At Least 33 Black Pastors Have Died from Coronavirus in the U.S., Leaving Congregations and Communities Reeling from Losses

Bishop William Harrell Jr. with his son Jonathan Harrell. Bishop Harrell died from the coronavirus on April 17, 2020.
Harrell Family

The novel coronavirus has taken a massive toll on Americans from all walks of life.

Communities of faith have paid a heavy price, both in terms of congregations not being able to worship together and religious leaders along with so many of their church members being afflicted with and dying from the disease.

The crisis has been felt among a number of religious backgrounds, but particularly acute among leading African American members of the clergy and churches with predominantly black congregations, according to faith leaders.

ABC News identified at least 33 African American bishops, reverends and pastors who led various denominations around the country who have died from the coronavirus, according to an analysis of news reports. There were seven in Michigan (including two from the same church), seven in Louisiana, six in New York, three in Illinois, two in Mississippi, two in Georgia, two in New Jersey, one in Virginia, one in Tennessee, one in Alabama and one in Missouri.

The Church of God in Christ (COGIC), which has been around for almost 100 years and is the largest black Pentecostal denomination in the United States, lost seven bishops to the coronavirus, according to Charles E. Blake, the presiding bishop of the COGIC, which is based in Los Angeles, California.

“It’s sorrowful to lose one of our leaders,” Blake, 79, told ABC News. “One bishop lost to this disease is one bishop too many… the sorrow you can never get used to, the loss you can never get accustomed to that, but not being able to mourn and to even celebrate the lives of those who I’ve known and loved that is difficult also.”

New York hit hard

In New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., at least six African American clergy members, aged 52 to 94, have been reported as having died from the virus as of May 11, leaving congregations from Riverhead in Long Island to Yonkers, just north of New York City, without a leader. More than 22,000 people have died from the virus in the state.

Bishop William Harrell Jr. was the head of St. James Community Full Gospel Church in Harlem. He was diagnosed with the coronavirus and died on April 17 at the age of 63.

“He was healthy as an ox, never had health complications. This happened out of nowhere. It was a shock to the ministry and the family,” his son, Jonathan Harrell told ABC News on Tuesday.

The bishop’s son said that his father’s death left him “speechless.”

“He was the backbone, the patriarch and now he is gone,” said Jonathan Harrell, 21, adding: “He was our burden-bearer in the natural, the earthly vessel that was sent to handle things we were too weak to handle.”

Bishop Harrell was buried in his hometown of Tyner, North Carolina on May 16 and his son delivered the eulogy. “I was blessed to know this man,” said Jonathan Harrell, who vowed to keep their family’s church going along with his mother JoAnne Harrell — the present leader.

Pastor A.R. Bernard, the founder and leader of the Christian Cultural Center (CCC) in Brooklyn, New York, was steadfast when he was diagnosed with the coronavirus in March.

“I came to a place, in the intensity of all of the symptoms that I was experiencing physically, psychologically and emotionally, where I could abandon myself to something called Providence. And that is a belief that God is in control,” Bernard told ABC News last week.

Bernard fully recovered from the coronavirus in March then learned that his niece died from the same disease he beat.

“I ended up burying my own niece,” said Bernard. “I lost my sister’s daughter, 26 years old, vibrant young lady, but she had a history of heart problems and… when we did the funeral we could only have a very small number of people spread out in the larger sanctuary.”

Pastor A.R. Bernard gives the invocation at the Let Freedom Ring ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013, in Washington, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Carolyn Kaster/AP

The lead pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, Rev. Johnnie Green, said 13 members of his predominantly African American church died because of the coronavirus.

Green took a deep breath before talking about the loss of “pillar members of the church” like lifelong choir members, a deaconess as well as ministry and committee leaders.

“I buried one today,” Green told ABC News Tuesday. “It was a very sad graveside service, only attended by her mother, father, brother, a family friend and myself. She passed away on April 4 and just got buried.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics as of May 19, African Americans accounted for 27% of confirmed COVID-19 cases (compared to being about 13% of the population). In New York City, blacks account for 28% of the deaths despite being 22% of the population. Outside the city, blacks account for 18% of the deaths and are 9% of the population, according to state statistics.

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SOURCE: ABC News, Christina Carrega and Lakeia Brown