Pastoring Through a Pandemic: Rev. Leonard Curry
A young pastor gains a congregation in the throes of the pandemic, and shares his story about the incorporation of science and medicine in his church.
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Rev. Leonard Curry is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and pastor of St. James AME church in Ashland, KY. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in Religious Studies from Rhodes College, and a Master of Divinity and Master of Sacred Theology from Yale University. He is also currently a PhD candidate at Vanderbilt University in the program of Ethics and Society where his research focuses on emotion, racism, and power in religion and politics.
For Rev. Leonard Curry, pastor of St. James AME church in Ashland, Kentucky and former middle school teacher, faith and science have never really been at odds. He believes that scientific inquiry is godly, because “God has given us a mind and a capacity to create, and (we can use) this capacity to work with the laws of the universe to make discoveries that don’t obliterate the laws we find in scripture, but rather work with them.” He also affirms the words of Isaiah 55:8-9, that speak of God’s ways and thoughts being higher than our own, yet believes that God can reveal himself through the mind and capacity to create that he has given us.
Rev. Curry has been an ordained elder in the AME church since 2014, but hadn’t started pastoring until November 2019. He remembers approaching his bishop sharing his growing desire and enthusiasm to pastor, and he recalls rather humorously, “I said that, and it felt like I had a church the next month!” He became the pastor for St. James, a historic AME church, one of the first Black churches in Ashland, Kentucky. Not long after, however, the global COVID-19 pandemic hit, so most of his experience pastoring has been under unusual circumstances and in unprecedented times. Despite these challenges, he remains unwavering in his commitment and calling to pastor: “My job is to honor my congregation as God’s people, not Leonard Curry’s people. This means inviting them to live in the fullness of themselves, inviting them to live in the fullness of whatever God’s best blessings are for them.”
Safety and Science during COVID
When the pandemic first hit, Rev. Curry’s church—along with many in his denomination—closed in-person services until safe practices and plans were established by the CDC for the reopening of schools, businesses and churches. As a young pastor, Rev. Curry is grateful for the leadership of his bishop and presiding elders in the AME church for their immediate response and continued guidance throughout the pandemic. This included the distribution of a COVID-19 handbook compiled and published by the AME church’s Health Commission. Medical and healthcare professionals in the AME church serve on the Heath Commission leadership team and put together a detailed guide to reopening, which included information on the half-life of the COVID-19 virus on various surfaces, instructions on how to disinfect and clean such surfaces (from church door knobs to pews), and a moratorium on offering plate use, immersion baptism, congregational singing and anointing oil (only with single use cotton swabs) among other things, to minimize risk and spread.
St. James is a small and mostly older congregation, so “it just did not make sense to me to open up the doors of the church,” said Curry, “where I could be sick and have the virus and not know it. Almost everybody in our congregation has underlying health conditions…and I couldn’t justify putting these older folks at risk.” His decision to hold remote church services indefinitely, posed many challenges for him at first given the limited technology at his disposal; his church did not have internet for him to live stream services or a central website to communicate information. However, with time, Rev. Curry was able to streamline online services and communication for his congregation, starting a Facebook page for St. James AME where he shares live recordings of his sermons with his members—even viewers outside of Ashland have started to watch his recordings.
Our spiritual lives are lived in fleshy bodies. It’s a miracle of creation that the breath of God lives in flesh and matter.
When asked about what he misses most about in-person service, he did not hesitate to say the physical connection of hugging his members and the vocal responses they would give to his sermons. “I mean, it’s a Black church and so people are verbal with their affirmations to the sermon or in response to the song, or even the scripture reading. Nowadays, when that happens on Zoom, it’s kind of, like, distracting!” Even with completely remote services, Rev. Curry hopes to grow his church and return to in-person worship soon. “I still have plans to grow the church, I just need the vaccine and hopefully to get my members vaccinated, and then I’ll feel a lot better about going back into the building.”
Balancing Science with Faith
Even for someone like Rev. Curry who finds faith and science to be compatible, he has had to navigate balancing the theology of faith and healing with principles of wisdom and science in his congregation. Ultimately, he believes that we should trust and listen to those with scientific training:
“I think that the people who do have scientific training and know the world through that methodology and those resources should be the ones who tell us what to do. What we faithful nonscientists can do is listen to them closely, apply logic, and say when things are contradictory or when there are differential messages. There is faith in that. What else can we do? We can have a lot of faith in God. We can pair our practical wisdom, with the spiritual wisdom God has given us.
I don’t recommend putting faith against scientific knowledge, you will wind up the loser. Viruses are things that exist in the world, and your faith does not negate the function or operation of them.
Now, can God do something magnificent, something wonderful, something that’s supernatural? Sure. It is not my place to limit the power of God, but even Jesus says you shouldn’t tempt the Lord your God, which sometimes it feels like faith vs. science positions are doing.”
He also acknowledges the challenges that those in his congregation and other predominantly African American churches may face in trusting science, because “science has its own baggage for the Black community.” However, having a healthcare worker in his congregation has been a helpful “pragmatic witness,” especially for his members to directly see how someone who they know and trust has been impacted by the pandemic. Increasing cases for her often means longer work hours, less time for church, and quarantining away from friends and family.
As someone who was raised Baptist, Rev. Curry fondly remembers that it was partly the AME church’s connection to science and health that drew him to join and stay. He distinctly remembers a sermon at St. Andrew AME by Dr. Kenneth S. Robinson, a medical doctor and ordained Reverend, where the term prehensile parts was used to connect humans to the rest of the animal kingdom, and he was pleasantly surprised. “I looked around, shocked, and was like, “Did you all hear what he just said? That is a direct reference to evolution! Where am I?””
He remembers the church offering dental cleanings, health screenings, HIV tests and more, which modeled a type of ministry he had not seen before. It was there that he accepted his call to ministry. He realized that “our spiritual lives are lived in fleshy bodies. It’s a miracle of creation that the breath of God lives in flesh and matter.”
Rev. Curry continues to serve the AME church, leading with compassion, striving to care for both the body and soul of his congregation. “My people know that I love them and that is why we’re not meeting together right now,” says Curry. With faith in God and hope in a vaccine, he makes his way forward.
This article is part of a special series published by BioLogos for Black History Month, highlighting underrepresented voices on faith and science. This work was supported and made possible by a Diversity grant from the National Association of Science Writers (NASW).
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