Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo
With the release of a viral video months after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, a black jogger in Georgia, religious leaders have raised their voices to ask questions about how and why he died.
On Thursday (May 7), the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced it had charged two white men, Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, with murder and aggravated assault in the case, more than two months after Arbery’s death in Brunswick.
There has been outrage, which grew with the release this week of the cellphone video, that there had been no arrests in the case, which is now being handled by a third prosecutor. The second, District Attorney George Barnhill, told local police: “We do not see grounds for an arrest” in the case. He later recused himself, as did the first prosecutor. The third prosecutor asked the GBI to investigate on Tuesday, and the inquiry began the next day.
According to the GBI, whose investigation is continuing, both men confronted Arbery with firearms. “During the encounter, Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery,” the agency said.
Hours after tweeting about the felony arrest warrants for the McMichaels, Lee Merritt, a lawyer representing Arbery’s family, tweeted a birthday tribute to Arbery, who would have turned 26 on Friday.
“Happy Birthday #AhmaudArbery,” Merritt said. “You’re bravery in the face of death is humbling and inspiring. I pray the ancestors give us all the strength and courage to #fightlikeAhmaud.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, plans to host an online “call to demand justice” in honor of Arbery on Friday evening, featuring Arbery’s parents and their lawyers.
Here’s a sampling of 10 voices from religious officials, authors and clergy who, across racial and ideological lines, reacted to the video and the arrests and questioned the circumstances of Arbery’s death:
“Ahmaud Arbery’s death is akin to a modern-day lynching. Enough is enough. We demand #JusticeForAhmaud now!”
Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission
“There is no, under any Christian vision of justice, situation in which the mob murder of a person can be morally right. … (T)he Bible tells us, from the beginning, that murder is not just an assault on the person killed but on the God whose image he or she bears. Sadly, though, many black and brown Christians have seen much of this, not just in history but in flashes of threats of violence in their own lives. And some white Christians avert their eyes — even in cases of clear injustice — for fear of being labeled ‘Marxists’ or ‘social justice warriors’ by the same sort of forces of intimidation that wielded the same arguments against those who questioned the state-sponsored authoritarianism and terror of Jim Crow.”
Ahmaud Arbery, in an undated family photo. Courtesy photo
“I will not dig for evidence; today we are going to assume all that is true about Arbery. Because Arbery is one person in a centuries old line of Black people who must prove they are human in order to call their murders unjust. … Lynchings are still here, but so are we. They haven’t been able to destroy us. The fear hasn’t kept us from showing up, from experiencing joy, from demanding more from America.”
Andy Stanley, founder of Atlanta-based North Point Ministries
“I’ve been advised not to post about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery until I calm down a bit. But that’s part of the problem, isn’t it? We calm down and go on about our business. This must end. Our black brothers and sisters need white advocates to bring this to an end. Count me in!”
Jemar Tisby, author of “The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism”
“This will not be popular with some, but putting these men in cages won’t change much. These men and Ahmaud’s family need restorative justice. There needs to be healing (to the extent possible with such a crime) and not just incarceration.”
“After viewing this video, there’s one thing that should be crystal clear now to all Georgians: the authorities must expeditiously complete their investigation of the circumstances surrounding the death of Ahmaud Arbery and take all appropriate measures in response to what appears to be a horribly heinous crime. I am calling upon the authorities to act now; COVID-19 cannot be an excuse for injustice.”
“Georgia Muslims were dismayed and infuriated but not surprised by the video showing the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery. We strongly condemn this racist act of unjustified murder, which is part of a pattern of violence rooted in the historic subjugation of African-American men and women. We join the call for the arrest of the two suspects prior to the convening of the grand jury.
“These dangerous episodes targeting the African-American community are not unique, but rather are symptomatic of the racism that instills fear and distrust within our communities. It is long past time for law enforcement to take such crimes seriously.”
“When Arbery was confronted by armed men who moved directly to block him from leaving, demanding to ‘talk,’ then Arbery was entitled to defend himself. Georgia’s ‘stand your ground law’ arguably benefits Arbery, not those who were attempting to falsely imprison him at gunpoint.
“It’s also worth remembering that the long and evil history of American lynchings features countless examples of young black men hunted and killed by white gangs who claimed their victims had committed crimes.”
“In the presence of the kind of cancerous hatred that killed #AhmaudArbery, the kind that is having a renaissance here in America, there are only two kinds of white Americans: there are white racists and there are white anti-racists.”
Newark school workers have managed to keep a weekly vegetable distribution going even during the pandemic. From left: Marquise Singleton, the parent liaison at Hawthorne Avenue School; Erica Walker, an early childhood social worker; and Dwayne Tatum, parent liaison at George Washington Carver School. Courtesy of Marquise Singleton
On any given Friday before the pandemic, families across Newark would flock to their local school to fetch fresh vegetables.
