1918 and 2020, Race, Faith, and America’s Response to Epidemics
By Rev. Samuel Davis, rector of St. Simon the Cyrene Orthodox Mission in Somerset, NJ (Orthodox Church in America)
In May 2019, I was able to uncover the final resting place of Archimandrite Raphael Morgan; found at the historic Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. Archimandrite Raphael was the first ordained Black priest in the Orthodox Church to serve in the Americas, having been ordained in Constantinople in August, 1907. Although Morgan initially considered establishing an independent confession, he also hoped for a furthering of better relations between Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. Morgan soon decided against establishing an independent confession. Rather, he attempted to connect to the Early Church, and her Apostolic Tradition.
Orthodox Tradition and Faith offered Morgan precisely that! He saw in Orthodoxy a tradition that could stand on its own apart from racial problems that were rooted in Western Christianity. Indeed, he saw the Orthodox Tradition steadfast in its tenets and adherence to the New Testament Church rather than those purported in the Western confessions of Christianity. After his initial spiritual journey, Morgan became Orthodox. Subsequently, he was appointed Apostolic-Vicar to America by the Patriarch of Constantinople with the primary purpose of missionizing fellow Africans in the diaspora. Later Morgan established a monastic order, The Order of Golgotha in Philadelphia, PA.
Immigrant Orthodox Christians in America and Black Americans share many parallels in their unique experiences. More notably of such experiences is the period of socio-economic need and the 1918 Flu pandemic. Archimandrite Raphael, like thousands of Orthodox immigrants, was impacted by the devastating effects of the Spanish Flu. Due to their abject poverty, Orthodox immigrants and Black Americans suffered major losses during the pandemic. It was the traditional tenets of Holy Orthodoxy that strengthened Archimandrite Raphael and the Orthodox immigrants during this time of loss. That “old-time religion,” the Faith of the Apostles, founded on the Rock, “Petras”, beckons us to the old hymn, “Rock of Ages.”
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and pow’r.
Traditional Black Spirituals and Hymns are born out of the unique Black experience in America. More so, in the fervent belief that our Lord saves and heals. Archimandrite Raphael realized this and searched Early Christianity to find the true path towards humanity’s Salvation. Ultimately, he learned this through the Orthodox Church. The One, true Church established by Jesus Christ. This occurred in a time where no answers, aid, or direction were forthcoming from the Protestant confessions. Today, Black American pastors and leaders are also looking for answers, aid, and direction to no avail. In recent years, the identifying factor of success in the Black Church has been the model of the “mega-church”, with its material gain and success.
During this pandemic of COVID-19, financial prowess, and the American Dream, has been laid barren. In desperate need of spiritual direction, where else should we turn other than to the Orthodox Church?
St. Mary of Egypt, who is celebrated on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent, crossed the Jordan in an attempt to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. After her enlightenment through the prayers of the most Holy Theotokos, she crossed the Jordan again to live a life of repentance for 47 years. These African deserts became life-giving springs filled with tens of thousands of holy monks and holy women. These experiences were so purifying that even in this modern age they remain a staple of inspiration for all Christians. These holy men and women did not retreat to the desert to live their lives in self-centeredness or personal gain. But, rather to bear witness to the forgiveness of Almighty God.
Let us recall the words of the memorable spiritual, “Swing low, Sweet Chariot.”
I looked over Jordan and what did I see
Coming to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home
In American pandemics, race is unfortunately a preexisting condition.
In the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 and COVID-19 of the present day, race continues to be a determining factor whether Americans will receive proper medical attention when they become ill. The CDC estimates that the Spanish Flu of 1918 infected 500 million people worldwide and resulted in 50 million deaths, 675,000 of which were in the United States.
Viruses do not discriminate; people and governments do.
In cities across the nation, Black Americans infected by the Spanish Flu were left to fend for themselves. They received substandard care in segregated hospitals, where they were herded into close quarters either in basements, or Black-only hospitals.
Today, it is important to examine the social dynamics of the Spanish Flu and how its legacy continues to shape our public health systems. Betsy Schroeder Schlabach, a professor of history and African American studies at Earlham College in Richmond Indiana, explained how discriminatory housing policies created ghettos. Black Americans were relegated to specific parts of the city. Housing was overcrowded, and landowners became slumlords. In addition, tenants were charged rents that were 15-25% higher than their counterparts.
Ironically, due to the strict segregation of the Jim Crow Era, Black Americans may have actually been less susceptible to the 1918 flu pandemic surge in the Fall and Winter. And it was the third wave of higher exposure to the less virulent Spring and Summer surges which decimated their communities.
Even as they were subjected to poor medical facilities, Black doctors and nurses pressed on with treatment amid adverse ridicule and criticism. However, Black Americans found ways to make the best of these horrible conditions. The effects of some of those in our nation and the lack of adherence to the Constitution and its amendments precipitated the policy of separate but unequal situations during the 1918 epidemic. It not only created disparities for those who received treatment, but also how to receive treatment. Public health historians note that prejudice and racism in the American health system have once again risen to the forefront with the recent pandemic of COVID-19. COVID-19 has heightened the degree to which racism now affects treatment and care.
Sadly, the Spanish Flu of 1918 as with COVID-19 of 2020 are both connected to racism and xenophobia. During the 1918 pandemic, Philadelphia hosted a massive parade to sell war bonds to pay for the American war effort. Coincidentally, this very same parade marched past the Morgan home on 12th St! It is one thing to serve, as Father Raphael did, during the era of Jim Crow America. An era filled with lynchings and persecution that terrorized Black American communities simply for being made in the image of God. Then, to compound the troubles of that era with the plight of the Spanish Flu, the challenges facing Father Raphael cannot be overstated. In this present time of crisis, we look to the prayers of Archimandrite Raphael Morgan, especially as COVID-19 gravely affects the lives of Black Americans, Latinos, and other minority communities.