Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt had to adapt to the decrease in in-person membership due to the pandemic. Nearly three years later, the church still offers virtual services.  Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Many Black church leaders on Long Island believe Black History Month 2023 will be like no other — coming as it does Wednesday, with the pandemic appearing again in retreat, and new battles flaring up, not so much in the streets this time, but the classroom.

Like so many others who lived through the past three years, many leaders of Black churches in Nassau and Suffolk said they have emerged from the pandemic stronger, but to a changed world. They are inserting themselves more into communities again, and running parallel churches in-person and virtual. 

They are also bringing bits and pieces into the pulpit from what they have learned and witnessed since 2020.

“We came out of it a different church,” said Rev. Vernon Shelton, pastor of Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Amityville. “It changed our perspective of what it means to be a church.”

The politics and sometimes life-and-death circumstances that have erupted since the first pandemic lockdowns — whether over the killing of Black people by police or efforts to ban or change certain elements of African American history, are making it into Sunday sermons.

The Rev. Scott Williams of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt said he has been outraged by a proposal from Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to ban an AP course on African American history.

“It may not be physical genocide, but this is a kind of educational genocide, where we remove this great people and their great accomplishments and their great history, which is really part of American history,” he said.

Williams has denounced the plan from the pulpit and said he started a Change.org online petition to help build opposition to it.

“I believe it is intentional and racist,” he said of the governor's proposal.

The Rev. Sedgwick Easley, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Hempstead, said he has discussed elections, voter suppression and police brutality — including the Jan. 10 death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, in Memphis.

“We talk about issues that are pertinent to our people,” Easley said. “The Black church has always been a place of inspiration and liberation. We believe in Liberation Theology.”

The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr. of Church-in-the-Garden in Garden City, a multicultural church with a large Black contingent, said his recent sermons have focused on gun violence, but also extended to other topics including Rep. George Santos (R-Nassau/Queens).

“You don’t know what you just elected,” he said of Santos.

Thorpe added that at his church, “We don’t skirt what is happening in the world. We’re not a pie-in-the-sky kind of church.”

That fits in perfectly with the approach his and many other Black churches have said they say are planning for the post-COVD-19-era: greater insertion into the community.

The pandemic, they said, forced them to get beyond the four walls of their institutions and make connections with people who weren’t necessarily affiliated with their churches.

“The mission of the church has not changed. The way we have to implement the mission” has, he said. They can “no longer can just sit and think people will come to us. We have to go out to them.”

“It’s not just soup kitchens. It’s not just feeding people,” he added. “But it’s also aligning and partnering with community groups that are actively trying to implement real change.”

Shelton’s congregation became much more involved in the community, too, handing out clothes and food and hosting mental health clinics not just for members, but for anyone in the area, he said. That included a growing Hispanic population.

“We are impacting the community now, we are not just a building in the community,” he said. “It took us from being inward-focused to being outward-focused.”

Williams said that beyond compelling Sunday services with good music and sermons, “we also want to be a hub for knowledge and social justice and activism.”

Memorial Presbyterian is running two parallel churches now, he said, in-person and a virtual version they call “virtch.” Williams said in-person attendance is about 65% of what it was pre-COVID-19.

But the goal is not 100% in-person, he said. “Our goal is to kind of lean into this new normal. Some people will never feel comfortable coming back” because of concerns over the virus.

The church regularly uses Facebook Live, YouTube and other social media platforms to reach its congregants.

It has also increased efforts to stay in touch with members who remain virtual, he said. A “Connection Team” calls them regularly, sends them cards on occasions of joy and sorrow, and ensures “they feel the sweet spirit” Memorial is known for, he said.

Many pastors said they think their churches will continue to rebound.

“It is the story of the African American church,” Easley said. “We are resilient. If we have made it through so much of what this nation has taken us through, certainly we will make it through this.”

Many Black church leaders on Long Island believe Black History Month 2023 will be like no other — coming as it does Wednesday, with the pandemic appearing again in retreat, and new battles flaring up, not so much in the streets this time, but the classroom.

