By Robert M. Marovich
Last March, the COVID-19 pandemic washed over Bishop J. Drew Sheard’s family and associates like a tsunami.
His brother, the Reverend Ethan B. Sheard, tested positive for the virus. So did his children, well-known musicians J Drew II and Kierra. His mother, Willie Mae Sheard, and father, Bishop John H. Sheard, pastor of Greater Mitchell Temple Church of God in Christ in Detroit, also contracted the virus.
“It hit my family pretty hard,” Sheard, Senior Pastor of Detroit’s Greater Emmanuel Institutional (GEI) Church of God in Christ, told the Journal of Gospel Music. “The most difficult thing was that we couldn’t go see my mom and dad in the hospital. Every now and then, a nurse was kind to let us talk to mom on the phone. When my mother was nearing the end, they let us come in, but she was pretty much gone by then.”
His brother and children fully recovered, but his mom didn’t. Mother Willie Mae Sheard passed away on April 19, at age 84.
As the family mourned the passing of their matriarch, their energies turned to their father. The virus had hit him so hard that his weight had dropped from 215 to 138 pounds. He was so weak he couldn’t move without assistance.
The most difficult decision the family made, Sheard said, was to remove their father from the hospital. “He had been to five different hospitals. They had shipped him around, and we made a decision to bring him home. We turned his living room into a hospital room, and had the doctors and nurses come in to see about him. God, along with those doctors and nurses, miraculously brought him back to health. He’s at 190 pounds and preaching again.”
The virus also ravaged the local church community. Two GEI deacons tested positive, and Sheard himself narrowly escaped the virus. Prior to the governor’s shutdown order, he had attended a COGIC conference. “It was devastating,” he said. “Quite a few died out of that conference. I was sitting right next to a man that passed.”
Sheard halted in-person services at GEI after the third Sunday in March. “My church doors have been closed since then,” Sheard said. “We started emphasizing social media and learning the technology necessary to do ministry. We have been doing church, Bible study, evening service, all on social media. It looked like I closed down just in time, because no others were infected.”
Meanwhile, colleagues were calling on Sheard, expressing concern about the social and economic impact of the pandemic on their respective ministries. “I started giving people money out of my personal account,” Sheard said, “but it got to be so bad, I thought I’d better call some other pastors together to raise money. We raised approximately $100,000 and gave it away to people in ministries all across the country who qualified for it. No handling fee, no nothing.”
Chemical Bank and local businessman Gary Torgow gave Sheard and three other Detroit-based ministers $25,000 apiece for their relief efforts. “We took that $25,000,” Sheard said, “and we called it a stimulus for families in our respective communities.”
GEI has ensured residents have a steady supply of food. “We provide groceries to approximately 2,000 families every month,” Sheard said. “We have been doing that for some time now. We partner with Forgotten Harvest and Gleaners Community Food Bank, and we also have a tremendous relationship with LaGrasso Brothers Produce.”
Sheard said his church has also served as a site for drive-through COVID-19 testing. “I feel that if there’s a way that people can find out early, maybe they can have some preventive measures to keep it from getting so serious.”
He continued: “When tragedy hits you personally, it causes you to become more sensitive. I’ve had some real tragedies in my life. In 2001, I nearly lost my wife. This time it was my mother. Every time you go through some difficulty, if you have a relationship with God, it causes you to become more compassionate, more concerned about other people. I don’t want anyone to have to experience the kind of pain I felt at the loss of my mother.”
Sheard is awaiting approval from city officials and the health department to turn GEI into a COVID-19 vaccine site. “That would be a blessing, because I am in support of a vaccine,” he said. “Whatever we can do to get through this season, we’re in.”
This is not the first time Sheard, his family, and GEI have collaborated to deliver basic human needs to Michiganders. Since 2016, they have been involved in bringing fresh water to Flint residents affected by that city’s water crisis. “Not only was I pastoring a church in Flint,” Sheard explained, “but the [COGIC] jurisdiction that I preside over, a lot of the churches are in Flint. I gathered a group of leaders and we started sending truckloads of water to Flint. We did a gospel concert with my wife [Karen Clark-Sheard], my sister-in-law [Dorinda Clark-Cole], and my daughter, and we were able to garnish some water through that. I am happy to say that we were one of the first groups to send water there.
“I think we’ve been a catalyst where people can see that ministry is more than coming into four walls and having a brief service. It’s meeting the needs of people.”