By Bonnie Newman Davis
For more than three months, American religious leaders have dealt with questions about the deadly COVID-19 virus, which led to closed houses of worship in efforts to contain the highly contagious virus. Many churches quickly adjusted, adopting online worship services or limiting the number of members allowed for prayer services and funerals.
Just as the virus started to show significant decline in death tolls and among patients the religious community, particularly black churches, quickly became consumed with age-old questions about racism, discrimination and civil unrest following the Memorial Day police killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd. Prior to Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police and other African Americans, many Americans were enraged by the Feb. 23 murder of Armaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, who was killed by police while asleep in her home in Louisville, Kentucky on March 13.
Protests and rioting were swift in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing. Even the normally placid Richmond experienced protests that resulted in fires, looting and other acts of violence. Officials believe that much of the unrest that occurred locally and nationally was caused by outsiders or extremists’ groups.
The Rev. Dr. James H. Harris, senior minister of Second Baptist Church on Idlewood Avenue in Richmond’s West End is the Distinguished Professor and Chair of Homiletics and Practical Theology and Research Scholar in Religion at the School of Theology, Virginia Union University. He has written at length about the plight of African Americans from slavery until now. He also has served various civil and human rights organizations and assisted families who have experienced tragedy involving law enforcement.
His newest book, “Black Suffering,” is scheduled to be released this fall.
Already the book has won praise from several religious scholars.
“James Henry Harris has crafted a creative book on the perennial problem of Black suffering, a text which is more relevant now than ever because, in Harris’s words, Black suffering is becoming difficult to recognize, since it is concealed in the normalization of black death and the shifting ways that make it difficult to recognize, for example, in the Covid-19 pandemic that is directly tied to racism, poor health care, unemployment, and the stressors that are intricately tied to being Black in America.
–Stephen C. Finley, an associate professor at Louisiana State University.
“In this timely and necessary work, James Henry Harris gives voice and insight into the present reality and historical complexity of Black Suffering and silent pain. It is a powerful and poignant wake up call to those who have become numb to their own pain and that of others. This is a textbook for any preacher, pastor, and practitioner of the gospel hoping to engage in relevant healing and liberative ministry.
-–Jacqueline A. Thompson, senior pastor, Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California
Urban Views RVA asked Dr. Harris to share his reflections about COVID-19, the murders of black men and women and people of color at the hands of police, and where do we, as a nation, go from here.
UV: Dr. Harris, you have the enviable position of serving as the senior pastor of one of Richmond’s most venerable black churches. Historically, how has Second Baptist responded to struggles similar to those taking place in Richmond involving the COVID-19 virus, racial injustice and police brutality?
Harris: Second Baptist Church has a storied history, but has never been a church in the forefront of social justice. However, former Second Baptist ministers such as Rev. O.D. Brown did work with poor people and J.T. Hill, before Rev. Brown, was very erudite and scholarly. Before him was Z.D. Lewis, who was active in the Richmond Minister’s Conference, insurance and politics. But overall, Second Baptist has always been a strong faith and worshiping community. When obstacles present themselves, the church has come together to reflect a strong, unified community.
UV: What are some of the questions that your church members are asking or fears/ emotions being expressed? And how have you responded?
Harris: Our people have shown some concerns. People have called and reached out (since worship services were forced to go online in March). I’ve stayed in touch through a daily vespers service where I focus on scriptures. The effect of the Coronavirus has heightened the importance of the church and the desire to come together as a worship community. A lot of members took the
church for granted. Now, because of social distancing, for many the virus has developed new meaning. In light of everything, I’ve been preaching about hope and encouraging our church members to have hope despite all that’s going on. Historically, black people have made it against the odds and have known pain and suffering. A lesser people would not have been able to survive.
UV: You have published numerous books over the years and you’re currently in the process of writing a new book, “Black Suffering.” What will this new work reveal to us?
Harris: I’ve been working on this book for the last eight to 10 years. It has come together and now seems prophetic. In it, I talk about the suffering of blacks from chattel slavery to conditions that exist today. I’ve had people to say that I’m always talking about black suffering, slavery and oppression. They say “we want something more uplifting and hopeful.” I say we have to deal with the issue of suffering and pain, that it’s a pandemic and a clear correlation to the number of blacks affected by the Coronavirus. I also write about Nat Turner and the insurrection (slave rebellion of 1831 in Southhampton County, Va). Seeing the murder of Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis…if that doesn’t create a new level of consciousness, nothing will.
Although Second Baptist has not had onsite worship services since March, it continues to operate a food pantry, which attracts between 150-250 Richmond-area residents each Wednesday. For details about the pantry and Dr. Harris’ book, visit https://www.sbcwestend.com
Bonnie Newman Davis
Journalist, Journalism Educator, Media Consultant
Executive Director, BND Institute of Media and Culture Inc.