Like so many others who lived through the past three years, many leaders of Black churches in Nassau and Suffolk said they have emerged from the pandemic stronger, but to a changed world. They are inserting themselves more into communities again, and running parallel churches in-person and virtual. 

They are also bringing bits and pieces into the pulpit from what they have learned and witnessed since 2020.

“We came out of it a different church,” said Rev. Vernon Shelton, pastor of Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Amityville. “It changed our perspective of what it means to be a church.”

What to know

  • Black churches in Nassau and Suffolk said they have emerged from the pandemic stronger, but to a changed world.
  • While the pandemic is in a hopeful retreat, the life changes and racial tensions since 2020 are making it into Sunday sermons.
  • Many Black church leaders on Long Island said the pandemic forced them to get beyond the four walls of their institutions and make connections with people who weren’t necessarily affiliated before the pandemic.

The politics and sometimes life-and-death circumstances that have erupted since the first pandemic lockdowns — whether over the killing of Black people by police or efforts to ban or change certain elements of African American history, are making it into Sunday sermons.

Denounced from pulpit

The Rev. Scott Williams of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt said he has been outraged by a proposal from Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to ban an AP course on African American history.

“It may not be physical genocide, but this is a kind of educational genocide, where we remove this great people and their great accomplishments and their great history, which is really part of American history,” he said.

The Rev. Scott Williams, of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt,...

The Rev. Scott Williams, of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt, started a Change.org online petition opposing efforts by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to ban an AP course on African American history. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

Williams has denounced the plan from the pulpit and said he started a Change.org online petition to help build opposition to it.

“I believe it is intentional and racist,” he said of the governor's proposal.

The Rev. Sedgwick Easley, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Hempstead, said he has discussed elections, voter suppression and police brutality — including the Jan. 10 death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, in Memphis.

“We talk about issues that are pertinent to our people,” Easley said. “The Black church has always been a place of inspiration and liberation. We believe in Liberation Theology.”

The Rev. Earl Y. Thorpe Jr. of Church-in-the-Garden in Garden City, a multicultural church with a large Black contingent, said his recent sermons have focused on gun violence, but also extended to other topics including Rep. George Santos (R-Nassau/Queens).

“You don’t know what you just elected,” he said of Santos.

Thorpe added that at his church, “We don’t skirt what is happening in the world. We’re not a pie-in-the-sky kind of church.”

Planning for post-pandemic

That fits in perfectly with the approach his and many other Black churches have said they say are planning for the post-COVD-19-era: greater insertion into the community.

The pandemic, they said, forced them to get beyond the four walls of their institutions and make connections with people who weren’t necessarily affiliated with their churches.

“The mission of the church has not changed. The way we have to implement the mission” has, he said. They can “no longer can just sit and think people will come to us. We have to go out to them.”

“It’s not just soup kitchens. It’s not just feeding people,” he added. “But it’s also aligning and partnering with community groups that are actively trying to implement real change.”

Shelton’s congregation became much more involved in the community, too, handing out clothes and food and hosting mental health clinics not just for members, but for anyone in the area, he said. That included a growing Hispanic population.

“We are impacting the community now, we are not just a building in the community,” he said. “It took us from being inward-focused to being outward-focused.”

Hubs for knowledge

Williams said that beyond compelling Sunday services with good music and sermons, “we also want to be a hub for knowledge and social justice and activism.”

Memorial Presbyterian is running two parallel churches now, he said, in-person and a virtual version they call “virtch.” Williams said in-person attendance is about 65% of what it was pre-COVID-19.

But the goal is not 100% in-person, he said. “Our goal is to kind of lean into this new normal. Some people will never feel comfortable coming back” because of concerns over the virus.

The church regularly uses Facebook Live, YouTube and other social media platforms to reach its congregants.

It has also increased efforts to stay in touch with members who remain virtual, he said. A “Connection Team” calls them regularly, sends them cards on occasions of joy and sorrow, and ensures “they feel the sweet spirit” Memorial is known for, he said.

Many pastors said they think their churches will continue to rebound.

“It is the story of the African American church,” Easley said. “We are resilient. If we have made it through so much of what this nation has taken us through, certainly we will make it through this.”

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