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Masks handed out to help St. Louis-area black churches open

Bishop Floyd Williams knows that the coronavirus has proven especially lethal in the black community, so his decision to reopen his End Times Christian Assembly in St. Louis comes with some trepidation.

Still, Williams says that for his 80 parishioners, meeting together again is a risk they’re willing to take. He plans to restart in-person services on June 7.

“I do have concerns because we don’t know what’s happening with this,” Williams said of the coronavirus. “We’ve just got to be cautious and do what our experts tell us to do.”

Williams was among hundreds of pastors and church leaders showing up this week for free face masks. Three groups representing black St. Louis-area clergy are combining forces to distribute about 150,000 masks to churches that plan to open as early as next week. The masks were provided by St. Louis city and county and by the state of Missouri at the request of Darryl Gray, a St. Louis activist and pastor.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson’s order that allowed the state to reopen on May 5 also allowed churches to start gathering in-person again, though with social distancing guidelines. The governor attended his own home church in southwestern Missouri on Sunday.

But St. Louis city and county combined have accounted for more than half of the state’s 12,492 confirmed cases, and more than two-thirds of the nearly 700 deaths. As a result, the city and county are only now phasing in a reopening plan, which allows in-person church gatherings starting June 1.

Gray said leaders of black churches have been struggling with the decision to reopen but feel a spiritual need to do so.

“The black church has been the surviving force for the black community since slavery,” Gray said at the distribution site at a church in St. Louis County. “It’s where people get their hope, it’s where they get their inspiration, it’s where they get their encouragement. But, it’s also where they get to fellowship. Fellowship is important.”

There’s also a financial need. Without in-person services for nearly three months, giving is down at many churches, leaving some struggling to pay bills.

“Some churches won’t survive financially,” Gray said. “That’s just going to be a reality.”

In addition to the masks, church leaders have been in discussions with government health leaders over the past several weeks about how to control social distancing, how to keep things as clean as possible and other measures aimed at keeping the virus from spreading.

Nationally, blacks have taken the brunt of the virus, and St. Louis is no exception.

In St. Louis city, 73 blacks have died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, compared to 33 whites. The city is about evenly split between black and white residents. Blacks also account for 1,188 confirmed cases, compared to 467 for whites, according to data provided by the St. Louis Health Department.

In St. Louis County, where blacks make up 24% of the population, 39% of the 395 people who have died from the coronavirus were black, and blacks account for 44% of the 4,656 confirmed cases.

People of color are especially exposed because they are more likely to hold many of the jobs that were deemed essential, are more likely to have inadequate health care and more likely to have underlying health conditions, experts say.

Fredrick Cornelius Harris, a political science professor at Columbia University in New York who has focused on race and religion, said the church has historically been a “connecting” place for blacks, so it’s not surprising many are eager to face the risk and start meeting again. Beyond its spiritual significance, the church “is important culturally, social and economically,” Harris said.

“In some form or another, they’ve been the bedrock of the community for generations,” Harris said.

At Williams’ small church in the city, he plans many precautions beyond the free masks: Every other pew will remain empty. Ushers will seat families together, separated from the next group. Temperatures will be checked at the door, hand sanitizer will be distributed and masks will be required.

“We’re serious about this thing,” Williams said. “Let’s not only save souls, let’s save lives.”

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