(RNS) — C.J. Rhodes, pastor of Mt. Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi, was grabbing lunch from one of his regular spots when the restaurant manager made an announcement to all the patrons.
“Guys, we have to shut down. We have no water pressure.”
On Aug. 29, flooding from the nearby Pearl River caused complications at the O.B. Curtis Water Plant, resulting in a loss of pressure and running water for the entire city.
At more than 160,000 people, Jackson is Mississippi’s largest city and the state capital. Schools, which had only just commenced classes, had to be shut down, and the city lacked water for even emergency services such as firefighting.
The crisis quickly made national news, and people from around the country turned their attention to Jackson seeking explanations and ways to help.
Within the city, residents quickly organized to help their neighbors and communities. At the center of these efforts stood faith leaders.
“Churches throughout the city of Jackson across denomination, class and race have engaged in water distributions at their churches or by giving water away in other ways,” said Rhodes.
His church became a water distribution site. As provisions flooded into the city from around the country, churches like his became hubs for supplying residents. Sometimes churches filled in where municipal distribution efforts were limited. They could stay open after hours to serve people who couldn’t make it to the city’s distribution sites before closing.
Jennifer Biard, lead pastor of Jackson Revival Center Church, lost water several days before the city-wide announcement. She came home and found the faucets simply didn’t work.
While dealing with her own water troubles, she led her church in providing for others in the southern part of the city where they have a campus. Throughout the crisis many water distribution sites were set up at various locations, but Biard and her volunteers went even further. They loaded up cases of water and hand-delivered them to individuals and businesses.
“One thing people don’t understand is that when you have people who are disabled, people who are without transportation, they may not be able to go out to the distribution sites,” she explained.
Individual churches were not the only bodies that got involved.
Reginald M. Buckley is the pastor of Cade Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. He is also the president of the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Mississippi (GMBSC), an association of churches providing mutual aid to member congregations.
“There’s only so much any local church can do … (the convention) acts as a connector,” Buckley said.
His goal was to mobilize people and supplies from across the state and nation to help people in Jackson. The state convention has its own 18-wheel truck as well as an extensive network of churches and personnel they contacted to help.
“Though this is a trying time, one of the things that I am most grateful for is the unity that people are able to observe, how they are seeing pastors and churches come together regardless of race, regardless of denomination, regardless of anything that would divide. They are seeing the body of Christ come together like never before,” Buckley said.
Despite the efforts of churches and faith communities to provide relief, the water problems in Jackson are much deeper than a breakdown at the water plant.
The city had already been under a boil water notice for a month before the entire water system failed. Even after the city’s water pressure was restored nearly a week later, the boil water notice has remained in effect.
Although the water plant has come back online, the infrastructure issues remain.
“Now that the plant is up and running, water is flowing again, now we have to live with pipes bursting … We still have lead leaching from the pipes into the water. We still have the EPA saying the city has failed to do a number of things and if they don’t remedy those things, there may be federal seizure of the water system,” Rhodes said.
Given the continued failure to bring Jackson’s water infrastructure system up to date, Buckley said he is preparing for the next crisis.
“What we’re absolutely convinced of is that we’re going to be faced with this again, and not in the distant future but in the near future,” he said.
Buckley is working to build a stockpile of supplies to have on hand the next time the city loses water. “We are inundated with water right now. We are partnering with the Church of Christ Holiness to create a reserve and supplies center to house water, buckets and all kinds of supplies,” he said.
The constant lack of clean water and water pressure has worn on Jackson’s residents, 80% of whom are Black.
“We should have water,” Biard, who is white, said. “We should have water whether it’s cold or hot or snowing or raining.”
Jackson exists alongside wealthier suburbs including Madison, a community north of the city that is also the wealthiest in the state.
After years of experiencing a crumbling infrastructure alongside the comparative wealth of nearby towns, a freshman college student who is Black asked Buckley, “What’s wrong with me?”
“We assured her there was nothing wrong with her. There is something wrong with the world,” said Buckley, who tried to help his young parishioner understand that the fault did not rest with who she was but with external factors and decisions made by others.
Anticipating the need not only for material supplies but spiritual relief, award-winning gospel artist John P. Kee volunteered to perform a benefit concert in Jackson.
A friend of Kee’s in Jackson connected him to Biard, and he immediately knew she was someone who could help him set up the concert but also become an ongoing partner.
“I wanted to come in and partner with such a ministry where we could actually connect, and when I’m gone I’ll stay in touch, and I’ll be family,” Kee said.
Fixing Jackson’s pipes, water plant and other infrastructure needs requires resources that exceed what local churches can provide. Yet the lightning-quick response of faith leaders and their communities when the hour of need emerged provides evidence that help will be there in a crisis.
