The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the nation’s largest African American Pentecostal denomination, has been particularly affected by coronavirus as many among its leadership have died of the disease.
The Washington Post reports church leadership in states like Michigan, New York, California and Mississippi, all states where COGIC has a strong presence, have seen as many as 30 bishops and other clergy felled by COVID-19.
Deaths in the church include First Assistant Presiding Bishop Phillip A. Brooks of Detroit; Bishop Tony Scott of Clarksdale, Miss.; and Bishops Robert E. Smith of Flint, Mich., and Robert L. Harris, also of Detroit were reported by various news outlets. Similar losses have taken hold in Southern California, according to the Los Angeles Sentinel.
COGIC presiding Bishop Charles Blake has been providing directives for church members since March and has advised that services and other functions stop, including major conferences planned for 2020.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to unequivocally state that all Church of God in Christ local, district, state and international gatherings should absolutely cease,” Blake said in a video to church members. “Saints of God, let us please continue to do all we can to contribute to the flattening of this pandemic’s curve. I cannot stress the vital importance of doing so for the safety and well-being of all.”
Like the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist EpiscopaL Church, and the United Methodist Church, COGIC is an institution within the African American community with 7.7 million members worldwide.
People who study the Black church say what is happening to the denomination is another exposure to how health disparities are being exploited by coronavirus to harm African Americans.
“This will change the ecosystem of Black church life,” Anthea Butler, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of religious studies. “It’s showing the inequities of health disparities and economic disparities in the black community.”
Churches across the country have stopped traditional formal services. Many who could opted for virtual churches broadcast on social media or live streaming services. Others are keeping congregants engaged through phone prayer lines. But pews, normally packed for Easter Sunday, were empty on a day when flocks are usually drawn to church.
A handful of churches have stayed open with preachers refusing to let COVID-19 stop them from providing religious services. But at least one minister has died since his refusal. Bishop Gerald Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Va., died earlier this month of complications from the virus.