Rev. Bronson Woods was planning to send 35 people to Ethiopia on behalf of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on March 1, 2020. That date sticks out to him for obvious reasons.
During that trip, the team was honored at the Royal Palace by the first woman elected president of the country, Sahle-Work Zewde. But back home, news of the rapid spread of the coronavirus around the world forced massive shutdowns and self-imposed quarantines by local leaders to stem the spread of the disease COVID-19.
Woods and Ebenezer ultimately halted in-person services at the church in Sweet Auburn. While Woods couldn’t physically preach to crowds from the former pulpit of pastor and civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he knew the work of the church was just beginning. The pandemic wasn’t going to stop Ebenezer’s ministry.
“By March 1, the pandemic was in full effect, and as soon as it hit, we immediately knew we needed some sort of response,” Woods says. “We were able to get ahold of about 54,000 face masks and hand sanitizer, and in a few short weeks we were able to assemble those to provide that to the community.”
The church started off providing masks and sanitizer, but once testing had expanded, Woods says they were able to connect with a lab that could do COVID testing on their campus starting in early summer 2020.
“Since then, we have been testing every week,” he says. “We developed a relationship with the Fulton County Board of Health, and we now have what we call ‘Testing Tuesdays.’”
Ebenezer Baptist Church tests each Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to this, they’ve partnered with local food banks to provide food to the community as well.
Partnering for health equity
Woods’ church has also partnered most recently with United Way of Greater Atlanta as part of a broader faith-based initiative to expand testing, education and other resources for communities of color across South Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties.
Ebony Johnson, director of Place-Based Initiatives for United Way, says this Choose Healthy Life initiative kicked off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021. Choose Healthy Life was spearheaded in New York City roughly a year ago by Debra Fraser-Howze, who is widely recognized for her leadership work in communities of color regarding public health issues, is a former Senior Vice President of Government and External Affairs at OraSure Technologies and Founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. Fraser-Howze is widely recognized for more than three decades of global leadership to communities of color regarding teenage pregnancy, social welfare and HIV and AIDS. She also advised two U.S. Presidents while serving on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.
COVID-19 has spread throughout the U.S. and devastated the Black community, and this program is centered around churches in communities of color and their ability to provide vital information as a trusted source in their community.
“I came into the project with the goal of recruiting and onboarding church partners to serve in this initiative and help them identify community health workers to do health education and outreach,” Johnson says. “Our goal with community health workers is to make sure as many as possible come from the church in that community where it’s located. They are going to be extremely important in providing that peer-to-peer trust within the community.”
Choose Healthy Life has testing events in March at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Impact Church in East Point, Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in Atlanta, Gateway Restoration Church in Forest Park, Salem Bible Church in Atlanta and Debre Bisrat Saint Gabriel Church in Clarkston.
More information around testing sites and how to register is coming soon.
This work is particularly important in “communities of color that are very hesitant to get testing,” Johnson says. Community health workers and trusted members of the church can help clear up misinformation and misconceptions about the virus, testing and, when the time comes, the vaccine.
“People trust people who look like them,” Johnson says. “Historically, the church has always been the cornerstone for the community. Anything and everything you need—information was shared at churches. That was where you got married, other important moments in life—all that happened at church. Faith-based institutions play an important role in the center of the community.”
“There’s something about coming to a house of faith,” he says. “It soothes your doubts and calms your fears.
“The pandemic has charged us to get to work, provide resources and be of assistance right now in this time of need. We’re not just testing folks, but we’re educating folks about the pandemic, what the masks are doing and how important these measures are.”
This effort, though, has done a lot to help people buy in to the importance of testing and vaccination, Woods says. Ebenezer took steps to provide pamphlets, have doctors on site to answer questions and the work has paid off.
More people are getting tested, taking advantage of the resources Ebenezer can provide. This is what Johnson and United Way know can happen in other communities where the number of positive test cases have been significant.
“A big part of this that’s really important to us is the equity piece,” she says. “We had a particular drive to have [Choose Healthy Life] grantees come from our Brighter Future communities… Churches represented as part of this initiative are in South Fulton, South DeKalb and Clayton counties. Data has been an important tool, and we continue to use that to make investments where we do.
“I’m really proud that we have an interfaith approach to this work.”
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