“Zucchini, carrots, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, broccoli, green beans, Brussels sprouts — the list goes on,” said Dwayne Tatum, the parent liaison at George Washington Carver Elementary, one of dozens of district schools that gave donated produce to families each week. “Any vegetable you can think of has passed through us.”
Then came the coronavirus, which shuttered Newark schools last month and left the free vegetable giveaway that had been available at more than 30 city schools in limbo. The disruption could not have come at a worse time. The pandemic has kept many residents out of work and short on food. Meanwhile, many food pantries are struggling to meet the surging demand.
So school employees who ran the weekly vegetable distribution came up with a solution: They moved their operations to nearby church lots, where residents now can walk up or drive through to pick up the produce. Tatum and other volunteers are even delivering the vegetables to families who can’t leave their homes.
“Whenever we hear about a family that needs food, we make sure they get it,” said Tatum, who loads leftover vegetables into his large pick-up truck and delivers them to families identified by the school social worker.
The volunteer effort to keep the produce giveaway going is just one example of school workers improvising in order to maintain the critical services that schools provide even when buildings are closed and students are stuck at home. Attendance workers are still tracking down missing students, counselors continue to offer social-emotional support, and teachers and still assigning work and giving lessons — though all those efforts now happen remotely, through phone calls, texts, and video chats.
But making sure children and families are fed is paramount in a city where more than 80% of district students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch at school and more than 28,000 children live in households that receive food assistance.
One of the groups supplying food to Newark is Table to Table, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that collects excess produce, meat, and bread from supermarkets and food-distribution companies and delivers it to homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Last year, the organization delivered enough donated food for 26 million meals.
More than half of its shipments go to Newark, where there is an abundance of need — along with groups eager to help, said Julie Kinner, the organization’s director of recipient relations and community affairs.
“It’s incredible to me how often I hear from people in Newark,” she said. “Not from individuals needing food, but from people who can serve it.”
For several years, Table to Table has sent donated food to Newark schools that act as distribution sites. One of the people who hatched the partnership was Joan-Marie Foushee’, a support staffer at Central High School who also leads a South Ward nonprofit. Every Friday for the past four years, Central has given out the fresh produce to community members, students, and staffers. As word got out and other schools asked to join, Foushee’ agreed to share the vegetables on one condition.
“If you want us at your school, you have to adopt three other schools,” she said. Before long, other schools were acting as distribution hubs, giving portions of their Table to Table shipments to other schools so that the giveaway kept growing.
When the pandemic shut down school buildings, Foushee’ and others were determined not to let the vegetable distribution vanish. Several local churches agreed to let the volunteers set up makeshift pantries on their sites. Central moved to Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, Mount Vernon School relocated to Cornerstone Baptist Church, and Carver shifted to Community Church of God.
LeKeshea Brooks-Wertz is a school social worker who helped run the vegetable distribution at John F. Kennedy School, which enrolls students with multiple disabilities. When the coronavirus struck, she wasn’t sure how her work could continue.
“When they said school was closing, I was like, ‘What’s my role? What am I going to do to be helpful?’” she said. She decided to start loading up her truck with grab-and-go meals from schools and delivering them to homebound families. On Fridays, she includes vegetables from Pleasant Grove church.
“God didn’t bless me with this car for myself,” she said. “He blessed me so I could help other people.”
At the Community Church of God, a small army of volunteers gathers each Friday to unload and bag Table to Table’s shipments, which have included pallets of fresh produce, hundreds of gallons of milk from Barlett Dairy, and meal kits from HelloFresh. Community members can pick up food bags themselves, or register online for a home delivery by Douglas and Maggie Freeman, siblings and South Ward community activists who have helped spearhead the vegetable distribution.
Along with Tatum and the Freemans, one of the site leaders is Singleton, the parent liaison at Hawthorne Avenue School. Before the pandemic, Singleton organized a vegetable giveaway at his school on Fridays — sometimes with help from his mother and grandmother, who live in the neighborhood — and a “Parent Cafe” on Mondays with donated pastries from a Panera Bread in Clifton, about 15 miles from Hawthorne.
Singleton picked up the vegetables and pastries in his Volkswagen Jetta, which he calls “The Hawthorne Car” because he uses it so frequently for work. Now he uses it to deliver vegetables to families who can’t leave their homes, along with Chromebook laptops to students who need them for virtual learning.
“I maybe bit off more than I can chew, but I’ll take care of it,” he said. “Just to see the smiles — that’s what keeps me going.”