The show of unity by churches in Jackson may even be a sign of greater changes to come.
According to Biard, “I believe that this may be not just the initiation of a fresh start for Jackson, I believe it’s going to be a comprehensive fresh start … I believe that the Lord is getting ready to do something for Mississippi as a whole.”
To support local efforts to address the water crisis in Jackson, donate below.
(Jemar Tisby, PhD, is a historian, author and speaker. He wrote “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism,” and he frequently writes about race, religion and politics in his newsletter, “Footnotes.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Meanwhile, racial injustice and high-profile police killings of Black men have amplified stress. During the summer of 2020, amid both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, a CDC survey found that 15% of Black respondents had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days,” compared with 8% of white respondents.
For a variety of reasons, many African Americans face barriers to mental health care. But as a sociologist who focuses on community-based organizations, I find that strengthening relationships between churches and mental health providers can be one way to increase access to needed services. In research with my collaborators Eunice Wong and Kathryn Derose, I analyzed data on the prevalence of mental health care provision among religious congregations and found that many African American congregations offer such programs.
Need versus access
Roughly 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. Yet fewer than half of adults with a mental health condition receive mental health services.
African Americans utilize mental health services at about one-half the rate of white Americans. In part, this underuse may stem from African Americans’ often fraught relationship with medical establishments in the U.S., given their histories of racial bias and malpractice against people of color. Part of the reason may also derive from stigma among some African Americans perceiving mental illness and seeking help as signs of weakness. Treatment “deserts” where mental health providers are scarce may also be a factor.
Care at church
One often overlooked resource for mental health care, however, are churches. For the past decade, the National Congregations Study has documented the prevalence of mental health care provision among places of worship in the U.S. Based on data from the NCS’ 2018 survey, 26% of congregations provide mental health programming, and 37% of people who attend religious services attend one of these congregations. Such programming can include support groups, meetings and classes focused on addressing mental health concerns.
Previously, my co-researchers and I analyzed 2012 NCS data to better understand mental health resources within religious congregations. One of our goals was to identify factors that contribute to a congregation offering mental health care. These factors include having more members, employing staff for social service programs and providing health-focused programs. Other significant predictors include conducting community needs assessments, hosting speakers from social service organizations and being located in a predominantly African American community.
Based on the new 2018 survey, 45% percent of African American congregations offer some form of mental health service and nearly half of all African American churchgoers attend a congregation with such programs. These rates show an increase since 2012, and are roughly 50% greater than those among predominantly white congregations.
This research supports longstanding observations about African American congregations as critical sources of spiritual, emotional and social support for their communities. Many religious people see their spiritual health and mental health as intertwined, and research indicates that spiritual practices, such as prayer and meditation, can also support mental health.
Our research suggests that building collaborations between African American congregations and the mental health sector is a promising strategy to increase access to needed services. Given that 61% of African Americans say they attend worship services at least a few times a year, congregations may provide an accessible resource.
At times, pairing religion and mental health may prove harmful. Some congregations see mental health problems as a product of personal sin, for example, and stigmatize people suffering from mental illness.
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But congregations can also be helpful environments. When clinical treatment is supplemented with social support, the likelihood of successful outcomes is greater, and houses of worship often provide built-in social networks. People participating in a congregation-led grief recovery group, for example, can be involved in the congregation beyond their weekly meeting. In addition, some mental health professionals provide pro bono services for congregation-based programs.
Social worker Victor Armstrong, the director of North Carolina’s Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services, asserts that African American faith leaders can play a “pivotal role” in mental wellness. He suggests shifting language to focus on “wellness” rather than “illness” in order to decrease stigma, among other recommendations.
Greater collaboration between congregations and mental health providers could help stem the growing mental health crisis, particularly within African American communities.
WALKING BY FAITH TO THE POLLS: Dozens af marchers from various churches leave the New Hope Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Sunday Oct. 28, 2012, en route to the African American Cultural Library to vote. (Photo: Joe Cavaretta, South Florida Sun Sentinel)
On a day punctuated by echoes of the civil rights movement, hundreds of people poured out of churches after services in South Florida’s historic black neighborhoods Sunday to march to the voting booth, intent on honoring a right for which ancestors shed their blood.
“People have died so I could do this,” said James Gadsen, 74, a deacon at New Hope Baptist Church, the rallying point for the mile-long walk down Sistrunk Boulevard to the polls in the African-American Research Library in Fort Lauderdale. “Too many people have given up too much for me not to go vote.”
