Wilma Mayfield used to visit a senior center in Durham, North Carolina, four days a week and attend Lincoln Memorial Baptist Church on Sundays, a ritual she’s maintained for nearly half a century. But over the past 10 months, she’s seen only the inside of her home, the grocery store and the pharmacy. Most of her days are spent worrying about COVID-19 and watching TV.
It’s isolating, but she doesn’t talk about it much.
When Mayfield’s church invited a psychologist to give a virtual presentation on mental health during the pandemic, she decided to tune in.
The hourlong discussion covered COVID’s disproportionate toll on communities of color, rising rates of depression and anxiety, and the trauma caused by police killings of Black Americans. What stuck with Mayfield were the tools to improve her own mental health.
“They said to get up and get out,” she said. “So I did.”
The next morning, Mayfield, 67, got into her car and drove around town, listening to 103.9 gospel radio and noting new businesses that had opened and old ones that had closed. She felt so energized that she bought chicken, squash and greens, and began her Thanksgiving cooking early.
“It was wonderful,” she said. “The stuff that lady talked about [in the presentation], it opened up doors for me.”
As Black people face an onslaught of grief, stress and isolation triggered by a devastating pandemic and repeated instances of racial injustice, churches play a crucial role in addressing the mental health of their members and the greater community. Religious institutions have long been havens for emotional support. But faith leaders say the challenges of this year have catapulted mental health efforts to the forefront of their mission.
Some are preaching about mental health from the pulpit for the first time. Others are inviting mental health professionals to speak to their congregations, undergoing mental health training themselves or adding more therapists to the church staff.
“COVID undoubtedly has escalated this conversation in great ways,” said Keon Gerow, senior pastor at Catalyst Church in West Philadelphia. “It has forced Black churches — some of which have been older, traditional and did not want to have this conversation — to actually now have this conversation in a very real way.”
At Lincoln Memorial Baptist, leaders who organized the virtual presentation with the psychologist knew that people like Mayfield were struggling but might be reluctant to seek help. They thought members might be more open to sensitive discussions if they took place in a safe, comfortable setting like church.
It’s a trend that psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, who gave the presentation, has noticed for years.
Through her nonprofit organization, the AAKOMA Project, Breland-Noble and her colleagues often speak to church groups about depression, recognizing it as one of the best ways to reach a diverse segment of the Black community and raise mental health awareness.
This year, the AAKOMA Project has received clergy requests that are increasingly urgent, asking to focus on coping skills and tools people can use immediately, Breland-Noble said.
“After George Floyd’s death, it became: ‘Please talk to us about exposure to racial trauma and how we can help congregations deal with this,’” she said. “‘Because this is a lot.’”
Across the country, mental health needs are soaring. And Black Americans are experiencing significant strain: A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer found 15% of non-Hispanic Black adults had seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days and 18% had started or increased their use of substances to cope with pandemic-related stress.
Yet national data shows Blacks are less likely to receive mental health treatment than the overall population. A memo released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration this spring lists engaging faith leaders as one way to close this gap.
The Potter’s House in Dallas has been trying to do that for years. A megachurch with more than 30,000 members, it runs a counseling center with eight licensed clinicians, open to congregants and the local community to receive counseling at no cost, though donations are accepted.
Since the pandemic began, the center has seen a 30% increase in monthly appointments compared with previous years, said center director Natasha Stewart. During the summer, when protests over race and policing were at their height, more Black men came to therapy for the first time, she said.
Recently, there’s been a surge in families seeking services. Staying home together has brought up conflicts previously ignored, Stewart said.
“Before, people had ways to escape,” she said, referring to work or school. “With some of those escapes not available anymore, counseling has become a more viable option.”
To meet the growing demand, Stewart is adding a new counselor position for the first time in eight years.
At smaller churches, where funding a counseling center is unrealistic, clergy are instead turning to members of the congregation to address growing mental health needs.
At Catalyst Church, a member with a background in crisis management has begun leading monthly COVID conversations online. A deacon has been sharing his own experience getting therapy to encourage others to do the same. And Gerow, the senior pastor, talks openly about mental health.
Recognizing his power as a pastor, Gerow hopes his words on Sunday morning and in one-on-one conversations will help congregants seek the help they need. Doing so could reduce substance use and gun violence in the community, he said. Perhaps it would even lower the number of mental health crises that lead to police involvement, like the October death of Walter Wallace Jr., whose family said he was struggling with mental health issues when Philadelphia police shot him.