Singleton has recruited a crew of parent volunteers for the Friday food giveaway, which he asked Hawthorne teachers to advertise to families on Google Classroom and in messaging apps. One of the volunteers is Andria Belcher, who has five children, including two who attend Hawthorne.
After losing her job at Newark Liberty International Airport due to the shutdown, Belcher relies on the vegetables to help feed her own family. Yet she also wanted to help her neighbors.
“There’s so many of us that are struggling,” she said. So when Singleton invited her to volunteer at the church, she didn’t hesitate. “Every Friday, I’m there.”
The free vegetable distribution happens each Friday at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church (198 Chadwick Ave.) from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and at Community Church of God (13 Grant Ave.) from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. For more info, email [email protected]
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Pastor Florine Newberry delivers her Easter Sunday message from the doorway of Mattie Richland Baptist Church, April 12, 2020, streamed via Facebook Live in Pineview, Georgia. Video screengrab via JaQwan Davenport
When Pastor Florine Newberry of Mattie Richland Baptist Church in rural Pineview, Georgia, realized her congregation wouldn’t be able to meet in the church’s blue carpeted sanctuary due to the coronavirus pandemic, “I just saw the sheep scattering,” she said.
Many of the 45 to 50 members of Newberry’s independent church do not have computers or home access to the internet. Though some own cellphones, cellular service is often spotty in the rural flats more than two hours south of Atlanta.
Her worst fears were quieted when some parishioners took to gathering 6 feet apart in their cars on sunny Sundays to hear Newberry preach.
But once Mattie Richland Baptist became one of 46 predominantly black churches in Georgia to receive help gaining internet access from Fair Count, an organization founded to increase participation in the 2020 census in hard-to-count areas, Newberry’s great-nephew — and Sunday school teacher — said he could use his phone to livestream her sermons.
Pastor Florine Newberry. Courtesy photo
When Newberry preached her Easter sermon from the doorway of her church, her message was viewed by hundreds of people via Facebook Live thanks to the Fair Count hot spot.
“That hot spot from Fair Count, and through the blessings of God that watches over Mattie Richland, has allowed me to have peace of mind that I can still reach out to people,” said Newberry.
America’s black clergy, like their counterparts in houses of worship across the country, have heard the call to pick up the tools of Zoom, Facebook and other social media as a workaround for in-person worship and Bible study. But with issues of access and technical ability among some congregants, and a pandemic that has closed their church doors and scattered congregations, African Americans have been scrambling to sustain crucial connections to their houses of worship.
“If you look at websites, Facebook, other media, white churches are better positioned, it seems, to connect their people and to connect to their people than black churches going into this crisis,” said Mark Chaves, director of the National Congregations Study, citing data from 2018-19.
That advantage has widened the religious digital divide. A new survey from Pew Research Center shows that while 92% of evangelical Christians and 86% of mainline Protestants say their church offers streaming or recorded services online, only 73% of Protestant worshippers in the historically black tradition say they can watch religious services remotely.
Sunday school teacher JaQwan Davenport, left, works with youth on a donated laptop at Mattie Richland Baptist Church, in Pineview, Georgia, before social distancing was required to combat the coronavirus. Courtesy photo
Access to digital resources is not solely a problem in rural areas. The Rev. Boise Kimber, senior pastor of First Calvary Baptist Church in New Haven, Connecticut, has worked to get churches websites since 2016. But during the pandemic, Kimber initially chose not to use livestreaming, knowing many of his inner-city church members did not have access to a computer. His church later added Zoom as another option to reach younger members.
“I’m trying to reach individuals that support our ministry, spiritually and financially,” said Kimber. Those people, he said, are available largely by phone.
Pastor Brenda Lacy, leader of Greater Revelations Worship Center, a multicultural inner-city church in Kansas City, Missouri, said she knew her 50 members, including the elderly, could be reached via conference calls on their phones because it was how they gathered remotely for prayer calls three times a week.
“I’m not sure if every member has internet access, but they do have access to the conference line,” she said. “The only thing that has changed with that is that we’re doing our morning worship on there, we’re doing our Bible studies on there, we’re doing everything there.”
Nona Jones. Courtesy photo
Nona Jones, head of Facebook’s global faith-based partnerships, said Facebook has seen a “pretty major spike in the spiritual pages” used by faith communities in recent weeks. Sensitive to those limited to phones, Facebook has begun making available a free service that allows churches to provide a phone number for people who do not have reliable internet or strong bandwidth to view a livestream.
“The feedback we’ve heard so far, even using it in our own church, is that there’s a lot of older people who have felt connected who were feeling isolated,” said Jones, who in addition to her Facebook job is co-pastor of a church in Gainesville, Florida. “But being able to even listen to our voices has given them a sense of hope and a feeling of community.”
