The State of the Church Black Life During a Pandemic: Then and Now


by Rev. Dr. Barry C. Johnson


This month of February is designated as Black History Month, and there will be many articles highlighting the achievements of Black Americans, past and present. As we celebrate this month, during a severe pandemic, I would like to look into the past and imagine how previous generations lived through similar times in their era. Some may call this missive a move into revisionist history; nonetheless, it stems from what I believe may have happened. (74)


My grandmother was born in 1900; and my mother, the fourth of her eight children, was born in 1922. When America faced the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, the country was overcoming

their one-year involvement in World War I (1914-1918); and the flu virus was the most severe in history. Yet, there were no vaccines or known cures for the illness, only isolation and what many of us would consider “home remedies.” The number of deaths from the flu in the United States was estimated to be at least 675,000, with a high mortality rate in people younger than 5 years old, those 20-40 years old, and those 65 years and older[1], which would have put my grandmother and her children in the danger zone. In this arena, my grandmother was a young 18-year-old wife and mother; and she was Black. (140)


Recall that this occurred during a period when there were very few Black hospitals, such as were the Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., and the Provident Hospital in Chicago. Black Louisvillians could go to the General Hospital, which was the city’s indigent facility; but their care may have been relegated to the basement – or they could have been admitted to the Red Cross Hospital, which was Louisville’s sole Black hospital. Regardless, without a medicinal antidote, hospitals (both black and white) were powerless to cure the virus. Black people suffered from not only the crippling effects of the virus but the cloud of a two-tiered social system and deep-seated racism. (109)


My grandmother and her family survived the 1918 pandemic; and in our oral history for this period, there is no mention of anyone becoming ill. With the help of old family potions and treatments, the illnesses they suffered were generally common ailments. Their survival, however, was based on their dependence and trust in the Lord. Having been a deeply religious family, my grandmother’s daily prayers would be the medicine that kept her family protected. Her church (where I was later baptized as a child) served as a beacon for the community of believers. The families of the church were served by several black nurses and a doctor that lived in the neighborhood; therefore, there was both a professional component and a spiritual presence that well served the people. (128)


While it may seem nostalgic to look back on this era, what we need in this day and time is to remind ourselves of what Jesus would do, or recall how God rescues His people. Having the faith to believe that we will come through this current pandemic is actually key to its demise. The vaccine will greatly benefit all who are inoculated; however, if we look at what happened to my grandmother and her young family – at a time when there were no vaccines, remedies, or an abundance of facilities concerned for their welfare – I believe it was the Lord who kept them at a basic modicum of health. I am not advocating that we become “anti-vaxxers” (who will not take the vaccine because of political beliefs - or foolishness) because we are in an era of remarkable science. However, believers must not simply embrace that which is available for us, either through science, technology, or philosophy, as a substitute for God’s blessings. Prayers of Christians have always saved the world, and non-believers benefit from those prayers answered by the Lord. An example is the Exodus, during which God delivered Israel from the shackles of Egyptian oppression. All who were freed were not believers committed to Yahweh, as many worshipped idols. Proof is in the issues that arose while Moses was on the heights of Sinai, being that many of these emancipated souls were worshipping the golden calf. The prayers of the righteous are consistently heard and put into action by the Lord! We Christians must take advantage of existing science but at the same time, not abdicate the power given us through prayer and faith in the Lord. If my grandmother were alive today, and was asked, “How did you get through the 1918 flu,” she would have replied, “Only through the grace of God.” (307)

[1] National Archives, https://www.archives.gov

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