“If folks had the proper tools, they’d be able to deal with their grief and stress in different ways,” Gerow said. “Prayer alone is not always enough.”
Laverne Williams recognized that back in the ’90s. She believed prayer was powerful, but as an employee of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey, she knew there was a need for treatment too.
When she heard pastors tell people they could pray away mental illness or use blessed oil to cure what seemed like symptoms of schizophrenia, she worried. And she knew many people of color were not seeing professionals, often due to barriers of cost, transportation, stigma and distrust of the medical system.
To address this disconnect, Williams created a video and PowerPoint presentation and tried to educate faith leaders.
At first, many clergy turned her away. People thought seeking mental health treatment meant your faith wasn’t strong enough, Williams said.
But over time, some members of the clergy have come to realize the two can coexist, said Williams, adding that being a deacon herself has helped her gain their trust. This year alone, she’s trained 20 faith leaders in mental health topics.
A program run by the Behavioral Health Network of Greater St. Louis is taking a similar approach. The Bridges to Care and Recovery program trains faith leaders in “mental health first aid,” suicide prevention, substance use and more, through a 20-hour course.
The training builds on the work faith leaders are already doing to support their communities, said senior program manager Rose Jackson-Beavers. In addition to the tools of faith and prayer, clergy can now offer resources, education and awareness, and refer people to professional therapists in the network.
Since 2015, the program has trained 261 people from 78 churches, Jackson-Beavers said.
Among them is Carl Lucas, pastor of God First Church in northern St. Louis County who graduated this July — just in time, by his account.
Since the start of the pandemic, he has encountered two congregants who expressed suicidal thoughts. In one case, church leaders referred the person to counseling and followed up to ensure they attended therapy sessions. In the other, the root concern was isolation, so the person was paired with church members who could touch base regularly, Lucas said.
“The pandemic has definitely put us in a place where we’re looking for answers and looking for other avenues to help our members,” he said. “It has opened our eyes to the reality of mental health needs.”
House Majority Whip James Clyburn plans to introduce legislation to designate the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” long a staple in the Black community, as the country’s national hymn.
“To make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ a national hymn, would be an act of bringing the country together,” reads a Tuesday (Jan. 12) tweet from @WhipClyburn.
“The gesture itself would be an act of healing. Everybody can identify with that song.”
The Democratic congressman from South Carolina could suggest the hymn — often described as the unofficial “Black national anthem” — as soon as this week, USA Today reported.
The hymn, with lyrics about liberty and faith, is often sung on occasions marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month and is featured in hymnals of different faith traditions. But Clyburn thinks it should be sung more beyond predominantly Black communities.
The newspaper quoted Clyburn as distinguishing the hymn from the national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“You aren’t singing a separate national anthem,’’ he said, “you are singing the country’s national hymn.”
USA Today reported Clyburn asked his staff to create draft legislation last month, before the recent storming of the U.S. Capitol by insurrectionists and after a surge in racial tensions concerning police brutality and racial injustice.
The song traces its roots to a 1900 celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in Jacksonville, Florida, according to a 2000 book, “Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem.” James Weldon Johnson penned the words for the occasion; his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, set them to music.
The lyrics are not explicitly tied to a particular faith tradition but do mention “God” several times in the hymn’s third verse.
The song has played at the start of recent gatherings of the “ Beyonce Mass,” been used to awaken astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery and been included in the closing prayer of President Barack Obama’s 2009 swearing-in ceremony. This fall, a decision to feature it at NFL games drew praise and criticism.
“It had historicity; it had the religious context,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, when asked by Religion News Service in 2009 why he borrowed the third verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the inaugural benediction.
Lowery, who died in 2020, said he often used its third stanza as a hymn of praise in his worship services. “The Black experience is sort of wrapped up in that hymn.”
In USA Today, Clyburn echoed Lowery and said his plan is not merely a symbolic one.
“It’s a very popular song that is steeped in the history of the country,” he said.
He added “I’ve always been skittish” about it once being described as the “Negro national anthem.”
Rather, he thinks it’s a song for all and not just some in the nation.
“We should have one national anthem, irrespective of whether you’re Black or white,” he said. “So to give due honor and respect to the song, we ought to name it the national hymn.”
The first verse of the hymn is as follows:
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea,
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
For African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, retreat from social struggle was unthinkable. Martin Luther King Jr., however, learned from some important mentors how to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation.
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Their most serious personal encounter – the one that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come – came as a result of a tragedy.
