Rev. Dorothy Patterson talks COVID-19 and racism in Bayonne

The pastor of Wallace Temple AME Zion Church has been active in the community on both issues

Rev. Dorothy Patterson of Wallace Temple AME Zion Church in Bayonne
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Rev. Dorothy Patterson of Wallace Temple AME Zion Church in Bayonne

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the pandemic of systemic racism has been brought to light across the country. Bayonne, like most U.S. cities, has been faced with both, one new, one very very old.

Rev. Dorothy Patterson, pastor of Bayonne’s Wallace Temple AME Zion Church, has long been active in the community. She spoke with the Bayonne Community News on a broad range of issues.

Keeping up with the congregation

Church services and most church interactions have shifted to an online format. But Patterson said that Wallace Temple had been headed in a virtual direction before COVID-19.

Yet nothing would prepare the congregation or Patterson for the emotional impact of being unable to interact in person.

“Initially it was somewhat difficult from my perspective because I’m a hands-on pastor,” Patterson said.

Patterson is usually a busy pastor, constantly visiting members of the congregation: From hospital visits to Communion at home for those who can’t make it to Sunday services. It was especially hard not visiting senior citizens.

Members connect through online video streaming platforms such as WebEx and Facebook Live.

Patterson hosts Sunday church services every Sunday on livestreams. Afterward, everyone stays on to chat, laugh, and catch up.

The church has been able to redefine community virtually. Patterson said it’s essential to connect during times like these.

Parking lot services

Wallace Temple also did something new. On July 19, church youth held a morning church service in the parking lot, socially distant and with masks.

The parking lot service was still streamed through WebEx and Facebook Live for senior citizens and others who stayed at home.

“The young people wanted to get out, they’ve been inside for a long time,” Patterson said.

Patterson oversaw the mass, which worked out so well they plan to have another parking lot service in August for the youth, potentially, one such service a month.

Patterson said she is no rush to get back to in-person services.

“There’s no longer the normal which we had before,” Patterson said. “That’s one of the things we need to get into our minds.”

Patterson is wary of a potential resurgence of COVID-19 and doesn’t plan on endangering her congregation, especially considering the virus’s disproportionate impact on communities of color.

COVID-19 and communities of color

Patterson said that the root of the problem is that black people are more likely to have pre-existing or other health conditions and are also less likely to have health care.

“We don’t have the accessibility to health care the way other people do,” Patterson said.

That’s one reason Rev. Patterson supports the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, for not penalizing people with pre-existing conditions.

These issues have been around for a long time, but COVID-19 has shone a spotlight on the problem.

Patterson said that it is essential to get information out on healthcare and insurance.

“Sometimes people in the African American community don’t know about things that are going on,” Patterson said.

Justice in education

The problem goes beyond health care.

Patterson said disparities in education negatively affect the black community. She has been a leading voice in calling for more black educators in Bayonne.

At the last Bayonne Board of Education meeting, Patterson noted that in a school district of more than 10,000 students, there are only 19 black educators.

“That means from kindergarten to the time you graduate 12th grade, you may have one teacher that looks like you the whole time you’re in school,” Patterson said.

Patterson said that representation changes the dynamic of the classroom. It inspires black students to become educators themselves and pursue other professions as well.

Patterson said that in a city with a history of racism, it’s important for a change to be made in education.

Police and the black community

Patterson pointed to the lack of a relationship between the police and the black community as a major issue.

Patterson does not support defunding the police but said there needs to be greater accountability for police officers. If they can’t hold each other accountable, there needs to be another entity to hold them accountable.

Patterson called for increased interactions between the police and communities of color. When police officers interact with communities, especially communities of color, they can build relationships and understand each other better, she said.

“I think the police department needs to spend more time in areas of color,” Patterson said. “That means walking the beat, setting up different organizations, community events so that there can be more interactions.”

These positive interactions can help break down barriers and erase stereotypes and stigmas. Interactions, conversations, and just knowing each other is essential, Patterson said.

“It’s difficult to put your knee on the neck of someone you know and had some conversation with,” Patterson said, referencing the police killing of George Floyd.

“Before we begin to judge, let’s sit down and have a conversation,” Patterson said. “I think the more we spend time sitting at the table, having conversations and listening to each other from the heart, and not coming to the table with our prejudgments, we will be able to make some headway and do some things better.”

Racism on Facebook

The police are investigating the case of a racist Facebook page calling for lynchings in Bayonne. Patterson said she is watching closely to see what’s going to happen.

“That’s hate speech, and there are criminal consequences with things like this,” Patterson said, hoping that the person responsible is held accountable.

“That means that people who are not African American or people of color, they need to take a front and center opposition to things like that,” Patterson said.

Patterson said she was glad that there are people who took a stand on the issue, but the racist Facebook comment illustrates that people still think that way in this city.

“That’s why it’s important that education in this city changes,” Patterson said. “Education changes the mindset of people,” adding “It’s important that we are able to come together and listen to each other if we want change.”

Not politics, just a pastor

“Pastors who are African American, we take on a different type of responsibility in many cases,” Patterson said. “In many cases our responsibility to our congregation, and what it means to be a pastor, looks completely different from a priest.”

The black church has always been a voice for justice.

“To speak out on issues of injustice, it just means that I’m the pastor,” Patterson said. “It’s part of what I do, part of the call.”

Advocating for change and against injustice is all in a day’s work for Rev. Dorothy Patterson.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Daniel Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.