In Boynton Beach, scores of parishioners gathered at St. John Missionary Baptist Church and other houses or worship and were bused to various polling sites.
“We do not make an endorsement, but we urge people to consider a candidate who would do what Jesus would require,” said the Rev. Nathaniel Robinson, pastor of Greater St. Paul AME Church, who led his parishioners to the polls in Delray Beach.
Dubbed “Souls to the Polls,” the get-out-the-vote effort on the second day of statewide early voting was sponsored by several churches, local NAACP chapters and several public service sororities and fraternities, including Delta Sigma Theta.
The march reflected the tradition of many black voters casting their ballots after church on the Sunday before Election Day.
This year, however, the eight-day period set aside for early voting — cut from 14 days in the last presidential election — does not include the Sunday before Nov. 6. Early voting ends Saturday.
Many Democrats charged that Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature scaled back on early voting for 2012 to suppress the minority vote. Republicans deny that charge.
But those marching Sunday said they did not want to take any chances.
“We need to make sure our voices are heard,” said march organizer and attorney Alfreda Coward of Delta Sigma Theta. “And we need to make sure we elect people who are passionate about the issues that we are passionate about.”
The march and the rally outside the polls were nonpartisan. Both Democratic and Republican candidates were introduced before most marchers got in line to vote.
But there was little doubt which of the presidential nominees most of the marchers backed.
“Four more years,” the crowd chanted as the marchers streamed past Ray’s Meat Market, BG’s Home Cooking, under Interstate 95 and over the New River Bridge on a breezy, sunny day.
Not everyone marching was eligible to vote. Among the many youngsters joining family groups was Isaiah Blackwell, 15, a student at Northeast High School. Walking beside his grandmother, Blackwell said he could sense the historical precedents he had only read about.
“This makes me think of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the battle against segregation,” he said. “We have to vote to succeed as a country.”
Inside the library, Broward County supervisor of elections Brenda Snipes said at mid-afternoon that waiting time to get into one of the 50 voting booths ran from 20 to 60 minutes.
That wait time was down from Saturday, when Broward set a record for a single day of presidential early voting.
“We had 28,000 people vote Saturday,” said Snipes. “That is an exceptional number, shocking. I did not realize that people would turn out the way they did.”
By 4 p.m. Sunday, more than 19,000 had cast ballots in Broward County, according to county election officials.
The count of first-day early voters in Palm Beach County on Saturday was more than 13,200, according to elections office spokeswoman Erin Lewandowski. Numbers from Sunday were unavailable.
Whether Sunday’s effort will make up for the loss of early-voting days remains to be seen. But this campaign in South Florida, along with other faith-based efforts in cities like Pensacola, Tampa, Orlando, Kissimmee, and Gainesville, will give Florida residents a chance to try.
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, celebrate the Aug. 6 landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on the planet Mars. (Photo: NASA)
On August 6, when the Mars rover Curiosity managed a text-book landing on the red planet, I was as thrilled and enthralled as anyone else who watched the tension in that NASA control room transform into unrestrained joy once the engineers realized that their project was a success. For me, though, watching the jubilation in that room was also bittersweet. As an American I felt the pride and amazement of this great accomplishment in space, but as an African American I was stung by the lack of black faces celebrating in the NASA control room.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of graduates with STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees has been declining nationwide, but it’s particularly alarming for blacks. African Americans represent 12 percent of the U.S. population, but 2009 received only “7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs.” Education, of course, goes hand in hand with our economic wellbeing. With black unemployment twice as high as that of whites, pursuing STEM careers is an opportunity that could dramatically improve black life for generations to come.
The black church should use its influence to awaken parents and encourage young people to pursue STEM education. In addition to the economic benefit, STEM fields are about the study of God’s creations — the universe, the Earth, and all life forms. Emphasizing STEM in this context at church and the community could channel the natural curiosities of young people in a positive direction. It could help them to see and experience God not as some elusive being beyond the clouds but as a deeper, loving ever-present Spirit who is concerned about their everyday lives.
WELL DONE: On Aug. 13, President Obama made a special phone call to congratulate NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover team. (Photo: Pete Souza/Official White House Photo)
If a kid in the ’hood or the ’burbs can master the physics required to consistently shoot a rubber sphere into a 10-foot-high cylinder or mix and sync the sonic wavelengths of hip-hop beats to precision, they also can achieve in math and science classes. STEM is at the root.