The elderly are most at risk and least likely to be able to link to their churches online.
“There is definitely some exclusion that’s taking place when it comes to older congregants, especially those who used to get picked up by the bus and brought into worship,” said Elonda Clay, a Ph.D. candidate in theology and religious studies who has studied the black church and technology trends.
Elonda Clay. Photo by Dirk van der Duim
Clay pointed to her 80-year-old father, a longtime member of a “small United Methodist church of 80-year-olds,” who was only able to phone into a Sunday worship conference call after someone called him to inform him the first one had occurred.
Some churches have found that improving their internet connections can also improve their spiritual connections with a younger generation. “As younger people are not going to service in the same numbers that, say, the baby boomer generation went,” said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-convenor of the National African American Clergy Network, “streaming is the ideal way — this is pre-COVID — for reaching younger church people.”
If nothing else, the pandemic is showing many churches the power of the internet, whatever their bandwidth. Brother Marcus Tolliver of Browns Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Chester, South Carolina, said that coronavirus has prompted a sea change in his church, which previously used its Facebook page to post daily phrases of inspiration and photos from church events. If a service was recorded, it would be distributed on DVDs or CDs.
Last week, he led his congregation of 275 in a two-night online revival, using his iPhone when the internet service proved to be poor at the church.
Brother Marcus Tolliver, bottom right, of Browns Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, moderates a “Focusing on the Mind” panel via Zoom and Facebook Live on April 25, 2020. Video screengrab
The next day, Tolliver moderated on Zoom and Facebook a “Focusing on the Mind” panel on black churches and mental health that drew more than 2,400 views. On Sunday (April 26), the church converted its annual “pack-a-pew” service to “pack-a-page” on Facebook Live, with more than 1,000 views.
“This is definitely new territory,” said Tolliver. “We’ve learned to do things that we never thought we’d do. Some of these older preachers in the more rural communities, they’ve learned to work technology they never expected that they would have to work. They’ve learned how to have Zoom meetings with their church families, and they’ll have Bible study and they can still see each and every one of their members. Before COVID-19, that wasn’t even a thought.”
Jeanine Abrams McLean. Courtesy photo
For Georgia churches like Mattie Richland Baptist, the efforts of Fair Count, founded in Atlanta by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, have shown how improving internet access for churches can be a boon to the entire community, sometimes in unexpected ways.
Jeanine Abrams McLean, vice president of Fair Count and Stacey Abrams’ sister, said the organization has established 135 internet access points using hot spots and tablets donated to churches, barbershops and community centers across Georgia, where about 20% of people have only broadband access or lack internet entirely.
Besides internet access, McLean said, the nonprofit, backed by grants from foundations and private donors, has begun providing free church management software that clergy can use to communicate with members and to facilitate online giving.
“Even if a church doesn’t have internet access, if we’re able to give it to a pastor that has internet access, then they can send out text messages to their parishioners that way,” McLean said of the program that has aided a few dozen houses of worship from Nevada to Mississippi to Illinois. She hopes to extend the service to several hundred more over the next four years.
After receiving a Fair Count hot spot, the Rev. Bo Barber II, pastor of Prospect African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fortson, a suburb of Columbus, Georgia, saw that it could help with more than the census.
The Rev. Bo Barber III, of Fortson, Georgia, speaks in Atlanta at a May 2019 “Black Men Count” event about the 2020 census. Courtesy photo
“When the schools closed, there were a number of children that needed to have access to broadband in the communities and in the area,” Barber said. Now, he explained, “our community can drive up into the parking lot” and draw connectivity from their cars. In the last few weeks, 40 families have visited the church lot.
“Knowledge is power,” said Barber. “And if you’re isolated, you’re not empowered.”
It had been two weeks since Terri Anderson, a teacher at The Oaks Academy in Indianapolis, had seen her 19 prekindergarten students in person. But on a recent Friday, they met virtually for the first time on Google Hangouts. The result: a cacophony of 4- and 5-year-olds on unmuted microphones.
“It was the best sound I had heard since all this had happened,” she said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the educational system nationwide, even preschool has gone online. But school closures threaten to undo some of the progress that Indiana has made toward improving pre-K access for low-income families to help bridge critical early learning gaps.
Many pre-K classrooms have temporarily closed alongside K-12 schools to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, demand has waned at some Indiana child care centers as more families are keeping their children home. The loss of pre-K classrooms has consequences: First, education advocates fear that school closures will worsen the disparities for students across all grades who don’t have access to technology and whose families have fewer resources to support learning at home. Second, families could find themselves without child care as they continue to work during the pandemic in roles such as health care workers, grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, and custodians.
