How One Priest Is Helping African-Americans Cope With COVID-19

Father Alonzo Cox says African-Americans he talks to are terrified of contracting COVID-19. (Photo: Courtesy of Fr. Alonzo Cox)

BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — The African-American community has been devastated by COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found that while blacks comprise 13% of the U.S. population, they account for an astounding 33% of coronavirus hospitalizations.

In New York City, African-Americans are dying from coronavirus at twice the rate of whites, according to the city’s Department of Health.

Father Alonzo Cox knows the statistics well. As coordinator of the African-American Apostolate in the Diocese of Brooklyn, he has been offering advice, prayer, and comfort to people in need.

“African-Americans are terrified of catching the virus,” said Father Cox, pastor of St. Martin de Porres Parish in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The parish consists of three churches – Our Lady of Victory, Holy Rosary, and St. Peter Claver.

A Pew Research Center survey found that fear of COVID-19 is far more prevalent among African-Americans than among whites.

When researchers asked respondents if they were “very concerned” about getting the virus, 31% of African-Americans said yes while 18% of whites confessed to having such fears.

African-Americans, who comprise a sizable portion of the Diocese, are increasingly turning to Father Cox for help in coping with the pandemic.

Even with social distancing rules in place, Father Cox is able to stay in contact with parishioners and serve as a sounding board for scared Catholics in Brooklyn and Queens. He does this by livestreaming his Masses every day and hosting Zoom meetings.

The message he wants to impart to the African-American community is simple: Stay home and stay safe.

As the nation continues to grapple with COVID-19, health experts are investigating the racial disparity in cases. 

One reason African-Americans have contracted COVID-19 in larger numbers is that they often have underlying health issues, Father Cox said. “There are usually underlying conditions such as diabetes and heart issues,” he said.

COVID-19 patients with serious underlying medical conditions are at higher risk to suffer life-threatening consequences, according to the CDC.

But there have also been studies pointing out that African-Americans have high levels of stress brought on by racial discrimination. That might be a contributing factor to the stark COVID-19 picture, experts said. “I would agree with that. The fight for equality and justice has been borne on the shoulders of the African-American community,” said Father Cox, who served as secretary of the Diocesan Commission on Racism and Social Justice.

One of the biggest questions facing Catholics in the coronavirus-era is how to grieve for the dead.

“In our parish, we’ve had a few deaths, unfortunately,” said Father Cox. He expressed sympathy for the family of one elderly parishioner of Our Lady of Victory who recently died. Her whole life revolved around the church, he said.

As terrible as it is to lose a loved one in the middle of a pandemic, the pain is compounded by the fact that there are no funeral masses taking place. “We want to celebrate the life of our dead. And we can’t do it as we have in the past. It breaks my heart,” Father Cox said.

The highly contagious nature of COVID-19 prevents him from visiting the sick in hospitals. He frequently gets calls from people asking for prayers. 

“We get a number of phone calls from parishioners telling us their Mom or their Dad is sick,” he said.

In addition to health issues, Father Cox also hears from his parishioners on other matters. One woman living in rapidly gentrifying Bedford-Stuyvesant told him that her landlord was insisting that she pay her rent, despite the fact that she lost her job.

“One of the questions we have to answer is whether this pandemic is going to allow us to have compassion for people who are suffering,” he said.

Church officials across the nation are expressing growing concern over the impact the coronavirus pandemic is having on African-Americans.

Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, chairman of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism; Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, chairman of USCCB’s Domestic Justice and Human Development; Archbishop Nelson J. Perez, chairman of the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church and Bishop Joseph N. Perry, chairman of Subcommittee on African-American Affairs, released a statement urging lawmakers to investigate how the situation became so devastating.

“Our hearts are wounded for the many souls mourned as African-American communities across the nation are being disproportionately infected with and dying from the virus that causes COVID-19. We raise our voices to urge state and national leaders to examine the generational and systemic structural conditions that make the new coronavirus especially deadly to African-American communities,” the statement read.

Yet, there are signs of hope, according to Father Cox.

“People are longing to hear the word of Christ,” he said. “When I look at my Easter Candle, I am reminded of Christ’s love.”

Article was updated on May 5 to include statement from U.S.Conference of Catholic Bishops.

2 thoughts on “How One Priest Is Helping African-Americans Cope With COVID-19

  1. As Co-Director in the Office of Sacred Music Ministry for the Parish of St. Martin de Porres, and recently appointed as the Administrative Assistant to Fr. Cox for the Vicariate Office of Black Catholic Concerns in the Diocese of Brooklyn, I am extremely glad that he is speaking truth to the glaring racial disparities facing Black Catholics in Brooklyn & Queens (and Black Americans in general), not just in the wake of this crisis, but as a comprehensive stain on this country’s history, to say nothing of its present sociopolitical climate. It is no secret that medical racism in America, particularly Anti-Blackness, is a long-standing component of the various challenges that racially marginalized communities face in this country. Not more than a week ago, Ms. Rana Mungin, a well-loved Black New York City teacher from Brooklyn, died from complications due to COVID-19. She was only 30 years old, and was dismissed twice from two (2) different Emergency Rooms prior to her death after complaining of symptoms. Ms. Mungin also had underlying health conditions, which led medical professionals from one hospital to suggest that her struggling to breathe and other physical ailments were signs of some sort of anxiety attack. As devastating as this is, it is nothing new for Black women in this city, and, by extension, all Black people who live in a country where their racial identity is seen as a secondary demographic – if that.

    As an AfroLatinx New Yorker raised by Irish Catholics, I understand all too well the devotion to one’s faith, but particularly as I have seen it expressed by Black Catholics in my Parish. However, faith alone cannot be the fulcrum by which Anti-Black racism is dismantled, especially at a time where the ill-effects of such discrimination have the clear potential to be an immediate death sentence for members of this community. If faith without works is dead, then it is responsibility of the majority demographic – white American Catholics in particular – to do the work of holding themselves and their peers accountable for the kinds of outcomes that stem from this vile form of bigotry and ignorance; moreover, they must be prepared make the kinds of sacrifices necessary to ensure the well-being of the most marginalized, if, for nothing else, as a testament to their commitment to justice as is evidenced by the public exhortation of their Catholic Christian beliefs.