The Rev. Bryant Phelps, a 29-year-old millennial shepherding a senior-citizen congregation in one of the Dallas County zip codes hit hardest by the coronavirus, has no fears about the church universal surviving the pandemic.
It’s the 150 or so people who make up Church of the Disciple in DeSoto — and those in other congregations of color — whom Phelps worries about. So far, his African American flock, many of whom are in a vulnerable age group within a race hit hard by COVID-19, has suffered only one case. But several have lost close family members in the first months of the disease.
“The church will be fine — except there won’t be a church if my people aren’t well,” he told me. “I’m concerned about my congregation and my community as black people.”
As I sat in a virtual pew alongside Church of the Disciple members Sunday morning, I recalled one of Phelps’ most fervent moments during our interview last week: “We don’t want to potentially sacrifice lives just to get things back open. If that means we aren’t back in church until July, that’s perfectly fine.”
Phelps acknowledged that preaching to an empty room — without the congregation’s joyful exclamations and the familiar call and response — is challenging. But the “Amen, pastor,” “Praise God” and fire emojis offered up on Facebook Live make for a lively experience.
Even online, I could see that this place of worship, like so many throughout North Texas, does not meet strangers. Their biggest challenge is likely how they’ll be able to hold back their hugs once the church doors open again.
Pastor Bryant Phelps watches as music minister Regina Lee sings "I Need You to Survive" as the two of them taped portions of the Sunday service for their Church of the Disciple congregation.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)
Throughout our several conversations, Phelps hammered on the same life-and-death theme that would pepper his Sunday morning sermon: “This pandemic has underscored, in a great way, the intersections of class, race, health disparities, power imbalance, ethics that — in addition to a respiratory virus — are asphyxiating entire sub-groups of people.”
Gaps in the collection of race and ethnicity data from coronavirus testing in North Texas — particularly from private labs — prevent us from yet confirming what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes it’s seeing nationwide: COVID-19′s impact on African Americans has been devastating and disproportionate. A recent Associated Press analysis of available state and local numbers indicates that nearly one-third of U.S. deaths are African Americans.
The underserved neighborhoods in which many black Americans live, the front-line jobs they often fill and the prevalence of underlying conditions such as diabetes underpin those numbers. But equally damning is that African Americans too often have less access to equitable health care and wind up on the receiving end of racial bias in medical treatment.
That’s why Phelps, appointed less than two years ago to this United Methodist Church and its senior pastor since July, is single-mindedly focused on how to grow Church of the Disciple’s partnerships in the community without sending his high-risk congregants into harm’s way.
I first heard about Phelps and his church from several Methodist ministers who consider him a rising star in the local conference. Debra Mason, the denomination’s district superintendent in Dallas County, said he is a leader among young clergy in the North Texas Conference and an invaluable mentor to her.
“He is as passionate about truth-telling — and demanding honest conversations about issues that matter to and affect persons in the African American community — as he is about proclaiming the truth and relevance of the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ,” she said.
Church of the Disciple Pastor Bryant Phelps with his wife, Courtney, who works at the Episcopal School of Dallas, and their 5-month-old daughter, Hailey. “While we’ve been away from our bosses during this social distancing, Hailey is the boss of the house,” Phelps says.(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)
It doesn’t hurt that Phelps also is a Morehouse Man, who earned his degree in 2013 from the historically black men's college in Atlanta, well known for training and nurturing future leaders. Morehouse traits reverberate in his words and work, particularly when it comes to issues such as community-building and social justice.
Phelps, a Midland native and 2017 graduate of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, suffers from asthma, which means he too is at greater risk in this pandemic. He and wife, Courtney, who is director of community service learning for the Episcopal School of Dallas, now juggle their work with the full-time care of 5-month-old Hailey.
“While we’ve been away from our bosses during this social distancing, Hailey is the boss of the house,” Phelps chuckled.
None of that has slowed Phelps’ outreach with DeSoto’s mayor and school board members as well as other clergy to find ways to help in this time of crisis.
His is not a wealthy church, but the members want to make a difference; just before one of our conversations, he had stopped by the DeSoto food pantry to make a $500 donation. The church also has bought grocery cards for those in need and a modest fund has been set up for those struggling to pay their bills.
In addition to the practical help, Phelps said, he is using his pulpit to “call to task” city, state and national leaders when they fall short of doing what is right.
Music minister Regina Lee during taping Friday at Church of the Disciple. As her performance streamed on Facebook Live, congregants responded with comments such as "Songstress healing our hearts" and "Lifting you up, Ms. Regina."(Juan Figueroa / Staff Photographer)
Not enough info exists to know exactly why DeSoto has been hit so hard by the coronavirus, but Phelps suspects a big factor is that so many of its residents hold essential jobs in health care and business in Dallas. “Lots of DeSoto commuters wind up in the presence of so many people each and every day,” he said.
Then he fell back into a bit of preaching: “Look at how redlined and maligned this county is when it comes to race. It’s not by coincidence, but by design, that the disparity, whether food deserts or access to medical care, exists below that Interstate 30 dividing line. … COVID-19 has lifted these inequities up for everyone in the world to see.”
When Phelps isn’t on the phone with congregation and community members, he’s trying to figure out more ways to keep his church connected. “None of us has ever been here before, so how we respond is ‘let’s throw a noodle at the wall and see how it sticks.’”
Phelps’ church was among the first to shift to online services and Zoom sessions, and he’s thankful to have so many members — including the oldest, age 93 — who are adept on social media.
He’s even found a silver lining in the virtual world that his congregation will remain in until at least the end of May. The service is attracting people from Midland, New Orleans, New York and beyond.
Phelps says being among the youngest in this multi-generational church is a very comfortable spot for him. “My grandmother took me everywhere, so all I know are senior citizens. For me, it’s like going to church with a ton of grandparents.”
Dajuana and Derrick Forte have long attended Church of the Disciple in DeSoto. Dajuana is on the church's leaership council and says Pastor Bryant Phelps has been a good fit for the congregation.(Courtesy)
Church member Dajuana Forte agrees that Phelps is a perfect fit. “He is young, but he has an old soul,” she told me. “You feel his passion, his love, when he’s up there preaching. And you have to stop and think, ‘How old is he again?’ But it works.”
Forte, 54, has been a Church of the Disciple member for 15 years — almost as long as she’s lived in DeSoto with her husband and two children. She is excited about the energy and new ideas Phelps has brought, especially when it comes to outreach. “He’s trying to change our mission so people know we are a church that works with the community,” she said.
As part of the church’s leadership council, Forte has helped lead the decision-making around what worship and ministry should look like during a pandemic. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t put those precious congregants, those precious souls, in danger needlessly,” she said.
She’s proud of how the congregation has adapted, whether coming together in spirit to make protective masks or continuing its financial support even when members can’t drop an envelope into their familiar offering tray.
“Our pastor has us all in a groove,” she laughed. “We can adapt like any other church — and maybe better.”