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What Faith Looks Like Now: A Conversation with Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes III

"Shepherds need to need to eat, too. And we have to find ways where we are fed so that we don't feel this emptiness."
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via Dr. Haynes' Facebook

If you’ve been involved in social justice work in the last four decades, you have no doubt run across Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes III, who has been the pastor at Friendship-West Baptist Church for most of that time. I’ve seen him speak a number of times, and he’s the type who can turn any piece of land into a pulpit.

His community needs that voice more than ever, as the pandemic has already been shown to disproportionately affect people of color, and has highlighted disparities across the board in Dallas. They also, of course, need their spiritual leader, their shepherd. Like clergy all over the city, Dr. Haynes has had to come new ways to maintain that connection—to his flock, and to his own faith. What follows is our lightly edited conversation, conducted just after Easter.

But first, a prayer.

How early on did you realize how hard this was going to hit your community and your congregation? Well, I mean, honestly, just a study of history, and then, on top of that, I’m keenly aware of what I call healthcare apartheid that exists in our community already and the lack of adequate healthcare services that have already—I mean, I’ve said on more than one occasion that our mortality is not determined by our genetic code but our ZIP code. So I knew as soon as the virus began to make news that it was going to have a disproportionate impact on our side of town.

How have you been staying in contact with the congregation? Since you can’t have services in person. We’ve taken advantage of technology, of course. I’ve also tried to call as many members as possible. I have certain days that I have designated for just calling as many members as I can reach during a segmented amount of time. And so, combining the old-school phone call with technology and then I have the benefit of a staff, a large staff, and they are doing the same, using, again, technology and the personal touch by way of phone calls. So that has been our methodology so far. We’re looking for—and I’m in communication with colleagues around the country, because all of us are trying to find the most creative and innovative ways to maintain connection during this time of social distance.

Right. Was there any pushback from people who still wanted to have that in-person connection at the beginning? I’ll say this, I was out of town up until the Friday before the shelter-in-place decree came down. And the conversations I was having with my colleagues at that point was, There’s no way; we are not going to meet on Sunday. And when I arrived back in Dallas and had conversations with Clay Jenkins and began to understand the gravity of this virus, that’s when it hit me that there was no way I could in good conscience bring our congregation together.

So the initial resistance was from myself, because I just did not see us not having church. That just made no sense to me. And so, initially, I was the one, and then, after getting information, I immediately changed my mind. And I’ll be very honest and say that gratefully—because I’ve been pastoring for so long here at the church, 37 years—the response was overwhelmingly supportive, even though there were, I’d say three or four members who just cannot get with the idea their church is not open. And they have said that to me. The first Sunday, we were allowed 50 to come and, you know, among the 50 that came, there was this family, and they said, I just cannot emotionally wrap my heart around my church being closed, and I’m going to come to church every Sunday, no matter what. I’ll even be here on Wednesday.

And I said, I appreciate that. I respect that, but I need you also to know that as one of the job descriptions of a shepherd—which is a metaphor for pastor—is not just to feed the flock, but to protect the flock. And so what I’m doing is in the name of protection, even though this hurts me, I promise you, more than it, it does you. So, yeah, there, there are members who are really emotionally having a very difficult time with the disconnect, with the—as this member said, I can’t get with the fact that my church is closed.

How does it feel to you now that it has been—I guess we’re getting close to a month. How’s it feel to you now? Well, Sunday was our fourth Sunday, and so, yeah, it has been a month. And I finally have come to grips with what’s going on with me, emotionally. And that is: Sunday was supposed to be the biggest Sunday of the year. Instead it was, of course, characterized by an emptiness in terms of the pews. And so, after church, my daughter was asking me, Why do you look so defeated? And in conversation with colleagues around the country, we concluded: we’re not defeated, we just feel empty. And there’s an internal emptiness that we feel because preaching was always intended to be in a communal context, where you are touching people and you know the people and you see the people. And I received a beautiful email from one of our members and she had videotaped her 2-year-old daughter, who was watching church and she said, you know, I just missed my pastor. I need to see my pastor. And that for me captured what I’m missing. I feel this emptiness because that 2-year-old, I can’t hug her on Sundays now. So emotionally it’s been a struggle, but we keep moving forward, because it’s important that we continue to provide whatever innovative options we have for people to still maintain connection during this time with distance.