As a youth growing up in the late 1970s, my curiosity in God was actually stirred more by watching reruns of the original Star Trek than sitting in wooden pews enduring long, dry, abstract sermons. Star Trek offered many lessons about how science could be used to help solve human problems and lead us to a better understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ. Star Trek also depicted blacks as intelligent leaders rather than the buffoons I often saw on other TV shows. (As an aside, some years ago I met Nichelle Nichols, who played the original Lieutenant Uhura, at an event in Phoenix, Arizona. I told her that as a youth I was in love with her because she tucked me in bed most nights as I fell asleep after watching Star Trek. She laughed and gave me a big hug.)
One of my favorite Star Trek episodes was “The Ultimate Computer.” Dr. Richard Daystrom, a black man (actor William Marshall), developed the M5 Multitronic Unit, a computer designed to run a 430-crew starship with just 20 crewmembers. The M5 was to replace a commander, such as Captain James T. Kirk. Humans would no longer die at war but could channel their intellect and spirit toward higher pursuits.
M5 thought like a human because Daystrom had implanted M5 with his own human neural engrams. It was tested under a war games scenario, while Kirk sat at the helm observing. After performing flawlessly, M5 hit a glitch and ended up blasting other starships, killing crew members. Daystrom experienced a mental breakdown while trying to talk M5 out of committing more murders. Eventually Kirk reasoned with M5 by appealing to its (Daystrom’s) sense of guilt. M5 tells Kirk, “Murder is contrary to the laws of man and God,” and concludes that it must die for its sins. Even the computer understood God’s authority and submitted.
The outcome was unfortunate for Daystrom, but this 1968 episode revealed something extremely inspiring about the overall Star Trek series: Daystrom, a genius, was responsible for the design of ALL of the starship computers throughout the entire fleet. Imagine that — a black man!
The black imprint in space travel is not science fiction. From Benjamin Baneker, the first African American astronomer, to Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first black man in space, to Mae Jemison, the first black woman in space, African Americans have a long and strong legacy. And though it may not have been visually present in that jubilant NASA control room, it was there: NASA’s current leader, Charles Frank “Charlie” Bolden, Jr., is African American.
Editor’s Note: For more information on ways of encouraging student participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs, check out this report, “Increasing the Number of STEM Graduates,” from the Business-Higher Education Forum.
The year 1787 saw many important milestones in American history. In 1787, the United States adopted its constitution, a document significantly, seriously, and regularly called the most important document of political freedom in human history. Delaware became the first state in the newly named United States of America. Silicon was discovered. It was a significant year.
Seventeen eighty-seven also marked the beginning of the Free African Society in Philadelphia, a mutual aid organization where Blacks gathered for community affairs, insurance and banking, health care, and education. African Americans also recall 1787 as the year that the United States federal government enacted a compromise between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states to account for enslaved Africans in the regular federal census — the now infamous “three-fifths compromise” determining that for the purposes of the census, Blacks were “three-fifths” of a human being. The only reason the South wanted enslaved Africans counted at all was that representation in congress depended on census numbers.
By the way, did you know that in the current practice of the United States Census Bureau, prisoners are counted as part of the census for the communities that host the prisons in which they live? A significant amount of public money is distributed according to census data, which means that communities that host prisons receive state and federal dollars for community projects based on their being the communities in which African American prisoners are held. In both cases, Blacks are counted but not as citizens.
A Mother’s Mission
The year 1787 also marked the birth of Sally Thomas, an incredible African American woman who represents the best in the human realm of what we can learn about the character and will of God concerning redemption.
Sally Thomas was born 225 years ago in Albemarle County, Virginia. She was a fair-skinned, enslaved African American who was led to her pursuit by wealthy White slave owners because of purposes in violation of biblical principles. Eventually she had three children by two White slave owners, neither of whom ever acknowledged paternity. Sally Thomas determined that her life’s goal would be the freedom of her three sons. In that regard, she mirrored the holy intention of God.
The life of Sally Thomas shows us how God commits Himself to our freedom — even as Thomas did for the sake of her sons. She sacrificed and worked hard to earn enough money to purchase the freedom of one, aid in the escape of a second, and arrange for a job that led to the freedom of the third. There was nothing more important to Sally Thomas than the freedom of her children. So, too, does God value the freedom of His children.
Paying the Price for Freedom
God commits to the freedom and redemption of His people out of His love and faithfulness. He expressed His commitment to Israel through the Exodus. He raised up prophets and priests, kings and judges for His people, even in the midst of their unfaithfulness. He expressed His ultimate love in sending Jesus for us “while we were yet sinners.” The renowned preacher Gardner C. Taylor was right when he told young preachers-in-training his charge: “The Bible has only one major theme: God is getting back what belonged to Him in the first place.”
