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A rollercoaster of a year for pastor of Madison's largest Black church

A rollercoaster of a year for pastor of Madison's largest Black church

From the 6 lives disrupted: How COVID-19 changed Madison series
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Covid profiles Marcus Allen

Rev. Marcus Allen at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, which he's kept closed since March 2020.

The Rev. Marcus Allen describes the past year as a rollercoaster for his family and church.

Some of his hardest days have been losing members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the largest Black church in the city. Allen remembers accompanying two families to the hospital as they said goodbye to their loved one.

Early April was also a difficult time. That’s when Allen’s mom became infected with COVID-19 and was hospitalized for a week. He couldn’t visit her during that time but she pulled through.

Throughout the pandemic, Allen weighed whether to reopen the church, which has been closed since March. To many of his members, Mt. Zion is more than a place of worship. It’s where family comes together.

Allen knew how many of his members were struggling — parents trying to get by, children feeling isolated and lost, senior citizens cut off from one of their only forms of in-person contact — and what bringing everyone together could do for their spiritual and mental health.

But each time Allen considered reopening, COVID-19 cases surged. So he kept the doors closed and continued with online church services. During months of nice weather, he also offered parking lot services.

Amid all of the hurt, Allen saw some hope, too.

Mt. Zion paid off its mortgage, raised $400,000 for community needs and started a mental health clinic. Church members got married. Babies were baptized. Allen’s daughter graduated from UW-Madison, an achievement the family celebrated from their basement instead of Camp Randall Stadium.

“We’ve done a lot of great things in the midst of what I’d consider chaos,” he said.

As vaccination efforts ramp up, Allen wonders where underserved communities like his, who have been disproportionately harmed during the pandemic, fit into resource allocation.

He’s also fielding questions from church members about whether the vaccine is safe, a skepticism he understands given the country’s troubling history of using Black people for medical experimentation, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972 in which Black men were told they were being treated for the disease when in fact they were not.

“We’re trying to communicate that it’s safe,” he said of the COVID-19 vaccine. “It’s a hard task.”


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