“One of the most important things children learn in a pre-K classroom is how to do school, how to behave with other children, how to self-regulate and be ready to learn,” said Maureen Weber, president and CEO of Early Learning Indiana, a nonprofit that provides and advocates for early education. “That’s one of the things that’s going to be harder for families to achieve independently.”
Because Indiana families have a lot of choices for where to go for preschool — districts, private schools, centers, homes, child care ministries — providers are tackling the challenge in different ways, both online and off-line.
At The Oaks, Anderson wanted the recent video meeting to be a joyful reunion for her pre-K class. She incorporated pieces of their daily routine, such as taking attendance with popsicle sticks that each had a student’s name. When she drew a student’s popsicle stick, she asked them to show the class a toy or something they had made at home, giving each a turn to speak “on the big screen.”
Anderson had them all hug their computers and give themselves hugs, too, wrapping their arms around their own shoulders.
“They need to be nurtured,” Anderson said. “They need a touch. They need a hug.”
Moving pre-K classrooms into the home also means teachers are supporting parents so they don’t feel stressed about their children “losing ground,” Anderson said. Teachers and instructional assistants regularly check in with individual students and families. The Oaks gives preschoolers 1-2 hours of learning each day, and more important than completing the work is instilling a sense of normalcy, she added. A lot of the key lessons are simple: Listen, follow directions, pay attention.
At first, parent Kelly McGary was worried when her son Sam’s preschool, Cooperative Play Academy on the city’s southside, closed its doors in early March. Sam had just learned to hold a pencil properly.
But now she’s less concerned after watching him video conference with his preschool class twice a week, and do engaging homework assignments, such as nature walks.
“I just have to put it in perspective. He’s 3½, he’ll be fine,” said McGary, a public health nurse. “Even if it lasts a few more months, we’re still interacting with him and providing for him. He has a safe place to play. I think he just misses his friends.”
At the Edna Martin Christian Center in Martindale-Brightwood, the approach to at-home learning has evolved over the last few weeks since the child care ministry temporarily closed its doors, said Alexandra Hall, director of early childhood education.
Teachers started by sending food home with students on the first day. Then, they started sharing learning resources. They gave students kits filled with art supplies, reusable writing worksheets, stories, and bubbles. Later, they decided they wanted to find a way to stay in touch with students in a dynamic, interactive way.
That’s how they started a series of 30-minute Zoom sessions throughout the day, mimicking a regular school routine.
“We figured if it works for adults, why wouldn’t it work with kids?” Hall said.
They hold virtual circle time and snack time. Families all gather for the video call with a healthy snack to show and share.
“That is what has just truly been a godsend during this time — to be able to look at people, even though you can’t touch them,” Hall said.
The online setting still allows teachers to be responsive to students. Just like in the classroom, “sometimes you have to throw your plan out the window,” Hall said — like when a student joined the video call in a superhero costume, prompting a show-and-tell that overshadowed the scheduled science lesson.
Even when e-learning isn’t as accessible, pre-K classrooms are finding ways to keep learning. For the five Indianapolis sites of St. Mary’s Child Center, where 93% of children come from low-income families, administrators are mostly focused on basic needs, such as directing families toward food resources.
Teachers are posting videos where they read stories, sing songs, or go on scavenger hunts. They’re encouraging families to find “teachable moments” but aren’t stressing academics.
“Children are such natural learners,” said Diane Pike, director of outreach and professional development. “If they are allowed to explore and communicate and ask questions and have that support at home, they’re going to be OK for kindergarten.”
Pregnant women in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi have been calling nonstop to CHOICES Midwifery Practice in Memphis, but the center is booked.
The callers are terrified that they or their babies will contract the novel coronavirus if they deliver in hospitals. Some women live in rural areas far from hospitals and obstetrics units. The center’s clients are primarily black and other women of color.
“They’ve told us they’re going to risk it all and have an unassisted home birth,” said Nikia Grayson, a certified nurse midwife and director of perinatal services. “That’s very scary, and that’s what people are researching and seeing as a viable option.”
Many pregnant women are seeking out midwives to deliver their babies in homes or birthing centers rather than in hospitals, where they fear being exposed to the virus. But midwives and other maternal health experts say desperate women also are delivering without any medical assistance.
“It can go left real fast,” Grayson said.
Midwives across the country say they are stretched to accommodate additional deliveries because of the pandemic, while taking precautions to protect themselves and their clients. Midwives from Mississippi and Tennessee who deliver in homes are traveling to the rural areas around Memphis to help, Grayson said. But it’s dangerous to cross state lines without knowing where to go in an emergency.
The stakes are especially high for rural black women soon to give birth in Southern states. They have less access to health care providers and travel longer distances to care, while systemic racism and health care inequities put their lives at risk.
