Reverend Dr. Jennifer Leath has served as the pastor of Campbell Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church since 2016.
She says that adapting to virtual church services during the first wave of the pandemic back in March wasn’t easy. Most of the members of her congregation are well into their 80s, making them highly susceptible to COVID-19.
“In the midst of COVID, our community, specifically, the community of African descent, but also the Campbell community, has been deeply impacted,” Leath said. “One in five cases of COVID are people of African descent. That's way higher than our national population percentage by at least seven points. And so here at Campbell, many families have been directly impacted.”
Rev. Leath says she herself had COVID earlier this year. While she was never officially diagnosed, because testing was limited at the time, she says losing her sense of taste and smell was a sure sign of the virus.
Technical challenges made adapting to virtual church slow going. But now, most members of the Church have settled in to the new normal. Beyond COVID and her congregation’s technical challenges, Rev. Leath says that “these are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary commitment and focus and engagement.”
“As a queer woman and a person of African descent in the United States, this is an especially difficult time because gender, race, and class matter in ways that demand that we be conscious of where people are suffering,” Leath said.
Alleviating the many forms of this suffering has been a key priority of AME churches since their founding. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is a predominantly African American Methodist denomination based in the United States, originally founded to protest racial discrimination experienced by people of African descent at white Methodist congregations.
Established in 1886, the Campbell Chapel AME Church is one of the oldest in Denver and “has been an important part of the Five Points community since its inception,” Leath said. “The church sits at the corner of 22nd and Humboldt in an area that is rapidly gentrifying.”
The church has taken a firm stance in combatting this gentrification by purchasing a 24-unit apartment building to serve the low-income community, Coleman Manor. The venture is subsidized by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Churches are not usually in the low-income housing business, but Rev. Leath says this is important “because it maintains a kind of class diversity, wealth and income diversity, and racial diversity in our neighborhood that we can't take for granted in this moment.”
Her church also helps hungry community members with food.
Along with serving basic needs of food and housing, the Campbell Chapel AME Church provides spiritual guidance and inspiration, albeit virtually right now.
“We're learning how to be a church community in a new way that is not about a building, but that is about a building not made by hands: a kind of soul building...” Rev. Leath said as she touched her heart.
The church is attracting old friends and new ones with their virtual services, extending beyond Denver. And that’s the silver lining, that folks from Zambia to Ohio, from New York to California, and from all over the world, can join to celebrate, pray, and find solace together in such a tough time.
Rev. Dr. Leath is also the Assistant Professor of Religion and Social Justice Director at Iliff School of Theology.