This post was originally published on St. Louis American

By Sylvester Brown, Jr.

According to the news report, even with help from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, thousands of congregations across the country are struggling to stay afloat financially or minister to their flocks.

Rev. Tommie L. Pierson, says his church, Greater St. Mark’s Family Church in St. Louis County, is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

“It really hurt our church,” Pierson confessed. “We were closed for about a year. The greatest impact was financial. We happen to be one of those churches with a lot of bills, so it hurt us pretty bad. We’re still feeling the pain even though we’ve been open for the past several months. People are not coming back like they were.”

The CBS report shared statistics from Faith Communities Today, a multi-faith research coalition. Of the nearly 15,300 congregations surveyed in its 2020 report, the coalition noted how the pandemic exacerbated already existing problems, especially with churches with small congregations with already lean budgets.

Before the pandemic, Pierson said his church had about 200 members. That number is now less than 40.

“It impacted our attitudes toward one another with everybody wearing masks and flying out of the doors after service, going straight to their cars,”

Pierson said adding, “There’s no camaraderie anymore. People who do come don’t have the same friendly fellowshipping spirit. They don’t want to get too close to anybody. They’re not hugging and embracing like they used to. They’re throwing kisses from a distance.”

Pierson said that shuttering his church wasn’t a hard decision. This was even before St. Louis County announced on March 23, 2020, that all non-essential businesses, which included churches, be closed.

If they didn’t cease services outright, they had to abide by the county’s social distancing requirements with a 25% occupancy limit.

Following the lead of President Donald Trump who predicted it would be safe to reopen churches by Easter 2020, Republican Gov. Mike Parson announced plans to allow all businesses and religious organizations to reopen in April 2020. Pierson was among the Black pastors who urged churches, especially those in the Black community, to remain closed.

“Closing was hard but then it wasn’t,” Pierson explained.

“When the county suggested we close, we didn’t argue about it; we went ahead and did it. And that was because we wanted to protect our members, we didn’t want people to get sick.”

Rev. Tommie Pierson

The pandemic’s unpredictable spread proved to be a battle for churches. There was the initial outbreak, then the highly transmissible Delta variant in 2021 followed by the even faster-spreading Omicron variant.

The reduction of souls in the pews equated to a reduction in tithing and collections. Like many churches, Greater St. Mark’s turned to viral services. It just wasn’t the same, Pierson said.

“Preachers are like entertainers. We feed off the crowd. If you don’t have a crowd, you don’t have anything to feed off. So, I had to change my style a little bit. I had to adjust myself, but I didn’t change my message.”

Pierson didn’t allow politics to influence his “message.” He rebuked religious leaders who denied the severity of the pandemic or discouraged their followers from taking basic life-saving precautions. Some COVID-denying preachers like Bishop Gerald Glenn, of Virginia, Roger Dale Moon of

South Carolina, Tim Parsons, a Lexington, Kentucky pastor and prominent Christian televangelist Marcus Lamb all died from Covid-19.

“Pastors have to preach truth to power and be truthful to ourselves,” Pierson stressed. “God does not want us to be ignorant. The truth is medical

science and vaccinations work and I’m not going against that.”

“I don’t believe in the mysticals of the Bible. I don’t believe in a cloud nine experience, where you do what you want to do without dealing with reality. We have to deal with reality and govern our lives accordingly.”

Pierson referenced James 2:14 to emphasize how “Faith Without Works Is Dead.”

“God never told us to do nothing. He will protect you by guiding you to do the right thing by yourself. He gave us minds to think and use it for something other than foolishness. So, I’m going to go get the shot and I have faith that the shot will work.”

Rev. Tommie Pierson

Pierson said that both he and his wife contracted the virus last year. Both were vaccinated, he said and their symptoms “weren’t that bad.”

As a pro-vaccination preacher, Pierson’s church along with St. Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Catholic Church partnered with the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis to implement an ambitious goal of offering 1,000 vaccinations per day.

“We told people to ‘come get them,” Pierson said. “If you don’t want to get them from us, go someplace else but, for God’s sake, get vaccinated!”

COVID, the pastor added, “is not going to just go away.”

“It’s a virus, like with the flu and we’re going to have to adjust and live with it.”

Now that the coronavirus isn’t hospitalizing or killing as many people, Pierson said his goal is to rebound and build.

“The upside of the pandemic is that we have the chance to reorganize our churches and correct some ills we had prior to the pandemic.”

“It’s going to take a little while to get them (parishioners) back but that’s what we’re working on rebuilding our congregation and getting back to normal.”

Sylvester Brown Jr. is The St. Louis American’s inaugural Deaconess Fellow.