Is there anything you’re doing for yourself to deal with these emotions and these feelings. You have to be strong for the congregation, but when you’re on your own, are you writing, are you praying more or, you know, reading? Is there anything that’s helping you out? All of that. I am praying a whole lot more than I ever have. I am reading a lot. And then as I shared with a group of pastors yesterday on a Zoom call in Florida, and they asked me to speak to the situation we find ourselves in, my first point to them was shepherds need to need to eat, too. And we have to find ways where we are fed so that we don’t feel this emptiness. And after sharing my own story of emptiness, I just shared with them—yesterday morning, for example, I got on YouTube and all of my favorite preachers could find, I just basically decided to have church personally on YouTube.

Ah, that’s amazing. Yeah, and so, I had my favorite preachers preach. I then said, OK, well there’s no real good church without good music. So I then got on YouTube and found great gospel music that I’ve always loved. Then I literally had church with myself for two hours on YouTube yesterday morning, and it shifted my entire demeanor for the rest of the day, because I took time to, you know, feed myself as it were, through technology.

Has there been a particular verse or passage from the Bible that you’ve that you’ve turned to during this time or that you feel is especially relevant? Oh, without a doubt, without a doubt. Two passages of scripture really blessed me, because I think they deal with mental health, which I think is so crucial when you’re being attacked by anxiety. Matthew 11:28-30, where Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden. I’ll give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, learn of me.” And then in Philippians 4:6, where it says, “Be anxious for nothing,” and talks about the importance of prayer and an attitude of gratitude. And then God will give us peace that passes all understanding. So those passages, I have read repeatedly, I think day and night, even at noon during the course of the day, for my own mental health’s sake.

Do you think the city is aware of how disproportionately this virus and this disease will affect people in the South Dallas, the southern sector, uninsured people without as much access to health care? Do you think they are aware of this and are prepared for it? I think in theory, there’s an awareness. I think in practice, that is not the case. I say that because I don’t doubt the heart of Clay Jenkins. I think he has put in place what he knows to do in the context of a crisis that is uncharted territory. At the same time I think there is an ignorance that most people have about the reality of poverty in certain pockets of Dallas-Fort Worth, and especially in the city of Dallas. And so even though you may have a testing, you know, center in Oak Cliff, at the same time, there’s insufficient transportation means to get to that testing center. And, you know, worse than that our options for going to hospitals are worse.

I had a member of our church share with me her own frustration because she had all the symptoms, but she was told not to come in to the ER by her own doctor because she said she did not want, in case she did not have the virus, she did not want to subject her to that kind of environment. She knew it was overrunning with people and told her just to call her back every two days to see how she was doing, as well told her, OK, so why don’t you go to the store to get this over-the-counter medicine. I’ll prescribe this for you. And again, has not seen my member, but is prescribing her these antibiotics, hoping that that will help. And she literally went three weeks with symptoms before, finally, she was directed to a testing center, where she could find out that she tested negative. But again, that’s three weeks of anxiety. That’s three weeks of not knowing. That’s three weeks of her mind playing tricks on her and convincing her that she had the virus, and it’s three weeks where she also could not go to work and, therefore, she could not get paid.

And so all of that reflects how complicated impoverishment is, how complicated it is to live on a certain side of town that does not have access to sufficient healthcare. And then, you know, one of the things that I’ve been told repeatedly is OK, we’re being told to eat certain foods and all of that, but we don’t have access to the best grocery stores on our side of town. So in theory, I think the city leadership is aware, but when it comes to practically channeling services that compensate for what we lack, the sad reality is nothing has really changed.

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