A crucial meeting in hospital
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
Spiritual retreat and activism
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock has won one of Georgia’s two runoff elections for U.S. Senate: Will he be both a pastor and a politician?
Yes, says Michael Brewer, a spokesman for the minister’s campaign, “if elected he will remain senior pastor.”
Marla Frederick, professor of religion and culture at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, told Religion News Service that an active pastor would not be unknown in the political life on Capitol Hill. “There are models for doing both/and,” she said.
“The pastorate is one of these careers, these callings, if you will, where you have to stay in such close contact with everyday people and their concerns,” said Frederick. “To the extent that the Senate (is) supposed to represent the concerns of people, it seems to me that someone who’s been a pastor has the capacity to be much more in tune with the kinds of struggles that people are dealing with in their everyday lives.”
Warnock, who has led Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church since 2005, had something similar to say in a statement to RNS in November.
“It’s unusual for a pastor to get involved in something as messy as politics, but I see this as a continuation of a life of service: first as an agitator, then an advocate, and hopefully next as a legislator,” Warnock said as he was closing in on the top spot of a wide-open primary. “I say I’m stepping up to my next calling to serve, not stepping down from the pulpit.”
He told CNN on Wednesday that he thinks grassroots people can help him be effective as a pastor and a senator.
“I intend to return to the pulpit and preach on Sunday mornings and to talk to the people,” Warnock said. “The last thing I want to do is become disconnected from the community and just spend all of my time talking to the politicians. I might accidentally become one and I have no intentions of becoming a politician. I intend to be a public servant.”
With Warnock’s election to the Senate, he can reflect on these other African American ministers who kept up a busy church life while serving in Congress:
Richard Harvey Cain, 1873-75, 1877-79
Prior to being elected a Republican congressman from South Carolina, Cain sought out another form of public service: a volunteer in the Union army. He was rejected, as were many free Blacks at the time, but later he became pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston (where, a century and a half later, the notorious Bible study massacre took place).
“In the House, Cain supported civil rights for freed slaves,” according to Charles M. Christian in “ Black Saga: The African American Experience: A Chronology.” “Cain’s seat was eliminated in 1874, but he remained active in the Republican Party, and was reelected to Congress in 1876.”
In remarks to Congress urging passage of a civil rights bill, Cain spoke of why equal rights for Blacks were justified.
After his tenure in Congress, Cain was elected a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Adam Clayton Powell Jr., 1945-1971
Before, during and after his long service as a Democratic U.S. representative, Powell was pastor of the prominent Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, where Warnock would serve as a youth pastor decades later.
The Democrat served as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, worked on the passage of minimum wage legislation and helped pass laws that prohibited the use of federal funds in the construction of segregated schools.
“As a member of Congress, I have done nothing more than any other member and, by the grace of God, I intend to do not one bit less,” he said about his time in the role.
Floyd Flake, 1987-1997
The senior pastor of the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York, Flake served 11 years concurrently as a member of Congress and the leader of his megachurch.
Considered the “ de facto dean of faith-based economic empowerment,” Flake and his wife, the Rev. Elaine M. Flake, have developed commercial and social projects in Jamaica, New York, such as a corporation focused on preserving affordable housing, a senior citizens center and an emergency shelter for women who are victims of domestic violence.
As a member of Congress, he chaired the Subcommittee on General Oversight of the House Banking Committee. He also helped gain federal funds for projects in his district, including an expansion of John F. Kennedy International Airport.
As successful as Flake was, he may have some lessons for anyone trying to fill both a pulpit and a seat in Congress: He resigned his congressional role, saying his priority was his church — where he remains in his leadership role.
“My calling in life is as a minister,” Flake told journalists, “so I had to come to a real reconciliation … and it is impossible to continue the sojourn where I am traveling back and forth to DC.”
John Lewis, 1987-2020
Lewis, an ordained Baptist minister and civil rights activist, began preaching as a teenager and viewed his work for social justice as connected to his faith.
He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, addressing the crowd minutes before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and served as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Lewis’ work for voting rights led to his being beaten by police as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Late in his life, he worked with religious group s to address what he considered the “gutting” of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court in 2013.
In 2016, Lewis told RNS he did not regret moving away from traditional ministry.
“I think my pulpit today is a much larger pulpit,” he said. “If I had stayed in a traditional church, I would have been limited to four walls and probably in some place in Alabama or in Nashville, Tennessee. I preach every day. Every day, I’m preaching a sermon, telling people to get off their butts and do something.”
Emanuel Cleaver II, 2005 to present
Cleaver was senior pastor of St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, before turning the pulpit over to his son in 2009.