The coronavirus pandemic exposes a fragile health care system that already marginalized and traumatized pregnant black women, said Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, president of the National Birth Equity Collaborative.
“The intersectionality of being a black woman and that the rural South chose not to provide insurance coverage is a deadly combination for many,” Crear-Perry said.
In Mississippi, the state Department of Health should address the concerns of pregnant women and families and discourage unassisted home births, said Wengora Thompson, who manages the Jackson Safer Childbirth Experience, a project funded by Merck and the Kellogg Foundation.
Thompson said a local doctor told her that a family had attempted a recent home birth to avoid local hospitals. The baby needed resuscitation and is in intensive care.
“It’s important that they hear from some official body or some trusted source that this isn’t the best option,” Thompson said.
But even before this pandemic, some black women were reluctant to deliver their babies in hospitals, Grayson said. Experts point to systemic health care inequities and institutional racism.
And when they express their concerns to medical professionals, they’re often not heard. Even tennis star Serena Williams had to demand a CT scan and blood thinner when she experienced shortness of breath following a cesarean section and feared she may have had a blood clot.
During the pandemic, hospitals such as the Kaiser Permanente Medical Group of Northern California are offering inductions to women near the end of their third trimester. The goal is to get healthy people out the door before hospitals are overwhelmed by a peak in coronavirus infections.
Advocates say it’s important for women to have choices, but also question whether women may feel pressured to induce pregnancy. They’re also concerned that an increase in inductions will lead to riskier births and premature infants.
Inductions don’t benefit all pregnant and birthing women, said Jamarah Amani, founder of the National Black Midwives Alliance. In a pandemic, some physicians take less time to explain a patient’s options, she said. Studies and first-person narratives underscore communication gaps, such as physicians spending less time with pregnant black women, dumbing down explanations and failing to fully answer questions.
“Once again,” Amani said, “we’re seeing a situation where the needs and rights of birthing people are being pushed to the side.”
Barriers to care
Among the Deep South states, only Louisiana expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act to insure more low-income people. Many poor women have access to health insurance only when they are pregnant.
The U.S. maternal and infant mortality rates are higher than in most developed countries and are hitting black women the hardest.
Black women are two-to-three times more likely to die from causes related to pregnancy than white women, regardless of income or education. The disparity increases with the mother’s age.
Black women’s babies are twice as likely to die, especially black babies born in rural areas, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is little public demographic data on midwives. But black midwives and advocates say there are few black midwives in the South, where restrictions on midwifery make it more difficult to practice.
Certified professional midwives, or CPMs, who deliver in homes, often are left out of health care systems and face legal barriers to practice with autonomy.
Unlike certified nurse midwives who attend nursing school, CPM training is in out-of-hospital settings. In some states, Medicaid reimbursement for CPMs is insufficient, while private insurance may not cover their services.
Despite the barriers, midwifery care is proven to reduce rates of unnecessary interventions and improve outcomes for moms and babies. Advocates such as Crear-Perry say some black women choose home births to avoid over-medicalized care. They also fear the medical system and its legacy of mistreating blacks.
Some advocates are concerned that the challenges plaguing black Americans can’t be addressed if leaders don’t acknowledge black socioeconomic disparities. A senior state health official in Mississippi recently told reporters he did not know why COVID-19 appears to be disproportionately affecting blacks and deferred to other officials to explain.
“In a state as seeped in structural racism as Mississippi, the fact that someone of that stature wasn’t able to communicate that effectively and said they didn’t know was really alarming,” said Felicia Brown-Williams, Mississippi state director for Planned Parenthood Southeast Advocates.
With lower COVID-19 testing rates in states with larger black and poor populations, blacks who couldn’t be admitted to hospitals or lacked access to care are dying outside of hospitals, Crear-Perry said.
“The next level of teasing out this data is counting the deaths that are happening in homes,” Crear-Perry said. “I’m afraid that when we start doing that, we’re going to start seeing some maternal deaths as well because people are not making it to the hospital.”
More black midwives could be part of the solution. Black midwives have long been beloved matriarchs in their communities. As local influencers, they encouraged breastfeeding, delivered public health messages and instilled confidence. But over the past century, black midwives have been whittled down to a handful.
A century ago, thousands of midwives practiced in several Southern states. They attended more than two-thirds of the African American births in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina.
But state efforts to professionalize midwifery and training that began in the 1920s, and a push for more hospital births under a physician’s care, precipitated a steep decline in their ranks. Alongside racist tropes that characterized black midwives as ignorant, superstitious and dirty, they were blamed for high rates of infant and maternal mortality.
