HUNTSVILLE, Ala — For many African Americans, Black History Month is celebrated in the church, but as the pandemic rages, many of those churches are staying closed to protect their congregation.
At Berean Christian Church, the parking lot sits empty and the sanctuary is silent. Dr. Rodney Mason, pastor of Berean Christian Church, says "We've learned that this may be the new normal for a while, but we still have to minister to people."
The church holds more than 1500 people, but once they reopen, they'll seat only 150 to reduce the risk of infection. Mason explains, "Some black churches will not open again after this virus. Some black churches have lost membership. They've never had the resources to become technology savvy and engaged in worship in this new environment."
St. Bartley Primitive Baptist Church, the oldest black church in Alabama, closed last March, too.
Jaymes Mooney, senior pastor of St. Bartley, says, "We made the decision to shut down and move to virtual." The closure has been devastating. Mooney explains the significance of the Black church. "The black church is not just a place for worship, it really is the center of the community, it still is the strongest institution in the black community."
Experts and historians say the black church first began in the mid-18th century. Dianne Stewart, professor of Religion and African American Studies, says, "It was the lyceum, the library, it was the political center, educational center, it was the place where black secret societies were formed, fraternal and soral organizations, it was the place where local elections were held"
Stewart says church may come back a bit different, but it will still thrive and that, "They will survive because the black church in many ways is a synonym for black family and black family must survive."
But even when some black churches reopen. those who died from the coronavirus will be missed.
Dr. Mason says, "Once this pandemic is under control and we're able to worship again, some of the people I was used to seeing every sunday will no longer return with us."
Both churches say they hope to reopen by Easter this year but if the pandemic does not get better, they plan to stay closed to keep their members safe.