The chair of the House Subcommittee on National Security, International Development and Monetary Policy, he has co-authored a reform bill on housing programs. He also was instrumental in the creation of a Green Impact Zone in which federal funds created jobs and energy efficient projects in a 150-block area of Kansas City known for crime and unemployment.
As the 117th session of Congress opened this week, Cleaver drew attention and ire for ending his invocation in the name of “God known by many names by many different faiths — amen and a-woman.”
He told a local TV station that the prayer was a nod to the diverse Congress where more women are serving than ever before.
“After I prayed, Republicans and Democrats alike were coming up to me saying ‘thank you for the prayer. We needed it. We need somebody to talk to God about helping us to get together,’” he told KCTV. “It was a prayer of unity.”
The NAACP – the most prominent interracial civil rights organization in American history – published the first issue of The Crisis, its official magazine, 110 years ago, in 1910. For almost two and a half decades, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois served as its editor, famously using this platform to dismantle scientific racism.
At the time, many widely respected intellectuals gave credence to beliefs that empirical evidence exists to justify a “natural” white superiority. Tearing down scientific racism was thus a necessary project for The Crisis. Under Du Bois’ leadership, the magazine laid bare the irrationality of scientific racism.
Less remembered, however, is how it also sought to help its readers understand and engage with contemporary science.
In nearly every issue, the magazine reported on scientific developments, recommended scientific works or featured articles on natural sciences. Du Bois’ time as editor of The Crisis was just as much about critically embracing careful, systematic, empirical science as it was about skewering the popular view that Blacks (and other nonwhites) were naturally inferior.
On Feb. 18, 1932, the Harlem pastor Adam Clayton Powell wrote to Du Bois, asking him to publish his recent address at a NAACP mass meeting in an upcoming issue of The Crisis.
A week later, Du Bois responded that while he’d read Powell’s address “with great interest,” he could not publish it as written. Why? It got biologist Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection very wrong.
Darwin, explained Du Bois, did not try to demonstrate “who ought to survive,” as Powell’s address assumed. Rather, Darwin’s work is “simply a scientific statement” that had been twisted to support eugenicist and other pseudo-scientific doctrines.
This short reply to the powerful pastor contains so much. It shows that Du Bois demanded a nuanced appreciation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Further, he insisted Darwin should not be held liable for the racist ideologues who misappropriated his work, cloaking their demagoguery in scientific objectivity. Darwin’s work is of clear value, but one must always remain aware that, like with all science, politics shaped its reception.
For Du Bois, how one understands and uses science were not minor issues.
Science in The Crisis
In the first section of the first issue of The Crisis, there is an archaeological report. It describes how “exploration of the African continent is yet in its infancy and will doubtless yield surprising results in establishing the advanced state of development attained by the black races in early times.”
According to the latest archaeology, in other words, African heritage is something to be proud of.
In the second issue of The Crisis, the famed Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas explained that there is no physical anthropological evidence “showing inferiority of the Negro race.” Later issues would highlight early African metallurgy and critique racist intelligence tests. Another would recommend a work by Peter Kropotkin, the great Russian anarchist and zoologist, which suggested that natural selection is more about cooperation among species than any fight for survival between them.
The Crisis published this sort of work throughout Du Bois’ time as editor. The reason why is clear. Du Bois knew that a proper understanding of science does not lead to biological essentialism – the idea that biology limits who you are and what you can do. It leads to the exact opposite conclusion, that every population has the ability to make their own meaning and determine themselves as they see fit. The only constraints are social processes like colonialism and racism. Science, for Du Bois, was in this way necessary and liberating.
Science for an emancipated politics
Today’s political moment is different than Du Bois’, though there are some parallels. One is that a political life free of exploitation and enhanced by participatory democracy remains out of reach for many. Disenfranchisement still exists in many forms. As the Black Lives Matter movement and others have shown, racism is a big reason why.
While only a piece of the puzzle, Du Bois’ insistence on critically embracing a careful, systematic and empirical view of science can be an important part of that struggle for an emancipated politics. A critical embrace of science can help people better tackle pressing issues like environmental justice, health care disparities and more.
To critically embrace science is to, as Du Bois did in the pages of The Crisis, remain unwavering in the fact that any scientific theory promoting racial and other forms of injustice is categorically wrong.
He demonstrated how to reject racist science without rejecting the ways that science can help people better understand our relationships with the world. In particular, engaging science shows how our relationships with each other are not determined by nature, but are under our own control.