(Photo Credit: Camera Craft via Adobe Stock)

In the midst of battling systemic racism in our communities, criminal justice reform and LGBTQ alliance building, a pandemic rages on — one that disproportionately affects the Black community and LGBTQ people.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report this month detailing the underlying health conditions that increase the risk of contracting severe COVID-19 among sexual minorities. In a response by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the organization’s president Alphonso David said, “This report affirms what LGBTQ advocates and organizations have known all along: that our community is at greater risk and disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 health crisis.”

HRC previously released a report showing that Black LGBTQ people are experiencing more adverse economic impact from the pandemic, and research has consistently shown that Black Americans are more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 and face higher fatality rates than their white counterparts.

Holding the community together could seem like a miracle.

As part of our Black History Month coverage, qnotes spoke with some of the Black LGBTQ and affirming leaders in the Carolinas. Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. To read more of the interviews, see this story on goqnotes-launch2.newspackstaging.com/69042.

Minister Veronica Daughety
Shack<LESS Physical and Spiritual
Fitness Ministry
Charlotte, N.C.

Minister Veronica Daughety suffered greatly from obesity, low self-esteem and depression throughout her youth. While she still battles with her weight, at 54-years-old, Daughety has now come to respect her body and believes she is in “the image of the Creator, which is absolutely magnificent.”

A native of New Jersey, Daughety graduated from Howard University in 1988 and has a combined 30 years of ministry in Newark, N.J., Washington, D.C., St. Petersburg, Fla. and Charlotte, N.C. Today, she works with youth and adults offering high intensity cardio combined with spiritual conversations and programs.

QN: What are you and your church community working on? How are you serving the community during the pandemic?

Daughety: On March 27, in an effort to ensure that the community had a safe, compliant environment in which to still exercise and have weekly worship services, Shack<LESS shifted from monthly paid events to indoor and outdoor Saturday and weekday physical and spiritual fitness sessions, known as “Praisercise” with a live band. Temperature checks, social distancing and mandatory mask wearing are required for all events, and we’ve had zero outbreaks or presence of COVID-19 in our ministry.

QN: What are your biggest concerns for the LGBTQ community this year?

Daughety: Fear of movement! Fear of gathering to exercise! Obesity and coronavirus illness rates among these populations [racial and ethnic minorities] are tied to a number of factors, including access to healthy, affordable food and beverages, and safe, convenient places for physical activity. The CDC said their findings underscore the need to sort out systemic issues that create barriers to good health, both at the system and policy levels. Such fundamental change will take time.

QN: What guides you as a spiritual leader in the community? What inspires you?

Daughety: 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV) states “he asks, ‘Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.’”

Rev. Debra J. Hopkins
Essentials for Life Ministry
Charlotte, N.C.

Rev. Debra J. Hopkins is a nationally recognized leader in the transgender community and the founder and senior pastor of Essentials for Life Ministries, an online ministry that “delivers messages of acceptance, hope, and love to the LGBTQ+ community.” She recently authored “Not Until You Have Walked In My Shoes: A Journey of Discovery and the Spirit of the Human Heart” and is the founder, president and CEO of There’s Still Hope, a transgender-led non-profit that provides transitional housing for homeless transgender adults, victims of domestic violence and transgender individuals released from incarceration in Mecklenburg County. She has three adult children and eight grandchildren.

QN: What are you and your church community working on? How are you serving the community during the pandemic?

Hopkins: Essentials for Life Ministries supports the work of There’s Still Hope in Charlotte to help seek solutions to remedy transgender adult homelessness.

QN: What are your biggest concerns for the LGBTQ community this year?

Hopkins: Social justice reform — one that provides legal equal protections and is implemented fairly.

QN: What guides you as a spiritual leader in the community? What inspires you?

Hopkins: My call to ministry is my strong faith in my religious commitment and beliefs. My call to help make a difference is tied to a favorite quote that inspires me every single day, “Voice for change,” and being that for the poor and most marginalized people in my community. Hope, for me, is biblical. It is the confident expectation of what God has promised, and its strength is in our Creator’s faithfulness. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9 (KJV).

Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls
Sacred Souls Community Church
Charlotte, N.C.

Bishop Tonyia M. Rawls is a national faith leader and social justice activist who has focused the majority of her work in the Southeastern United States fighting oppression and discrimination. In 2000, she founded Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte and in April 2008, was consecrated as one of the first women Bishops in the Unity Fellowship Church Movement’s history. In 2014, she founded Sacred Souls Community Church. She is co-founder of the Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice and the National Trans Religious Cohort. She is also one of the leaders of the N.C. Moral Monday Movement which was created by Rev. Dr. William Barber II to combat injustice in the state. Bishop Rawls is a graduate of Duke University and sits on several local and national boards and advisory councils. She is the founder and executive director of The Freedom Center for Social Justice in Charlotte, N.C.

You can read Bishop’s Rawls’ reflections in an op-ed at goqnotes-launch2.newspackstaging.com/69077.

Minister Lenora Southerland
Unity Fellowship Church
Charlotte, N.C

Minister Lenora Southerland has been an active member with Unity Fellowship Church since 2004, joining first in New Brunswick, N.J. under the leadership of Elder Pastor Kevin E. Taylor. Southerland then transitioned to a church in Newark, N.J. before relocating to Charlotte, N.C. currently serving as associate administrative minister and armor bearer to Bishop Jacquelyn Holland. Minister Southerland attended Newark School of Theology in 2011 and is currently enrolled in Thomas Edison State University where Southerland is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Social Science and Business Management.

QN: What are you and your church community working on? How are you serving the community during the pandemic?

Southerland: Unity Fellowship Church Charlotte has been instrumental as a beacon of love, support and spiritual upliftment for the marginalized and the disenfranchised community. We have several initiatives that support the community including our Brown Bag Ministry, which has served over 5,000 meals to unhoused communities. In addition, we have actively been serving senior citizens through a Thanksgiving dinner program and launched Souls to the Polls to transport LGBTQI senior citizens to cast their votes in recent elections. Lastly, we launched U.N.L.O.C.K. Prison Ministry to reach our Black and Brown sisters and brothers who have been incarcerated by the injustice of our judicial system.

QN: What are your biggest concerns for the LGBTQ community this year?

Southerland: One of my greatest concerns is the current situation of the pandemic and how the community is affected, with the limited availability and access to the vaccination. There is also a great need for laws to be created to support our transgender brothers and sisters. There have been too many assaults and deaths with little or no recourse for justice.

QN: What guides you as a spiritual leader in the community? What inspires you?

Southerland: The one quote that I’m inspired by is from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I also have a great support system. My hope is to see equality, social justice and economic growth for the LGBTQI community.

Pastor Mykal Shannon
Dynamic Faith Ministries
Asheboro, N.C.

For over 20 years, Pastor Mykal Shannon has advocated on behalf of the voices and people experiencing social injustices in the South. His work with the Poor People’s Campaign, “A National Call for a Moral Revival,” is an example of his commitment, and he is an activist for those on the fringes of society. He is one of four clergy leaders in the documentary “Proper Pronouns,” directed by Meg Daniels, and recently wrote the book “Trans Expressions, The Many Faces of My FTM Journey.”

QN: What are you and your church community working on? How are you serving the community during the pandemic?

Shannon: Due to safety measures currently adopted, we are making the shift to bring our ministry further into social media arenas and connecting with other like-minded faith spaces and organizations. Our priority is working on community ministry collaborations. We have a weekly Bible study on Zoom and have recently added a new Zoom series of sensitive conversations in community with the Olive Branch Ministry in Hickory. We have talked about isolation in marginalized groups and other concerns centering around the disenfranchised populations during this pandemic, like mental health and grieving support for those in emotional crisis due to extended illness, loss of resources and loss of loved ones.

As a Black pastor of trans journey and experience, I have continued to advocate for social justice to help generate awareness and more solutions as all challenges are compounded due to COVID-19.

QN: What are your biggest concerns for the LGBTQ community this year?

