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When Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency on Mar. 14, 2020, Mississippi had only six confirmed cases of COVID-19. In an effort to prevent the deadly virus from spreading quickly in the state, as it was doing across the country and world, the governor asked Mississippi churches to cancel services.
Nearly a year later, with 289,892 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6,534 deaths caused by the virus in Mississippi, many churches have still not joined together in person to worship, including Spring Hill North Missionary Baptist Church in Water Valley.
The small Yalobusha County church serves a congregation that is mostly Black and mostly elderly, two of the most impacted demographics in the coronavirus pandemic. Since March 2020, the church has held services virtually in order to keep the congregation safe, utilizing social media.
“All of our churches have been affected by COVID-19,” Sammy Townes, pastor of Spring Hill North M.B. Church, said in a 2020 documentary interview.
Townes, who has been pastor of the church for 31 years, said it took some time to figure out how to transition from in-person services to online services when the governor initially asked churches to cease in-person services.
The new, pandemic-proof flow for the virtual services included the pastor, musicians and praise team members socially distanced and on site at the church for weekly Facebook Live church services.
“We just wanted to stay visible in the life of the members in the community and to keep them edified and built up during this difficult time,” Townes said. “In the church, people are so used to fellowshipping and hugging. Not being able to do all that has kind of taken away some of the closeness from that aspect of the church, but it has also made us realize how important the things we have taken for granted (for) so many years.”
Although churches are primarily places of worship, these sacred spaces play a multifaceted role in the lives of Black Mississippians, especially in rural communities where resources are scarce. Here in the Bible Belt, Black churches not only provide a space for people worship and praise, but they also serve as a hub for community-building and organizing, creating a safe space for Black people to connect with one another.
Today, there are over 50 churches in Yalobusha County, many of them home to predominantly Black congregations. On any given day when riding down Water Valley’s Main Street, church steeples are towering, visible in almost every direction. Spring Hill North M.B. Church is right off of the town’s main avenue on a small side road named Railroad Avenue.
The church stands in an open field, across from a busy lumber yard and a Black-owned funeral home, part of the remaining legacy of what used to be known as “The Block,” or the portion of Railroad Avenue that was home to Black-owned businesses, stores and restaurants during Jim Crow segregation.
“The Block was the happenin’ strip,” Water Valley native James Wright recalled in a 2019 oral history interview. “I never knew what was on The Block until I got to be a teenager…I was like 15, 16 years old, and I was actually working.”
When the town integrated, many of businesses could no longer afford to stay afloat and have long since closed. Despite this, Spring Hill North M.B. Church and many other Black churches in Yalobusha County stand strong in their legacy and connection to the Black community.
Wright, 60, said the church played an instrumental role in his life growing, leading him to become an ordained deacon at Bayson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in town.
“Religion has shaped my life. It actually is what I am today,” Wright said. “At (Bayson Chapel M.B. Church), I wear a lot of hats. I do a lot of things simply because I believe that what I do for Christ will last.”
Townes, the pastor at Spring Hill North, also said religion was one of the most important and memorable aspects of his life as a child.
“Growing up as a boy, our family was always in church. You were not asked ‘do you want to go to church?’ You were told you were going to go to church,” he said with a smile. “As I grew older, (church) began to take on a different meaning to me. Instead of me just being in church, church became a part of me.”
On Election Day 2020, Townes provided free rides to the polls for members of his congregation and for people in the larger Yalobusha County community. Last summer, he organized a food drive for people in the community.
For him, these acts are just a larger reflection of the role of churches in communities in today’s society.
“We have to be cognizant of the fact that we have problems. We have issues, and we have to face those issues head on. We’re living in a time now where we’re still experiencing some racial disparity,” Townes said. “As the people during Biblical times were encouraged by the word of God through the manner of God, I feel as a man of God today, I have to encourage the people.”
Editor’s note: A full archive of photos and additional oral history interviews, like the ones mentioned in this article, are available online in The Black Families of Yalobusha County Oral History Project Archive, which emerged after Dottie Chapman Reed, Water Valley native, and author of the column “Outstanding Black Women of Yalobusha County” in the North Mississippi Herald, and Jessica Wilkerson, a former history and Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, collaborated. In the spring 2020, Dr. B. Brian Foster, a sociology and Southern Studies professor at the University of Mississippi, took over as director of the project and will collaborate with UM students and Reed on its expansion in the next phase of the project known as the Mississippi Hill Country Oral History Collective.