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Dr. Monique J. Williams’ Third 2021 Publication Examines the Response of Churches to the Pandemic and the Role of Churches as Change Agents

The response of churches to the COVID-19 pandemic reveals key information about how religious institutions can support a community’s spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being during times of crisis. Dr. Monique J. Williams, Founding Program Director and Professor of Practice for Keck Graduate Institute (KGI)’s Master of Science in Community Medicine (MSMC) program, recently published “Prioritizing health: Churches response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” which appears in the Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community.

This exploratory study—Williams’ third publication for 2021—examines how churches of various denominations in the Tri-City region (Pomona, La Verne, and Claremont) of Los Angeles County perceive the seriousness of COVID-19, their responses to the pandemic, and the potential impact on their congregations.

Williams and her colleagues from her previous institution—the University of La Verne—began researching the study in the summer of 2020, reaching out to church administrators.

“At that time in the news, there was a lot of pushback from certain religious organizations in terms of meeting in-person for service,” said Williams. “Plus, there was a debate around whether in-person services should continue or not, and if so, whether masks should be required and the number of people who could attend should be limited. We were trying to understand churches as community change agents and how this could be seen in their respective responses to the pandemic.”

Because this was such a broad issue, they restricted their study to churches in the Tri-City area of Los Angeles County. However, the churches they studied were not specific to one religion but encompassed all religious/spiritual institutions, including temples.

Responses to the pandemic varied. Some churches had stopped services altogether and shifted their meetings to online platforms. In contrast, others continued in-person services but took preventive measures such as moving services outdoors, limiting the number of parishioners who could attend, or utilizing masks and hand sanitizer.

“Several churches had stopped the communion process—anything related to food and beverages—while other churches continued business as usual,” Williams said.

Overall, they found that most (84%) spiritual community participants viewed COVID-19 as a threat to personal health and took steps to minimize the danger to their congregations’ health and surrounding communities.

“The most important thing I want to express is that regardless of where these spiritual institutions decided to weigh in on the pandemic, they were often seen as a place of refuge for parishioners in need,” Williams said. “So whether or not they considered the pandemic to be a serious threat or a major priority at that time, they were available and accessible to those who were struggling.”

These issues included health concerns for themselves and loved ones and coping with isolation. For many parishioners—particularly the elderly—their spiritual community provides a place to socialize.

“These institutions served as a beacon of hope through community prayer,” Williams said. “Whether it was in person or through phone calls, they provided a place of solace for people to cope with fears that the pandemic brought up and to re-examine what was important in their life. To me, this was just a starting point for a conversation on how religion is one of the social determinants of health.”

Community Health extends beyond racial, cultural, and ethnic groups, encompassing various affinity groups that individuals belong to, including spiritual groups and groups pertaining to sexual identity. One group that is often overlooked in studies is LGBTQ minorities.

Minority Stress in the Study of LGBTQ PoC Health Disparities,” a chapter written by Williams and her colleague Dylan Serpas for the book Heart, Brain and Mental Health Disparities for LGBTQ People of Color, was published in May 2021. The chapter focuses on the serious health impacts of stress experienced by LGBTQ people of color.

“As persons of color in American society, there’s an added layer of stress that we face from constantly feeling that we need to be on guard and protect ourselves,” Williams said. “This innate sense of fight or flight impacts our heart, our brain, and our mental health. Then you add the intersectionality of being LGBTQ and being a person of color, and there’s so many different things to consider.”

The chapter describes what minority stress looks like for this group and why it’s important.

“Right now, one of the most underserved groups and underrepresented groups in healthcare is the LGBT community, specifically LGBT persons of color,” Williams said. “Very few practitioners understand their specific needs and how to provide them with the care they deserve.”

“I want to support any effort to improve health outcomes for underserved communities.”

One of the foundations of Community Health is not looking at a patient’s condition in isolation but rather examining how an individual’s environment, upbringing, and various community groups all play a role in the individual’s overall health. Effectively treating patients in this manner calls for a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach.

To this end, Williams’ article published in the January 2021 issue of Medical Science Educator, “Interprofessional Education Activities for Students in Physician Assistant, Clinical Psychology, and Athletic Training Programs Utilizing Aspects of Team-Based and Problem-Based Learning Practices,” explores how professionals from different fields can learn from one another through partnership to improve patient outcomes.

In the study, Williams and her University of La Verne colleagues created scenarios—for example, a knee injury—and students in the school’s Physician Assistant, Clinical Psychology, and Athletic Training programs worked together to address all of the patient’s needs.

“This helped the students understand the roles, responsibilities, and scope of practice for other professions and how they can work collaboratively to help the patient in a very holistic way,” Williams said. “The take-home message for all the students I’ve had over the years is that you’re not just treating the disease; you’re treating the patient. We’re not going to have all the answers in one specific profession.”

Williams is excited to pass on these lessons to the first inaugural cohort for KGI’s MSCM program.

“I’m thankful that these three projects crossed the finish line, and I’m looking forward to further opportunities to continue research efforts related to improving healthcare for diverse communities,” Williams said.