Shannon: Some of the biggest concerns this year are no different than they have always been, especially for the transgender community: homelessness, medical coverage, sustainable living wage and access to the COVID-19 testing and vaccines. The list can go on and on.

QN: What guides you as a spiritual leader in the community? What inspires you?

Shannon: I am guided and encouraged by my very own mantra, “#ichoosetoBELIEVE.” This personal saying was established when I realized in order to help anyone in the most effective way, I had to decide who I was and what I believed. After learning how to believe in myself and how to trust a God that others said was not mine to consider — I found my purpose in ministry.

Pastor Devonte Jackson
New Faith Metropolitan Community Church
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Pastor Devonte Jackson knew at eight years old that his body did not match the gender he was supposed to be. He transitioned later in life, at the age of 35, because, as he says, “being trans and a person of color would not please [his] biological family,” and due to the lack of resources and information to even know where to begin. Jackson served in the U.S. Army Reserve for eight years before beginning his career in corporate security. He is married to Melissa Jackson. Jackson says he enjoys helping others and wants to give back to the community in which he lives, specifically the transgender and nonbinary community. He has served on several non-profit boards and is in the process of finishing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminal Justice. Jackson plans to then pursue his Master’s degree in Divinity.

QN: What are you and your church community working on? How are you serving the community during the pandemic?

Jackson: Anchored Ministries is our outreach ministry and we are collecting food items for the Triad Health Project to help with their food bank during this time. The church is also the Monica Helms Sponsor for Pride Winston-Salem Trans Pride.

QN: What are your biggest concerns for the LGBTQ community this year?

Jackson: My biggest concern for our LGBTQ community is the recognition of our Black and Brown communities this year and the number of Black and Brown people suffering lack of employment, housing and food.

QN: What guides you as a spiritual leader in the community? What inspires you?

Jackson: God guides me in being a spiritual leader in my community, in addition to the members and friends of New Faith MCC. As a Black trans man and a pastor, folks have questions as to why and how — I cannot help but, with joy in my heart, respond with God is love and He loved me so much that He sent his only begotten son to be the sacrifice for me. The scripture that I live by is from Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

Bishop-Elect Roger Eugene Billingsley-Hayes
ReNewal Fellowship United Church of Christ
Winston-Salem, N.C.

Bishop-Elect Roger Eugene Billingsley-Hayes is the senior pastor for ReNewal Fellowship United Church of Christ. At 48-years-old, he has been preaching for 23 years and obtained his Bachelor of Science in Social Studies with a teaching certificate from Lees McRae. In 2013, he obtained his Master’s of Divinity from Wake Forest University.

QN: What are you and your church community working on? How are you serving the community during the pandemic?

Billingsley-Hayes: I think one of the most important things that we as a community can do, and as community leaders and spiritual and religious leaders, is to be responsible. We have attempted to try and do services, and we have made a conscious decision not to be back in church until probably at least May. We have partnered with local non-profits and with the City of Winston-Salem to provide meals to people in the community that are food-insecure. Since June, we have provided over 7,500 hot meals. We are doing online services, and my husband and I do the services in the sanctuary — trying to emulate as much of our normal worship experience as virtually possible.

QN: What are your biggest concerns for the LGBTQ community this year?

Billingsley-Hayes: I have two big concerns. The first one is HIV rates. People have various ways of dealing with stress, and we are living in such a stressful time. I’m also concerned about our brothers and sisters who are positive falling out of care. So much attention has been focused and placed on the pandemic — on vaccines and staying COVID free, that we forgot that there was a whole life happening before COVID. My other concern is the systemic racism that is still very present nationally, but also in the LGBTQ community. I think that is something that we don’t talk near enough about — we tend to be very racist in our community. We don’t do enough work around that, and we don’t speak to that.

QN: What guides you as a spiritual leader in the community? What inspires you?

Billingsley-Hayes: I’m inspired the most by the possibility of creating greatness in and for others — seeing people rise to their ultimate maximum. There are people in my life today that have done that for me — have encouraged me to be the best me.

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