Source: School of Social Work
Pastor Charles Williams II of Historic King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit mobilized hundreds of people at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to make sure the city’s most vulnerable were cared for.
Within days of Governor Whitmer’s emergency stay-at-home order, Williams, alongside other Black activists, made the decision to ensure the city of Detroit’s aged and immunocompromised would not be exposed to the deadly virus. Grounded in principles of mutual aid and fueled by a belief that Black lives matter, Williams’ emergency response effort gained momentum and quickly met needs in Detroit that the existing social service and local government infrastructure could not meet.
Williams earned his Master’s of Social Work at the University of Michigan and also is pursuing his Ph.D. at U-M. For Willliams, whose professional and scholarly journey centers on the intersections between the Black church, service to others and the quest for social justice, this initiative was transformative, pushing himself, his volunteers and the people it served beyond their comfort zone to do what was needed to help their community. This community-led collaborative effort shows us what is possible when you engage both hearts and minds in community change efforts, when your work is grounded in faith and when a more just and equitable future for all drives your reasons for change.
Called to service
“Honestly when I received the call, I wrestled with whether I was more inclined to take an appointment that had a nice salary, in a middle class neighborhood. Then a voice inside said to me, ‘You are needed here, this work is for you.’”
After a year of rigorous vetting, the church elders unanimously voted to appoint Williams as senior pastor. He faced this appointment with mixed emotions. The church’s legacy of community service and civil rights matched his calling, but its faltering facilities, membership and finances were daunting. With great faith he accepted the offer and traveled the road to recovery alongside his congregation. He firmly believed that returning to the church’s roots of service and activism was essential to its comeback and that this would also pave the way to a fairer and more just future for Black people.
Williams is driven by the belief that when the Black church offers substance to the community it serves and connects to the legacy of the church’s early inception, the church and its community thrive. For decades the Black church, as defined by W.E.B. Du Bois and countless scholars, has been everything for Black people at times when society and government failed them. The Church nurtured the spirit of the Black community and served as its social service agency, its school house, its meeting place and its convention center. These original purposes promoted credibility, built community power and met critical needs of the people. Williams believes that when a Black church strays from this original purpose it risks losing influence and its congregation is left wanting.
As a new pastor Williams made sure to connect Historic King Solomon Baptist Church to its social service roots. He established a food pantry at the church, clothing giveaways, Thanksgiving meals and youth mentoring services. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Michigan in March 2020, Williams was ready to do more. He mobilized his congregation, the community and countless partners to support those who needed help the most.
COVID-19 emergency response
“I never realized that when disaster strikes, pastors and community leaders instantly become essential workers,” Williams said.
On March 13, 2020, the National Action Network Michigan Chapter and 4Hope Organization, both housed in Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, gathered early and mobilized to stem the tide of COVID-19 exposure to protect Detroit’s most vulnerable residents. These groups, along with local, state and national partners and an army of community volunteers, packaged and distributed medications and essential food and supplies to the doorsteps of elderly and immunocompromised individuals.
This effort not only supported those who could not risk COVID-19 exposure but also benefited those engaged in the relief effort. The work built community and encouraged mutual aid among residents of Detroit neighborhoods. It inspired volunteers and taught university students important social change lessons. Most importantly, the work saved lives. Williams firmly believes that providing for those most vulnerable and allowing them to stay safely at home helped turn the tide on Detroit’s disproportionately high COVID-19 death rate.
At the height of the response effort, 30 Black churches were mobilized to deliver 700,000 meals across the city of Detroit. The impact of this cannot be understated. Imagine the fear and desperation of the aging, sick and vulnerable at the height of the crisis. Those with means ordered food delivery or drove to curbside pickup locations, wearing PPE and with easy access to hand sanitizer. What about those without money or credit, internet access, a car or PPE of any kind? Those without a support system? It is for these people that Williams and his partners mobilized.
The bonds between these 30 churches were strengthened through this collaborative work, reaffirming their commitment to service and ingraining in them the knowledge that the Black church has power to solve problems when existing systems and structures fail to deliver.
The churches that participated in this effort, including Historic King Solomon Baptist Church, are continuing their activism and service delivery. In fact, Williams’ church, along with six others, are partnering with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and have become COVID-19 testing sites. These churches are leveraging their social capital and position in Detroit neighborhoods to encourage uptake in testing, which in turn will help curb the devastating effects of this virus.
Partnering with School of Social Work ENGAGE
U-M School of Social Work ENGAGE team is a partner to Williams and his COVID-19 relief efforts. Early on in his mobilization, ENGAGE elevated his call to action and routed social work students to assist with food and supply, packing and delivery, logistics and administrative support. These social work students also conducted wellness checks, using their skills to mitigate stress and fear and to link residents with other resources in the community.
ENGAGE also supported grant writing and introduced Williams to philanthropists and other funding mechanisms in the city. Working collaboratively in this way promoted trust and goodwill between the school and Williams’ social justice work, which will help sustain our partnership well into the future.
Williams’ emergency response effort was featured in an ENGAGE virtual session, which drew many from the school into Williams’ work. Together with the students, Williams explored ideas on social work practice in the Black community. He showed students what can be possible when a passion for justice is paired with a commitment to those in need. He inspired many to take action and created opportunities for volunteerism in Detroit…