In the late 1940s, Mississippi began to retire elderly midwives while also making it difficult to obtain or renew midwifery permits. By 1975, 98% of babies were delivered in hospitals, and there were 259 registered lay midwives. By 1982, there were 13, according to “Protect the Mother and Baby: Mississippi Lay Midwives and Public Health.”
In the South, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina are among at least 15 states where CPMs have no path to licensure. Georgia CPMs lost their ability to legally practice after the state’s rules changed in 2015, but Republican state Rep. Karen Mathiak has introduced a bill to license and regulate CPMs.
A CPM has filed a federal lawsuit against the president of the Georgia Board of Nursing because it’s threatened her with fines for publicly identifying herself as a midwife. She says the restriction violates her First Amendment rights.
However, certified nurse midwives like Grayson in Memphis typically practice in birthing centers or hospitals, although she also does home births. They are legally recognized in all 50 states.
Grayson says she is the only midwife and local provider in Memphis who does home or hospital births. Her clinic will open Memphis’ first birthing center in June and is hiring more nurse midwives to meet local interest.
Florida is a model for what’s possible in the South and across the country, said Amani, the National Black Midwives Alliance founder. Florida provides educational paths to licensure and requires Medicaid and private insurance to cover midwifery care.
Of 200 licensed midwives in Florida, about 15 are black, Amani said. Some states have few black midwives who may legally deliver outside of hospitals and in homes, and others have none, according to Amani and other advocates.
More black women would choose home births if it weren’t so hard to find black midwives, said Shafia Monroe, a black midwife and consultant who’s led national efforts to increase the number of midwives and doulas of color. Medical professionals often don’t educate pregnant women on their options for midwifery care.
“For black people around the country, the majority don’t know what midwives do, or they’re afraid,” Monroe said.
OB-GYNs tend not to like home births because it’s not a part of their training, said Crear-Perry, who’s also an OB-GYN. “All we see is the catastrophe.”
Crear-Perry and others would like to see a health care system that embraces the model of midwifery care, which includes home visits, checkups and other personal touches. They also want better integration with existing health care systems to keep women safe, especially during the coronavirus crisis.
“The capacity of the midwives that are trained is already strained,” said Jennie Joseph, a British-trained midwife and founder of a midwifery school and birthing center in Winter Garden, Florida. “We might want to consider physicians even delivering outside of hospitals to maintain that safety for the mothers.”
The Rev. Frank Williams has been so busy leading two black churches in the New York borough of the Bronx that he hadn’t really considered the full extent of COVID-19’s impact on his congregation, his family and his community.
But when asked, the Southern Baptist pastor of two churches, each with more than 200 members, realized after four weeks the list was long:
The Saturday before Easter, a beloved deacon — a decades-long friend who had been the property manager, the men’s ministry leader and the person who ran the van ministry picking up seniors for Bronx Baptist Church — died from complications related to COVID-19.
The Rev. Frank Williams pastors two black churches in the Bronx. Courtesy photo
Williams’ wife, a hospital residency coordinator, and his three children, all under the age of 12, have recovered from COVID-19 and he preached his first online sermons from the Psalms while quarantined.
The 47-year-old pastor helped the staff of Wake-Eden Community Baptist Church’s elementary school shift to remote learning and, as the need for food in the nearby community increased, worked to provide families with food that previously would have been prepared for their children at a church day care.
“The impact is very real for us, not just here in New York, but very real for us as a congregation,” said Williams, a St. Kitts native whose churches include black Americans and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.
Across the country, black clergy say the coronavirus is touching — and sometimes taking — the faithful who until a month ago were accustomed to meeting weekly in their pews. Some are mourning losses in the highest echelons of their denomination. Others are counting the dead, sick and unemployed.
And some African American pastors are joining forces to demand the Trump administration and congressional leaders take actions ranging from setting up testing sites in black and poor communities to providing masks to low-wage essential workers, prisoners and people living in homeless shelters.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a March report that showed 33% of hospitalized patients in a 14-state study were African American; comparatively, blacks constitute 13% of the U.S. population.
The Rev. Jessica Ingram and Bishop Gregory Ingram. Courtesy photo
At least one historic black denomination has started a preliminary tally of the toll of COVID-19.
Bishop Gregory Ingram leads the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s First Episcopal District, which includes the hard-hit areas of New York, and asked presiding elders within it to report what they knew about members’ health and economic statuses. A Wednesday (April 15) report shows that throughout the district, which also includes churches in states such as New Jersey and Delaware, 48 members have died, 258 have been infected and 1,913 have become unemployed as a result of COVID-19.
“I had one church that lost three members in one day,” Ingram said, referring to a congregation in Freeport, Long Island.
