SACRAMENTO – Black churches would normally be buzzing with activity in preparation for Easter Sunday services this weekend, but mandates to shelter in place due to the coronavirus pandemic have doors to sanctuaries shut and faith leaders leading their flocks on Facebook and other online platforms.

Area pastors are adapting to the new way in which they need to reach their parishioners amid the coronavirus pandemic. Rev. Kevin Ross of Unity of Sacramento Church is shown as he talks to a camera operator who records his message. 

Local health officials called on the faith-based community last week to help slow the spread of COVID-19, stating that approximately one-third of all positive cases in Sacramento County are linked to church gatherings. As of April 6 there are 462 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Sacramento County. That number is up from 314 cases just one week ago. There have been 18 coronavirus-related deaths in the county. Those who died were all 65 or older or had underlying health conditions. The second largest number of those with the virus, 182, are between the ages of 18-49.

“Sacramento County is urging — and, not just because the Public Health Order calls for it — all residents, from all faiths and all backgrounds to stay home — lives in our communities depend on it,” read a statement on the Sacramento County Public Health Department’s COVID-19 update website.
Like the virus itself, reaching the faith community has become a widespread issue. A Black pastor in New York died just days after urging his parishioners to not fall for the coronavirus chaos. Clergy in Louisiana and Arkansas have been formally charged by law enforcement for failing to end face-to-face fellowship. A Lodi landlord changed the locks on a church building after its pastor refused to cancel plans to meet for Palm Sunday services, saying the governor’s shelter-in-place orders violate their right to assemble.

Pastors at area Black churches, however, have already modified how they “do church,” and are now delivering messages via Facebook Live and other streaming platforms or taping sermons for future viewing. Church now literally exists “beyond the walls” of a sanctuary.

“We have completely modernized our offices such that we are equipped to run our ministry from anywhere there is an Internet connection,” shared Rev. Kevin Ross of Unity of Sacramento Church, located at 9249 Folsom Boulevard.

“Essential staff comes once a week on Wednesdays to pack up to 1,000 student lunches with our Unity Angel Response Team, phone tree to our senior congregants and to film our online weekly broadcast,” Rev. Ross shared of Unity’s shutdown routine.

“We are extremely cautious. We are practicing social distancing and we remain on the front lines of service as a force for good in our city,” he continued.

Unity started off with a Livestream Global Townhall Service called “Going Viral: Launching a Spiritual, Scientific, Sociological and Civic Strategy For Countering Pandemic Crisis, Confusion and Chaos.” The town hall featured commentary from epidemiologist Dr. Flojaune Cofer, psychologist Dr. Kristee Haggins, physicist Dr. Hadiyah Green and Dr. Dave Montgomery, a medical expert featured on CNN. It can be viewed online at .

Beyond The Walls

We adapted a new responsive format that would allow our ministry to address the panic that people were feeling,” Rev. Ross shared.

Rev. Ross is delivering his weekly messages from Unity’s sanctuary studio; they are taped on Wednesdays.

“It’s very different than before, but the Spirit is still moving through,” he said.

Rev. Ross is even reaching out to little ones in his non-denominational congregation.

“We have introduced a new character that I puppet for the youth, named Khavon, that is speaking to the fears and concerns of youth at their level in a very entertaining way.”

The virus, Rev. Ross says, will prompt long-term changes at Unity.

“The whole world has experienced a shift and there is no turning back to the world as we once knew it and to think so is naive,” he said.

“We are seeking Divine guidance and Divine ideas as to how to be on the pioneering edge of reaching people in the digital space and beyond. We realize that we will have to be complexly willing to adapt to new ways of being the beloved community or we will be obsolete.”

Rev. Anthony Sadler of Shiloh Baptist Church in Oak Park is now broadcasting services online via Facebook Live.

“Don’t ask me any technical questions about Facebook because I don’t know nothing about it,” he said jokingly.

“But I have a young person who maintains the account for us and she knows everything about it. We’ve had it for a while now but had never put messages on it. I never utilized it in that way, but the circumstances we’re living in caused me to look at and reach out for alternative ways to, first of all stay in connection with our congregation, and then get the word out to whoever, congregation or non-members, in these trying times.”

