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COVID and gentrification: Bishop K.R. Woods is leading his church through both

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Shantŕe Pinkney
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Covenent Church website
Bishop K.R. Woods

For many African-Americans, church is a central part of their lives. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, black church leaders had to get innovative to keep their church communities intact. Bishop K.R. Woods, pastor of Covenant Church in Berkeley, says COVID has been both a crisis and an opportunity.

I live in South Berkeley and pass by Covenant Church all the time when walking my dog. It's on San Pablo Avenue, which extends from small town Crocket to Downtown Oakland.

I decided to go to one of their Sunday services myself.

Contact tracers stand at their posts at the church entrance, and I’m greeted by ladies ready to take my temperature before I find a seat. Inside, soap dispensers abound, and projection screens are set up for members who still prefer to attend church online. There’s a sign that reads: The Church on a Mission.

Leading the service of sixty parishioners is Bishop Kelly Ray Woods.

Woods grew up in Richmond, the grandson of two prominent pastors in the city. After high school, he didn’t go directly into the family business, he did what a lot of people in Richmond do, went to work for the Chevron refinery as a plant operator.

But as he tells his congregation today, he had another calling.

He started Covenant Church in 1995 with about fifteen members, and slowly filled the pews with nearly 600.

"Everything biblically, everything socially, surrounding church community and particularly amongst African Americans is surrounding the church building. It's just the building or some type of gathering is what makes it work," Bishop Woods said.

So going one hundred percent online for the pandemic disrupted the normal routine.

"We were online beforehand with our bible study. So it was relatively easy to pivot to having our services on Sunday morning, but with that, it takes staff and people," Bishop Woods added.

Bishop Woods and his staff got creative. They filmed him preaching sermons at the Covenant pulpit.

He launched a 5 Bridges in 5 Days social media series, where he cycled across Bay Area bridges sharing spiritual messages. He hosted an “AskBishop” Facebook live series. The church’s singles ministry had virtual happy hours as well.

"I was just fortunate to have some staff and people that could do the camera work, do the post production, to operate the social media platforms, to where people can stay connected. You know, during the first year of the pandemic, they did very well," Bishop Woods reflected.

While the creativity with social media and online engagement helped get attention, people can only be glued to a screen for so long before they start losing interest.

"What I'm finding now is that now that the pandemic is continuing, people are getting video screen fatigue. As well as before the pandemic there were not that many online offerings of religious service. Now, every church and every ministry is on. So it's just like having Netflix, Prime, Hulu and everything they're channel surfing. So maybe they're watching you at a certain time. Maybe they watch them later. Maybe they're not watching it all," Bishop Woods highlighted.

Which is concerning for Bishop Woods. Because even though the church is a spiritual and cultural center, it’s also a business.

"Like a restaurant owner, he can't afford to keep his restaurant closed down. It's his life work and everything is tied up in it. It's that same way with the business aspect of the church. Thank God I got some pretty faithful members, but the church has not been growing," Bishop Woods added.

In June of 2021, when restrictions on gatherings loosened, Covenant Church went hybrid: online and in-person. To encourage social distancing, members can choose from three in–person services – two on Sunday, and one on Wednesday.

But the pews aren’t stuffed with people like they were before COVID-19.

"Of course there's a psychological factor of it for me and my staff. You can go to the club and ya’ll leave the club and they’ll say, how was it? People are going to say it was packed. You know, we associate that together," Bishop Woods said.

Bishop Woods says the pandemic has forced the staff to redefine success.

"Two years ago there wouldn't have been an empty seat in the place. You see today, fifty percent, that's kind of what I want. It's a redefining of it with another group coming early in the morning, and another group coming on, uh, Wednesday night," Bishop Woods concluded.

It's not just coronavirus that has impacted attendance at Covenant Church, but also gentrification. Over the last few decades many members moved from Berkeley and Oakland, to further cities like Antioch, Vacaville, and Stockton. Berkeley’s African American population dropped from nearly 14% in 2000 to just 8% today, and people living in the neighborhood around Covenant are more diverse.

"In order to be a viable church, we have to appeal to them," Bishop Woods said.

Make a historically black church one that appeals to all races.

"To really win our community of Whites, Asians, different ones, those who would potentially be Christians, or would consider it, is you got to get them through the door. So what that means, we've got to integrate our black experience," Bishop Woods suggested.

In Berkeley, he says, that means connecting spirituality with liberal politics.

"They connect with it through philanthropy, through service."

And so he’s been trying to grow the church’s service programs with online giving opportunities during the pandemic.

Gentrification, COVID-19 restrictions, and attracting new members are challenges that are not going away anytime soon for Covenant Church. But Bishop Wood is making sure the church is safe for any members who return.

"We got so much Purell you can take a bath in it," Bishop Woods joked.

Bishop Woods and his team will continue to encourage a return to in-person services while investing in their online presence to bring in new members. He plans to host a youth conference this year, and bring back essential ministries like grief counseling, and celebrating recovery so that Covenant Church continues to be a church on a mission.

In Berkeley, I’m D’Andre Ball, for Crosscurrents