By Claudia Sandell
July 21, 2020
“We just really wanna be out here and be a blessing and help who we can help—show [people] the love of God by being here and not just praying for it. Here’s my hands, here’s my feet.” Jewel Williams spoke with heart. Her voice, with more zest than most can muster nowadays, delivered a story of community, of pain, of good will, and of empathy. To her community, she has devoted her body and spirit, and to me, she offered words that struck the soul.
Jewel called me from her home in Georgia, where she is a mother, wife, entrepreneur, educator, student, and community leader. She also directs The New Birth Disaster Relief Team under Pastor Dr. Jamal Bryant. The Disaster Relief Team, a ministry within the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (NBMBC), in DeKalb County, serves communities across the Southeast. NBMBC is also the beating heart of Jewel’s community.
Jewel described NBMBC as a home for more than prayer. Land-wise, NBMBC is the largest Black church in the United States, with a gym, commercial kitchen, and an acre of land destined to grow food for those who need it. Jewel and her team also plan to implement sustainability initiatives and health education programs: “We’re starting to convert to solar panels. We’re very environmentally concerned; we’re very concerned about diet and healthy eating and we’re hoping to educate the community and make changes,” Jewel said. The plans reflect efforts to make DeKalb home, for posterity.
Making change is a collaborative effort mirrored in collective struggle. NBMBC’s congregation spans generations, with “Black Lives Matter” and “Civil Rights” folks all under one roof—the designations, used in jest, are also tools for organizing the congregation when community-wide participation is in order, as it has been in recent months. In the Southeast, communities are recovering from various disasters: the tornado that hit Nashville in March, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the pandemic of police brutality against Black people nationwide. The latter has left Jewel and her community hurting for a long time now.
NBMBC provides a sense of home for people building their lives in DeKalb, especially when life in DeKalb is especially difficult. Now during the pandemic, it provides free COVID-19 tests and keeps a fully stocked food pantry. Despite the church’s efforts and the community’s will to survive—to rejoice, even—amidst the pandemic, unemployment, and state-sanctioned injustices, Jewel maintained that it can’t go at it alone:
“If there’s a disaster for the nation, it’s a triple disaster for our community, because we don’t have the resources we need to recover,” Jewel said, adding, “You can’t just leave this area to fend for itself.” Jewel expressed a sentiment that she and her team, including Pastor Bryant, recognize as a result of the unequal allocation of resources that plagues Black communities across the Southeast. Many, for example, have more discount stores than they do grocery stores. In a similar vein, low-income areas rarely see immediate relief from devastation, like that of the tornado, which grossly hit low-income areas and elderly residents in Nashville. Jewel sent me pictures of the damage from the days just after the tornado hit and from late June—broken glass and shards of wood were scattered about the same as they had been ninety days prior. The tornado coincided with the spread of COVID-19, which has been statistically harsher to Black than to White Americans, according to CDC data. It’s in times like these that we witness the lack of resource allocation that can determine the speed of a community’s recovery.
It’s impossible to write about food apartheid (a term that describes when communities are geographically and economically isolated from nutritious food), COVID-19, and disaster relief without taking into account race. Jewel knows all too well:
“People are afraid. That’s the overarching concern right now. Unfortunately, the rates of infection in African Americans are higher because of the higher percentage of frontline workers. People don’t have a choice. They’re in a Catch-22. Many work at the local Kroger or other essential businesses. Few have jobs that allow them to work from home. They can’t quit their jobs, or else won’t get unemployment, so they gotta go. People are afraid,” Jewel said.
Jewel spoke with the vigor that one has from learning the meaning of survival. She knows first-hand what it is like when economic burdens require sacrificing one necessity for another. “Wow, I’m struggling to put groceries in my refrigerator. I have to decide whether to use these thirty dollars for gas or for food,” she said, recalling the kinds of decisions she’s had to make in the past.
Under Jewel’s direction and Pastor Bryant’s leadership, the Disaster Relief Team has collaborated with The King’s Table, another ministry of NBMBC to meet the rise in need for food. The Disaster Relief Team and King’s Table have made it possible for the DeKalb and nearby communities to receive 1,080 gallons of milk, weekly, from Borden Dairy. The Farmlink Project helped to arrange this USDA-funded donation.
Jewel and her team’s aid extend far beyond their church community. “If we can make it happen, we do,” Jewel said. True to their word, Jewel and her team plan to arrange some milk deliveries to the communities impacted by the tornado in Nashville.
“Here’s my hands, here’s my feet,” Jewel said, in offering. Jewel has given herself to her community in many ways. She teaches English as a Second Language to newly arrived immigrants. She also works with special needs children and helps run her husband’s business, not to mention sourcing food for the pantry, directing the Disaster Relief Team, and studying, too; she will soon receive her PhD in Disaster Relief.
It doesn’t take Jewel’s expertise to know the importance of access to healthy food—of equal opportunity—for a community to stand on its own two feet. But her empathy makes her especially attuned to the needs of people around her. When a person has to figure out how they’re going to eat, she told me, “a person implodes.” Her words expressed remorse for the toll that injustice has on the human spirit. At the same time, her actions expressed what the human spirit can accomplish against all odds.