Another of the deceased from the AME denomination is Yonkers pastor Scott Elijah, who died in late March. He was remembered not only by his small church but by Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which recalled his work with NYC Transit in a “Lost to Coronavirus” listing: “The entire Track Division is in mourning.”
Pastor Scott Elijah from Yonkers, New York. Photo courtesy of TWU Local 100
Ingram and his wife, the Rev. Jessica Ingram, have been praying on 6 a.m. daily calls with members of their district and following up by phone with church members who have lost loved ones to COVID-19.
“This is new territory for us,” said his wife, who as the episcopal supervisor for the district has been co-hosting Zoom meetings with leaders among the young adults, laity and pastors in the district. The training and study sessions have centered on topics ranging from the “new landscape of the church” to health disparities. “And we don’t have answers, so basically I just express my prayers for them and listen and let them know that we are here for them.”
Church of God in Christ Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr. Photo courtesy of COGIC-PR
“The loss of such a respected visionary leader cannot be verbally expressed,” said COGIC Presiding Bishop Charles Blake in a video announcement that did not specify Brooks’ or others’ cause of death. “I know that the death of Michigan Bishop Brooks, Nathaniel Wells and so many others has caused great concern and great pain throughout the church, concern for our leaders and concern for the future of the church.”
After noting that he and his family were well, Blake spoke of divine pledges and the need to lean on God.
“At this challenging time, I want you to remember that God has promised that the gates of hell shall not prevail against his church,” he said in the announcement on the homepage of COGIC’s website. “And I’m absolutely confident that God is going to bring us through this tough time together. We as people of faith must look to God and to the word of God as we have in challenging times past for hope and for encouragement.”
At a video news conference hosted Wednesday by the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference and Repairers of the Breach, black clergy called on leaders at the White House and in Congress to provide more resources to African Americans and to focus more on humanity than the economy.
“Black people are more likely to be essential workers, keeping us safe and fed,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach. “But these are the very people the stimulus bill did not provide (with) the essentials of health care, living wages or even guarantee that no water would be shut off. While corporations in less than three weeks got $2.5 trillion.”
Clergy on the call spoke of praying over the phone with health care workers in their congregations who lack protective equipment and people who can’t pay their rent.
“There is no sheltering in place when there is no shelter,” said Bishop Yvette Flunder, a San Francisco preacher affiliated with the Metropolitan Community Churches and who oversees a ministry site that provides food, medical and housing case management services.
The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a justice executive minister for the United Church of Christ and leader of a church north of St. Louis, said her congregation includes bus drivers, grocery workers and mail carriers. She said five of about 80 congregants tested positive for COVID-19 and three went to the hospital multiple times before they could get tested, thus exposing their households in the meantime.
The Rev. Frederick Haynes III. Photo by Jack Akana Jr.
“I pastor people who are now seeking food for their children and for their families because those food services have had to be suspended because of the deaths of two bus drivers who died from COVID-19,” she said.
The Rev. Frederick Haynes III, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas, opened Wednesday’s videoconference with an “appeal to those in power on behalf of communities in pain and in grief.” In a separate interview, he noted that black community leaders who have been concerned about environmental justice and health disparities will now have to see what more the black church can do.
“There are those of us who have been fighting for that and now we are upgrading our fight because we are seeing that this country has proven that it does not have a desire to protect us,” he said.
News reports have indicated other examples of how the coronavirus has ended the lives of longtime churchgoers and clergy from Louisiana to Maryland to New York City’s Harlem borough. A Virginia pastor who claimed “God is larger” than the coronavirus succumbed to it, his church announced.
Clergy tasked with memorializing people who have died, often unexpectedly, say the coronavirus has prompted uncharacteristic changes in funeral and burial traditions.
The Rev. Adolphus Lacey, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, said Tuesday that his 900-member congregation has had three confirmed COVID-19 deaths. He officiated at two funerals the day before, one at a Brooklyn funeral home and one an hour-and-45-minute drive away in New Jersey.
Though familiar with the rites of death, Lacey said wearing masks, gloves and keeping socially distant has made the moments of farewell even more difficult.
One funeral, for a popular usher, was carried out on Zoom and so many wanted to participate, some never got past the virtual waiting room.
Bronx Baptist Church in New York. Courtesy photo
“The sad part, I said, he was at everybody else’s funeral but when it came to his funeral, nobody could be there but just his family,” said Lacey, whose church is affiliated with the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc. and the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc.
From his New York borough north of Lacey’s, Williams spoke of his longtime faith helping him cope with the sadness and hang on to hope.
“There are always people who experience loss and that’s the reality of grief,” said Williams. “We are experiencing that in the loss of our deacon but we are still praying for God’s preservation. And that really comes from Psalm 121, where it says ‘I will preserve you from all evil. I will preserve your soul.’”