On Wednesday night, I was among about 300 people at Elm Grove Baptist Church preparing to hear sermons on the “The 7 Sayings of Jesus,” an Easter week tradition in many churches.
Seven pastors would expound on the seven statements attributed to Jesus as he hung from the cross before he died. It is probably one of the most emotional services that a Christian can attend. There were people from at least seven congregations from across the Baton Rouge area at the North 38th Street church.
But something else happened at the event. All of a sudden, the 1960s broke out. Pastors spoke about social and political issues. There was concern about the ascendance of Donald Trump in the presidential race, black victims of police shootings and polluted drinking water in Louisiana and across the country.
I wasn’t expecting these social and civic issues to be front and center at this gathering. But it was great. It was the perfect time.
Then I remembered, this is the same church where people gathered to discuss the heart-breaking problems growing out of the payday loan industry.
The most commonly mentioned matter was the crying need for a hospital, especially a major emergency medical facility, in north Baton Rouge. Loud “Amens” erupted each time that subject was mentioned.
“Too many hospitals are closing in areas where they need to be open,” said the Rev. Mary Moss, the pastor of St. Alma Baptist Church in Lakeland.
The Rev. Dale Flowers went one step further. “They are taking hospitals away, and soon they will be taking the zoo to the south side of town,” he said, referring to suggestions by BREC that it is listening to recommendations that the Baton Rouge Zoo be moved from its current location in Baker.
Over the past two years, the midcity and north Baton Rouge area, which has a heavy minority and poor population, has lost emergency rooms at the now-demolished Earl K. Long Memorial Hospital on Airline Highway and through the closure of the emergency room at Baton Rouge General’s Mid-City campus.
Even before the Baton Rouge General’s emergency room was closed, there were predictions that more residents will die as a result of the closure.
A recent effort to implement a master plan for a proposed Baton Rouge Health District in south Baton Rouge met withering criticism from several groups, including the NAACP. Alfreda Bester, attorney for the NAACP, told the Metro Council that until there is a fully functioning hospital with a fully functioning emergency room in north Baton Rouge, the city-parish should not divert any of its “very limited public dollars for private purposes.”
Gary Chambers, the publisher of The Rouge Collection magazine, became the focus of support and criticism for his tough public stand on the need for an emergency medical facility in north Baton Rouge.
What happened at Elm Grove on Wednesday harkens back to the days when the black church was the lightning-rod for social justice.
“These are the types of things that the black church ought to be addressing,” Flowers, pastor of New Sunlight Baptist Church, said after the service.
Flowers, who lives a few miles from the Baton Rouge General Mid-City hospital, shared an experience that he attributed to the closing of the nearby emergency room.
After suffering severe chest pains, he had gone to Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in south Baton Rouge, where he spent nearly six hours in a crowded waiting room before “I was seen and told I could go home.”
Flowers said he observed something else. The emergency room workers “looked strained because they were dealing with so many people. We are wearing those people out,” he said.
It’s time that the black church returns to making social justice issues the greater part of their Sunday sermons, he said, adding that the Rev. Errol K. Domingue, who hosted Wednesday’s service, encouraged the pastors to talk about “relevant issues.”
“There are pastors talking about how you can pray for a new car, nice clothes and a big house, but these are the important issues that we need to be discussing right now,” Flowers said.
Edward Pratt, a south Louisiana freelance writer, can be reached at email@example.com.