Black Pastors Plead for Government Action on Coronavirus: 'I Have Two Funerals to Do This Week'

The disproportionately high death rates among African Americans and subsequent inaction amount to “policy violence” and “structural racism,” said the Rev. Dr. William Barber.
April 15, 2020, 10:42pm
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II speaking at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress taking place at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC on June 17, 2019.

Black pastors across the country are pleading for the government to correct the “policy violence” that’s led so many African Americans to die from COVID-19 before they can even access testing or seek treatment.

“We know firsthand and have had to bear witness to the deaths of African Americans from COVID-19 and the heart-wrenching pain experienced by the families and communities left behind,” said Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach and minister of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, reading aloud from a letter addressed to President Donald Trump and others during a virtual press conference Wednesday.

The press conference was sponsored by Barber’s Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit that advocates for the poor and marginalized, and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, a coalition of progressive African American faith leaders. The 10 pastors behind Wednesday’s letter said they’re sharing their stories to pressure government leaders for better data on how coronavirus is impacting black people, more protective equipment and testing among those communities, and the widespread expansion of Medicaid, the government’s healthcare program for the poor.

Trump, for his part, said last week he recognized the disparity in the black community and said that the administration is doing “everything in our power to address this challenge.”

Barber, who said the disproportionately high coronavirus death rates among African Americans and subsequent inaction amount to “policy violence” and “structural racism,” added that he’d learned Wednesday that someone close to his church had died. It was the father of one of his drummers.

“He couldn’t get tested for weeks. He went in and died. His wife is in the hospital, his sister is in the hospital. I have at least two members who have had plus-four members of their family — one has had 10 deaths in his family over the last month from COVID-19,” Barber said.

That anecdote was shared by other pastors.

“I pastor a small congregation where approximately 80 people gather on a Sunday, and out of those 80, five of those have tested positive for COVID-19,” said Rev. Traci Blackmon, executive minister of Justice & Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ and senior pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri.

“I have two funerals to do this week of people who died; out of those five, three of them had to go to the hospital three times before they were given a test,” Blackmon continued, through tears. “Three times were they sent back home to their families and into their communities with being positive but not being deemed worthy of a test.”

Black communities have been woefully left behind as local and federal leaders struggle to contain a deadly global pandemic. In Blackmon’s community of St. Louis, for example, 24 people have died of COVID-19; three were white, and the rest were black and Latino. Demographically, St. Louis’ population is about 50% black or Latino, and 50% white. Similarly, in Chicago, black residents make up more than half of all coronavirus cases and 70% of the deaths, according to the BBC, despite making up 30$ of the city’s population.. And while few cities have broken down their coronavirus mortality data by race, those that have show the same trend: Black people are alarmingly at risk.

There are a few reasons for that, the pastors noted. African Americans are more likely to lack health insurance. They’re more likely to work the part-time jobs currently deemed “essential” and have to continue showing up, while many white-collar workers clock in from their couches. They have fewer transportation options, more housing instability, and higher likelihood of underlying conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting — or dying of — coronavirus. And then they have fewer resources to address those problems, like government funding or widespread access to testing.

“As of this moment, black and brown people are being tested least but dying the most,” said Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas and co-chair Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. “We appeal to federal and state leadership to prioritize healing humanity over restarting the economy. We appeal to this country to ensure that we create a vision of wellness and wholeness for our communities to repair centuries of the intentional infection of racism.”

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Cover: Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II speaking at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress taking place at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC on June 17, 2019. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)