackness. Lived Africana Religion in the Time of COVID-19 is a work-in-progress on the impact of the pandemic on religious life, globally. The project seeks to archive how Black religious traditions and faith communities creatively adjust to the demands of the pandemic including but not limited to burial traditions, sermons, organizational life, and mutual aid efforts. These projects are instructive for documenting and understanding the experiences in Black communities through the lens of race and religion.
Another answer to Grimke’s question can be found in Albert Raboteau’s insistence that we understand the entanglement of Black religious faith and history, noting, “Both answer to the basic human drive for order. Both lead us to search for the ‘hidden wholeness’ of life, the connectedness of apparently fragmented and chaotic bits of experience and knowledge.” Whereas Grimke was concerned with the problem of the color line and demonstrating the 1918 flu pandemic as the great leveler, the current pandemic demands that we pay even closer attention to Black lives and, more specifically, Black religion. When faith and history coalesce, we can attend to the lifegiving practices that Black people have relied upon to affirm their humanity. What this moment ought to mean is that we contextualize the murder of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade as part of an ecosystem of white supremacy; one that thrives on the devaluation of Black lives and institutions. Reflecting on Black religion in this historic moment provides a deeper understanding of the resources Black communities draw on to make sense of Black suffering and death and centers the divine and ancestral practices that make our existence possible.
While I was writing this essay, Raboteau’s lesson on faith and history became more visceral. Tevin Jones, my twenty-six-year-old cousin, was murdered by police in Jamaica. The details surrounding his murder are still unfolding. Tevin was Black, raised and lived in a garrison community, and the father of two young children. In my family’s community in Jamaica, relatives and friends mourned Tevin’s death by substituting the Afro-Caribbean traditional nine-night grieving ritual with a candlelight vigil. Images of white candles carefully secured with sand in plastic bottles cut in half were lovingly arranged along the lane leading to his home. A photo of Tevin was surrounded by red single-stem roses and white candles that spelled “RIP.” The images triggered a deep longing for the in-person gatherings that provide respite and connection through stories, food, liquor, laughter, and tears. I share Rhon S. Manigault-Bryant’s sentiments about her mother’s passing: “I am one of the many grieving, forever-changed faces. No repast. No low-country songs sung graveside. No sending up our timber for her. We cannot grieve properly.” Black grieving traditions anchor us. Black religious traditions provide the language to make sense of death during this time and what comes after.