frederick klaits, suny buffalo

Bodies on the Line: Covid-19 and African American Pentecostal Churches in Buffalo, New York

The disproportionate impact of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic on people of color in the United States has sprung from a host of inequities and institutional failures. Recent studies show that Black and Latinx people are nearly three times as likely than whites to be infected in the country as a whole, due largely to the fact that people of color are more likely to be employed in jobs that place them at high risk, live in overcrowded housing, rely on public transportation, and/or be incarcerated. “I can’t breathe!”, a protest voiced by so many during the concurrent mass demonstrations condemning the police murders of George Floyd and other people of color, highlights the numerous intertwined ways that systemic racism puts their bodies in danger.

For the past several years, I have been carrying out ethnographic fieldwork with members of two small-scale African American Pentecostal Christian congregations on the impoverished East Side of Buffalo, New York, which is one of the most racially segregated cities in the U.S. For them, the terms “Christian” and “nation” have different resonances from those felt by politically right-wing, majority white evangelical believers who wish to reshape the nation in what they consider to be the image of God’s kingdom. The African American believers with whom I have been working consider the U.S. nation-state to be an aspect of “the world” that Christians have to be “in” but should not be “of.” In their view, to be “in the world but not of it” demands specific forms of work geared to protecting their own and others’ bodies from moral as well as physical dangers. Underscoring how experiences of exploitation have shaped these believers’ faith, Pastor John, a man in his thirties who leads a congregation I call Victory Gospel, told me that a pastor of a majority white Protestant church in suburban Buffalo asked him at the height of the protests in June 2020 whether African Americans hate whites. He replied patiently, “No, we don’t hate you, but you owe us.” He elaborated to me:

“We own nothing, and I’m just sick of that. There was slavery, now you’re sending us to prisons for non-violent offenses, and then giving us no opportunities once we get out. We didn’t get the drugs, you brought the drugs to our community. We need to be the majority owner [of property and businesses], we need to hire our people, we want to keep the generational wealth in the community. That’s the whole point: to create our own generational wealth.”

On the other hand, Pastor John discouraged members of Victory Gospel from engaging in street protests in Buffalo, in part because he feared for their safety in the face of police brutality but also because he expressly denies that civil rights are a source of salvation. “Barabbas was a civil rights leader,” he tells his congregation, “and the Jews chose him over Jesus because they thought he was going to overthrow the Romans. But God had a different plan.”

Even in the midst of a pandemic and other forms of oppression, these believers understand that God’s plan advances a set of designs for the vitality of their bodies, transcending and subverting the destructive designs of “the world.” As was much of the Northeast U.S., the Buffalo area was heavily affected by Covid-19 during its first wave of spread in the country (March-May 2020). In-person church services were cancelled in keeping with social distancing requirements mandated by New York State. Several of the believers with whom I work have experienced symptoms of the illness, due in part to the fact that many are classified as low-paid “essential workers” who cannot take time off from their jobs, and some of their close relatives have died, one in incarceration. They have recounted stories of mental anguish and suicides among their kin and neighbors, in keeping with findings that people of color have experienced disproportionate amounts of stress and worry. Under these circumstances, Pastor John has felt compelled to exert himself spiritually to a greater degree than usual by “laying out” before God in prayer at home for those who are suffering, and he encourages senior members of his congregation to do so as well. To “lay out” is to devote oneself to intense and often prostrate prayer. An expression of voluntary submission to the authority of God, who intends life for His people, “laying out” embodies a contrast to other forms of prostration that signify helplessness before a virus or the police.

According to these believers, to submit to God is to acquiesce to His designs for care rather than remaining “in their emotions” of anger or resentment encouraged by “the world.” In recognizing these designs for care, believers put their bodies on the line for the good of others in ways that are less dramatic than “laying out” but no less significant. Pastor Hadley, a woman who leads a largely female ministry, asked members to reflect during a virtual prayer gathering on how the experience of the pandemic had affected their understanding of their own callings. A woman I call Trisha remarked that her own ministry was in “hospitality,” preparing and serving food. She had been working at a food pantry helping people whose unemployment insurance payments had not arrived, learning not to take personally the frustrations that clients sometimes expressed. She added that since she was spending more time at home praying, her “prayer life” was healing her difficult relationship with her mother, who had abused her when she was a child and now lives nearby. When Trisha’s mother became ill, Trisha called to ask what she needed, shopped for her, and left the goods on her porch. “A while back I would have done nothing for her, but I’m growing,” she said. “I want the change that’s in me to be seen by the people who are struggling to change.”

To adopt a comparative vantage point on ideas of “Christian nation,” this material indicates the need to situate believers’ understandings of “nation” and “nations” in terms of wider lexicons. In particular, the intersections between concepts of “nation” and “the world” are highly open-ended, lending themselves to multiple and sometimes contradictory understandings of historical time, personal value, and obligations to care for and about others on a range of social scales.