Rev. Sadler says he’s adhering to state and county health officials’ recommendations and expects to be closed at least through the end of month.

“We’re trusting in God overall, because we know that God is in control, but at the same time we’re looking to the medical professionals and adhering to their advice as well. I’m presenting to our church body that the two aren’t mutually exclusive; that we can have faith in God and still listen to doctors at the same time. It’s not a reflection on our faith or lack thereof by doing so,” he shared.

Sadler says it’s “strange” to be at the church without his beloved members, as he only has a skeleton crew assisting with his weekly Facebook Live sermons.

“It’s me; Regina Kinney, who ministers to use through music; my audio person; my Facebook videographer and that’s it,” Rev. Sadler shared.
“We come, we do the abbreviated service, we lock up, and we go,” he continued.

His decision to broadcast from the church was intentional.

“I know some of the pastors are doing it from home. I wanted to do it from the church for one reason only and that was God kind of impressed upon me to keep our services as close to a sense of normal as possible.

“I wanted our people worshipping and being in worship, albeit even through the format of Facebook, in a setting that they were familiar with. I wanted them to see me behind the pulpit bringing a message and I wanted them to ‘be in the sanctuary with us,’ albeit virtually, ‘with us’ in the sanctuary they are used to coming to on Sunday mornings. They can enter in from their Facebook account via their electronic devices.”

Members, he said, are feeling engaged and instead of being able to reach over the pews and grab their neighbor’s hand, are doing the equivalent in the Facebook comment section.

“They’ve spontaneously initiated fellowship amongst themselves and I think that’s just amazing and outstanding,” Rev. Sadler said.

Shiloh is also trying to maintain a level of normalcy by stepping out outreach efforts to shut-ins and others who can’t always make it to church on a regular basis, who might not be able to go online.

“We do have a lot of mature Christians, although you might be surprised at how many are technologically savvy and have a Facebook account. I’m like ‘OK, now,’ but many of them of course do not.”

Rev. Sadler has also pointed followers to Siloh’s radio broadcast that runs Sunday mornings at 9:30 a.m. on KJAY 1430 AM. Rev. Sadler is in talks with an outside vendor to explore live streaming options. He’s also working to establish a mechanism for online giving. During the first week of sheltering in place, Shiloh members could still drop off their tithes during restricted hours. That has since been changed to a mail-in only method.

Nationally known megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar recently came under fire recently for creating a Cash App account to collect funds for his church when the coronavirus is keeping folks from filling a traditional collection plate.

Rev. Sadler says while he understands that some may take issue with it, he doesn’t see a conflict as churches still need financial support.

“I don’t see any conflict there at all. Of course the needs of our members are of the utmost importance to us. If they find themselves in a financial hardship, whether it be due to the loss of a job, whether it be due to unforeseen expenses that are a natural byproduct of this coronavirus and the stay-in order, we expect them to make decisions that they need to make. We want them to be well, first and foremost and that wellness is holistic.

We want them to have physical and spiritual peace of mind and financial stability as well. We would never expect any member who has sustained a significant shift in their finances to where their normal tithing efforts were severely challenged, to maintain that to the detriment of themselves. That’s not our heart.”

Churches, Rev. Sadler says, are worried about paying the bills through the pandemic, just like area restaurants and other small businesses.

“Fortunately we’re not in the same situation as many. Many churches have a mortgage bill they need to pay. We’ve been around 163 years, at that site for 63 of those 163 years, going on 64; that’s a major expense, fortunately that’s not a consideration for us, just because of the longevity of the church and how God has blessed us.”

For those who question why churches need to close, asking, “shouldn’t prayer and faith be enough?”

Rev. Ross had this to say: “Prayer changes me, and I change conditions. Prayer is not magic, it is the movement of divine action through humanity. And in this case, we must be ‘answered prayer.’ We honor this stay-in-place order as a humanitarian act of compassion. We do so not in defiance of our faith, but as an exhibition of our faith. We are the hands, ears, eyes, mouth, legs and feet of God and prayer is answered when we let God work through us for the outworking of harmony, order, and peace on our planet.”

By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Photo by Russell Stiger, Jr.