Bishop Elijah H. Hankerson III knows that some local pastors are preparing to open the doors of their churches now that public health orders to control the COVID-19 pandemic have been lifted in St. Louis city and county. (He also knows that some local pastors defied the law and medical advice and kept their doors open for worship throughout the stay-at-home orders.)
But he is keeping the doors shut at Life Center International COGIC, the church he leads in Baden, for now.
“I hear this narrative,” Hankerson said. “The grocery store is open, the liquor store is, so the church should be open. But in Walmart, you’re not sitting next to someone for hours. You’re not sitting together and having potluck dinner. In church, you don’t just grab what you need and go. For many of us, this is our family. It’s a place where we sit together, shake hands, hug.”
As the president of the St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, Hankerson is working with the Baptist Minister’s Union and 24:1 Clergy Coalition to distribute over 125,000 protective masks to churches planning to reopen their doors. Most were donated by St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page; Governor Mike Parson and St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson donated smaller amounts. But helping pastors prepare to reopen their doors safely in June does not mean Hankerson endorses the decision.
As he worked with colleagues to distribute protective masks to church leaders at Lively Stone Church of God in the city's Ville neighborhood on Tuesday, May 26, Missouri was in the national news for flagrant violations of social-distancing safeguards over the weekend at Lake of the Ozarks. Hankerson was aware of other examples like it.
“For my congregation, I watch the stats every day, and I will be watching the numbers 14 days after Memorial Day,” Hankerson said. “This weekend, obviously everybody did not pay attention to public health. Will there be a resurgence after 14 days? That’s about how long it takes it to show up. If there is no resurgence, then we will begin the process of reopening.”
Hankerson and colleagues were doing the Lord’s work of distributing safety supplies to church leaders just a week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a highly relevant report, “High COVID-19 Attack Rate Among Attendees at Events at a Church — Arkansas, March 2020.”
The report described an unnamed pastor and first lady of an unnamed church doing what church leaders do. They hosted a 3-day children’s event, with two 1.5-hour indoor sessions followed by two 1-hour indoor sessions during normal church services. During each session, children participated in competitions to collect offerings by hand from adults. At one event, food prepared by church members was served buffet-style. Several days later, the church hosted a Bible study event.
What the pastor and first lady did not know was that they had been exposed to the new coronavirus before these services. The first lady developed nonspecific respiratory symptoms and fever just before the Bible study event and the pastor just after it. Of the 92 people who attended the children’s events or the Bible study, 35 tested positive for COVID-19 and three died. During contact tracing, at least 26 more confirmed COVID-19 cases were identified among community members who reported contact with church attendees; one of those people died.
That is four deaths resulting from small church events attended by only 92 people in total. However, these events transpired in early March with no public awareness of the pandemic and no social-distancing protocols in place. Now, church leaders have a plan.
Along with masks, the Clergy Coalition is distributing a template for reopening church sanctuaries safely. It was prepared District Elder Ron Stephens, pastor of Temple Church of Christ of the Apostolic Faith in St. Louis and assistant treasurer of the Clergy Coalition. Titled “Transition Plan 2020,” it offers guidance in terms of time (when to open for what services), place (how to seat people with social distance, segregating seniors in sections), precautions (masks, voluntary temperature checks) and hygiene (hand washing, sanitizers).
“What we have done in the past will be different from what we do now,” Stephens writes.
Both Stephens and Hankerson have influence above and beyond their local churches and the Clergy Coalition. Stephens is 1st vice chairman of the Midwestern District Council of the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World. Hankerson is the youngest jurisdictional bishop in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), overseeing 65 churches in Missouri and the Midwest. As COGIC clergy, they are working under an encyclical issued by Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake to keep churches shuttered through the month of June.
Reverend Darryl Gray, a member of the Clergy Coalition and organizer for the mask distribution, said they are looking beyond the necessary provision of protective supplies.
“Our clergy leadership will continue to advocate for more testing, testing sites at churches, additional resources at our community health facilities, and an aggressive commitment by government to address the chronic health disparities in black communities,” Gray said. “The virus may leave at some point, but the health of black people will not get any better without a real plan from government to address it.”
As of May 26, 73 of the 116 deaths from COVID-19 and 1,178 of the 1,867 cases in the City of St. Louis were black people. That means 63.0% of the deaths and 62.9% of the cases were black people, when blacks form 45.9% of the city’s population.
As of May 26, 150 of the 387 deaths from COVID-19 and 1,994 of the 4,766 cases in St. Louis County were black people. That means 38.8% of the deaths and 41.8% of the cases were black people, when blacks form 24.9% of the county’s population.
In the meantime, the Clergy Coalition has protective masks to distribute. They will be handing them out to church leaders 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday and Friday at the Mt. Beulah Missionary Baptist Church, 7823 Racine Dr. in Pagedale.
“We were asked to close our churches, and we complied – most of us,” Hankerson said. “Now that some are preparing to reopen, we wanted to provide some assistance to make sure they are safe. The government provided the masks, and we have the template provided by the Clergy Coalition. As for the decision to reopen, I am not endorsing or condemning.”
He is, however, waiting – until two weeks after Memorial Day. Will there be a COVID-19 resurgence?
For the “Transition Plan 2020” template for reopening churches safely, visit https://tinyurl.com/clergy-template.