Redemption is paying the price to buy something back. Sally Thomas paid the price for her sons’ redemption through work, money, and sound connections with the business world. God paid the price for our redemption by sending His Son Jesus into the world to die for our sins. The resurrection of Jesus gives hope to all who trust Him as Savior. The apostle Paul says that without the hope of the resurrection “we are the most miserable” of all people. Peter says that the Christian has been “born again into a living hope” by the Resurrection. Truly, the resurrection of Jesus brings us hope. It is the hope of redemption.
Just as enslaved Africans were objects of redemption in the antebellum period of the United States, a new cohort of persons in our society are candidates for redemption in today’s society. Over 2 million men and women live their lives behind the bars of our state and federal prisons, and countless more languish in county and city jails. The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any nation on the earth. And the disproportionate numbers of those prisoners who are African American should give call for pause and prayer, preaching and prophesying in our congregations. According to the Pew Center, in 2008 one in every 100 Americans was incarcerated. For African American males between the ages of 25 and 34, the numbers were one in nine. Our young men need redemption.
In addition, the overwhelming majority of those state and federal inmates eventually return to society. In 2010, the number exceeded 708,000. And this number did not include those returning from county and city jails. For men and women returning from incarceration, redemption means more than just the personal regeneration occurring when a person gives his or her life to Christ. Redemption includes being reconciled with God and humanity, and those leaving the prisons and jails of our country struggle to be reconciled with family and friends, community and society.
Many of our congregations have prison-ministry programs. They do good work in providing worship services, Bible studies, and some counseling and working in conjunction with jail and prison chaplains. Yet so much more is needed. We need the work of full redemption.
When redemption comes to a person, it does more than change them internally. It changes his or her relationship to the community and world, as well as his or her relationship to God. God redeems His people to make them a people and a community of the redeemed who become agents of reconciliation in the world. A prisoner may give his or her life to Christ, but they also need support in reforming and revitalizing the relationships with others. And sometimes they need support to begin new relationships where there once were either bad relationships or no relationships at all.
Hope and Healing After Incarceration
A group of religious leaders met in Baltimore in 2006 at the Annie E. Casey Foundation to discuss ways in which congregations could be a part of the redemption of prisoners, especially those about to return from incarceration. They pointed to relationships as the key concept in assisting people returning from incarceration. As several of them met over the next year, they were joined by leadership from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which formed a Social Justice and Prison Ministry Commission. That Commission worked with representatives of the Foundation and other key Christian leaders to produce a model for relationally based prison ministry and prisoner reentry called Healing Communities.
In the Healing Communities model, each congregation identifies families in their own church who have an incarcerated loved one — a father, mother, son, daughter, etc. The congregation then begins to minister to the family and the inmate just as they would if that inmate were hospitalized. They provide prayerful counsel and support, visitation to the prison, and assistance with financial matters when appropriate. One group of congregations began using their church vans to provide rides for families on visiting days. Another developed financial support for families with phone bills (a collect call from a state prison can cost as much as two dollars and fifty cents per minute). Yet another church, recognizing how important it is to keep families in touch during incarceration, set up a video-conferencing program with a prison seven hours away so that inmates could have real time video visits with loved ones.
These congregations grew in their ability to be communities of redemption. They became more sensitive to the difficult transition from incarceration back into society by ministering to inmates and their families during the period of incarceration and by becoming welcoming congregations upon the return of the inmate. They even moved away from using the term “ex-offender,” preferring the term “returning citizen.” One pastor, who had served significant prison time prior to his entering the ministry, told a group of churches that were beginning this ministry, “How would you like to be forever known by a title describing the worst moments of your life?”
This same pastor freely shares his having been incarcerated as a way of helping congregations overcome the stigma of incarceration. Many members of our churches have families living with a sense of shame that their family member is incarcerated. But as we look at so many people who have made the successful transition home and share their stories and hopes, we can reduce the stigma and shame and provide real support for all persons affected by crime and incarceration. Some pastors are even preaching sermons about prisoner reentry, citing Peter’s ambivalent reception upon his return from prison in Acts 12, the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity in Isaiah 49, and John coming home from exile with a fresh revelation from heaven.
All of us must be held accountable for our actions. For some, it means the consequences of incarceration. But if we are willing to be changed — to be redeemed — then congregations must stand ready to be communities of redemption, no matter how far someone may have fallen. We should be prayerfully open to God’s heart for the redemption of the prisoner and his or her family. After all, our Redeemer paid the price for us while a prisoner Himself.
This article originally appeared in the 2010-2011 edition of Precepts for Living, UMI’s annual Bible commentary. Visit the Annie E. Casey Foundation website to download the handbook What Shall We Then Do?, prepared by the Foundation and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.