Bishop Elijah Hankerson

St. Louis Clergy Coalition President Bishop Elijah Hankerson spoke at a press conference at the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being on April 28. “We have to wait for the medical professions, not the politicians, to let us know when it is safe to return to normal,” Hankerson said.

Photo by Wiley Price

The St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition does not agree with Governor Mike Parson’s decision to lift his statewide public health order on May 4 with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing. 

“We don’t want to work against the governor, we have tried to work with him,” said Bishop Elijah Hankerson, president of the St. Louis Clergy Coalition.

“As clergy our first obligation is to our members, and we have a greater obligation to the community as a whole. We can’t put people in harm’s way by opening up our churches, when the virus is spreading death throughout black communities at an alarming rate.”

According to the state’s own data, as of May 4, the day Parson lifted the statewide public health order, blacks comprised 38% of all COVID-19 deaths and 30% of all COVID-19 cases in Missouri, though blacks form only 11.8% of the state’s population.

“Opening churches outside of I-70 may work for some churches in the state, but there is no evidence that the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down in black communities. Why should people who are already suffering disproportionately in so many other ways, subject themselves to sickness and possible death?” said Rev. Darryl Gray, political advisor for the coalition and State Progressive Baptist Social justice chairperson.

Gray said there is still too much that we don’t know about government responses to this pandemic for the governor to be sending reassuring signals.

“For example, how much testing will be necessary for proper revaluations? Who is determining testing site access? Will health treatments for chronic illnesses be part of the post response? Will we make every effort to protect workers? When will we begin to see mobile testing? Will there be support for day care (outside of first responders and medical professionals)?” Gray said.

“And the list continues. We haven’t even factored in the discussion that there are people in the black community who are afraid to take the test. We have not reached out to enough people yet to open the state. We still have so much more work to do.”

Black clergy and civil rights groups around the country are pushing back on lifting public health orders on other states, most recently in Georgia. The NAACP, the National Urban League, National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention are among groups supporting the clergy’s stay-at-home message.

Local government officials in St. Louis city and county have met with local clergy over the past several weeks to keep them updated with efforts in testing and have appealed to clergy to support their decision to maintain local stay-at-home orders. 

The clergy are working with local government officials – but listening to public health professionals.

Hankerson said, “We have to wait for the medical professions, not the politicians, to let us know when it is safe to return to normal.”

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