NEWARK, NJ – Rev. Dr. Ronald Slaughter has been delivering virtual sermons from his empty Newark church since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
During this time he has tried to consider not only the spiritual needs of his community, but also the mental and physical health of his flock.
Slaughter said he knew that the belief behind calming souls must work with the logic of medicine to save a pandemic-ravaged city.
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“Faith is something that cannot be touched or proven, but it involves believing and trusting in a higher authority. So when we believe in God, we believe in a God above science. We believe in a God that heals. It’s part of faith, “said Slaughter, pastor of the AME Saint James Church in Newark, whose church has sponsored a series of virtual talks since February about the mental and physical health of the African American community during and after the pandemic.
“When your mind and body are not together, it is harder to focus on God,” Slaughter said. “For me, faith and science are more connected than apart.”
Slaughter, who also serves as the chairman of the Saint Michael Medical Center in Newark, has decided to lead the fight against COVID-19 by partnering with local naturopaths. For the month of February, Slaughter’s virtual Bible studies, held every Wednesday, included the participation of mental health professionals who offered assistance to those whose psyche was injured.
Since then, the weekly Bible studies have included contributions from doctors, including Dr. Hamid Shaaban, the chief physician at Saint Michael Medical Center; Dr. Norma Rae, a gynecologist; Dr. Cynthia Sutton, dentist; and next Wednesday comes Dr. Franz O. Smith, Assistant Dean of Medical Education and Academic Director of RWJBarnabas Health – Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston.
Efforts to combine faith-based and science-based initiatives in Newark during the pandemic are facing serious health challenges in the community. Studies have shown that COVID-19 had a disproportionately negative impact on people of color. Its damage underscores the deep racial and socio-economic divide in our society.
African Americans are at increased risk of serious illness when they receive COVID-19 because of the higher incidence of existing conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, asthma, and heart, liver, and kidney diseases.
Basic workers are naturally at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of the nature of their work, and they are disproportionately representative of racial and ethnic minorities. Members of these communities are more likely to use public transport to get to work, putting them at increased risk of exposure to the virus, and are more likely to be uninsured or lack a consistent source of care, which limits access to testing and treatment services . The fact that Newark people of color live in a densely populated area and in multi-generational households makes social distancing practices difficult.
The combination of all these factors is evidenced by the local death toll. More than 2,500 people have died of COVID-19 in Essex County, and more than 900 people have died in Newark alone, according to Essex County statistics.
“In the old church, the pastor was the alpha and omega – almost like a doctor, lawyer, counselor and therapist all at once. You can’t be all of these things. You have to know your limits,” Slaughter said. “We have to be honest with people as clergy because they have so much trust in us. We have to be outrageously sending people to the professionals who can help them best. I have a Master of Divinity and a PhD, but no MD”
Shaaban offered a perspective on how faith and science can effectively team up to fight COVID-19.
“Historically, the civil rights movement has been driven by men of the faith like Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Joseph Lowery. In a pandemic like this where color communities are hurt the most, I feel it is important to keep the movement for one of the churches Leading better health education, “Shaaban said.
Many African Americans have persistent distrust of the medical profession following Tuskegee’s infamous 20th century medical experiments with black men. Shaaban, knowing these painful memories contributed to the hesitation of the vaccine, used a visual cue during his presentation to the community to show that times have changed.
“I showed slides so people could see the faces of those involved in developing the vaccines. African Americans participated in the vaccine experimentation and regulatory process, and are prescribing and administering the vaccines,” Shaaban said. “Now we have to educate people about the vaccines.”
Shaaban is a practicing Muslim whose family is originally from Zanzibar and who grew up in Dubai before emigrating to America. His work and faith are completely reconciled in the fight against COVID-19.
“Some people ignore science because they believe that God will take care of everything. I believe that we are all agents of a higher power to ensure that vaccine education goes to the community to care for those around you take care, “said Shaaban. “God helps those who help themselves. You have to act yourself. You have to do the work. We all do it.”
In Saint James, the pews are still empty as a skeletal staff helps Slaughter broadcast his sermons. The pastor knows his job is not done. New virus variants threaten the public. The hesitation of the vaccine remains stubbornly anchored in the bourgeois consciousness. A recent surge in cases among those under the age of 60 is partly due to the relaxation of prevention practices.
But for the pastor, it drives his mission to respond to both his community and a higher power.
“In Divinity School we were taught that you need both the Old Testament and the New Testament to do our job. Now we need both our physical and mental health to move beyond this trial and tribulation. And we need faith and science works together to do just that, “Slaughter said.
“The Bible gives us the recipe for a divine life, but it also teaches us that God creates other resources that we can use,” he said. “We’re here to get people on the right track and in the right direction. That’s what our calling is about.”