The Church of God in Christ, the country’s biggest African American Pentecostal denomination, has taken a deep and painful leadership hit with reports of at least a dozen to up to 30 bishops and prominent clergy dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Officials from the denomination did not return requests for comment, but media reports and interviews with experts who study the denomination show the deaths of leaders in states including Michigan, New York and Mississippi. Those are regions where the Church of God in Christ is prominent and the coronavirus has hit hard.
Among those who died after reportedly contracting the virus were: First Assistant Presiding Bishop Phillip A. Brooks, a legendary preacher and leader from Detroit who was No. 2 in the denomination and whose death was reported by the Detroit News; Bishop Timothy Scott, a leader for nearly 50 years of the denomination in Mississippi whose death was reported by WREG-Memphis; and two Michigan bishops, Robert E. Smith Sr. and Robert L. Harris, whose deaths were reported by the Los Angeles Sentinel.
News reports across the country cite local health officials saying specific outbreaks that led to the deaths appeared to stem from conferences and funerals held within the denomination, which is also known by its acronym, COGIC. The denomination, which was founded in the late 1800s and has more than 6 million members, holds large meetings with representatives from its 200 jurisdictions — or regions — each year around February or March. The gatherings of clergy, lay leaders and church staff are called Worker’s Meetings.
Among the meetings connected with covid-19 breakouts were the Historical Louisiana First Jurisdiction meeting in Shreveport, La., and the Kansas East Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Ministers and Workers Conference in Kansas City, Kan., both held in mid-March.
“This is a moment of real crisis for them,” said Anthea Butler, a University of Pennsylvania religious studies scholar who wrote a book on the Church of God in Christ. “It will upend the axis of leadership in a way they may need to think about, including how do we put in younger people.”
COGIC churches are smaller in size than the average U.S. church, experts say. Like other majority black institutions, they appear particularly susceptible to the impact of the coronavirus, which has disproportionately affected African Americans.
“This will change the ecosystem of black church life,” Butler said. “It’s showing the inequities of health disparities and economic disparities in the black community.”
She said through media accounts and hearing from members she has counted 25 to 30 COGIC leaders who contracted the coronavirus and died.
Pentecostalism is a conservative strain of Christianity focused on direct signs of the Holy Spirit, such as healing and speaking in tongues. Members of the Church of God in Christ emphasize purity and holiness, which often translates into a focus on modesty and clean living. According to Pew Research, 9 percent of Americans who adhere to historically black Protestantism identify with the denomination.
David Daniels, a historian of Pentecostalism who is a member of the Church of God in Christ and has studied and written about the denomination, said he knew of at least 12 bishops who died recently. Daniels said the biggest blow to members is emotional.
“It’s more on the personal part, that’s where the pain is,” said Daniels. He said the denomination has some 300 bishops and is used to funerals for major leaders that bring thousands of attendees. “The impact of not being able to meet is extraordinary.”
On Thursday, Charles E. Blake Sr., presiding bishop of the denomination, released a three-minute video emphasizing all the restrictions and closures within the church and saying he wanted to “convey the grave seriousness” of the pandemic.
“I’d like to take this opportunity to unequivocally state that all Church of God in Christ local, district, state and international gatherings should absolutely cease,” he said.
A minority of U.S. houses of worship have continued to meet during the pandemic, and some church leaders have called closures a violation of religious liberty. Governors in states including Florida and Texas have exempted houses of worship from “stay-at-home” orders.
In a March 25 statement, Blake acknowledged the impact of the virus on the denomination.
“It is our unhappy duty to report that we have now experienced losses of both leaders and laity within our denominational body due to the coronavirus or other illnesses,” he wrote. “Numerous saints are critically ill and in dire need of spiritual and medical interventions. Fervent prayer is our biblical response to any and all societal challenges.”
He called for a day of fasting and prayer on March 27 to “intercede on behalf of all nations and people for Heaven’s help in mitigating this dreaded disease.”