Cathy Little: A servant leader in her time
By John Addyman
Years from now, when Rochester native Cathy Little thinks about the coronavirus pandemic, she’ll remember the faces missing in church, the fear of going out of her home and shopping when a store might be crowded, the challenges of being a spiritual servant leader, the stress of dealing with a COVID-19 sick relative and a stressed hospital staff…
…and a pie.
Little, 60, has been on the front line since the virus struck Rochester’s African American and Hispanic communities, working as the program coordinator for the Interdenominational Health Ministry Coalition (IHMC).
Three years prior, her group had begun a new program: to help establishing a health ministry or health program in churches.
“My job was to help churches identify projects to receive funding. It was so exciting. So rewarding. It’s been phenomenal because churches are saying, ‘We need this; we need to have something for our congregants.’
“At the end of day, a lot of African American and Hispanic people live with hypertension and diabetes and heart disease. We must educate ourselves so this does not become generational.”
The test for the program came when the first victims of COVID-19 fell ill.
“I remember my pastor said, at the start of this pandemic, ‘We can’t operate in fear; we have to operate in faith.’ He wanted Black people in church.” But Little couldn’t do that. She didn’t feel safe. She needed to stay home during the pandemic because she lives with a chronic illness.
Plenty of fear to go around
“Fear was going around,” she said, talking about last spring. “Lack of education. I think what happened was a lot of depression. At IHMC, we clearly saw we needed to address the mental health toll after COVID. The community is manifested with anxiety. Isolation caused people to become depressed. The constant loss of individuals in churches had an effect.
“A church member told me it seemed like every week someone was dying of COVID. That caused us to think: ‘I’m not going to Walmart; I’m not going to Wegmans. I can’t move because this has caused me to become paralyzed.’
“Early in the pandemic, we would bring in the experts, the doctors, to talk to congregations about the COVID infection and the coming vaccines and bring in mental health experts to talk about how you can take care of your mind, body and spirit. More so for us, we really took time to make sure people never lost sight of the word of God as far as praying, scriptures that talk about healing and building yourself up, trusting God. Those are the things we were intentional about.”
Her job was to provide churches with information — food distribution, job information, housing, how to navigate unemployment website, anything that will help a person be able to function in their homes.
“It wasn’t just about the pandemic, it was coping skills,” she said.
Little said it was April 2020 when the reality of the lethality of COVID-19 set in.
“One day an IHMC meeting – we were still gathering at that time – I remember a lot of questions about COVID, what was going on. Our founder, Phyllis Jackson, said to people, “Just make sure you wash your hands, just make sure you wear a mask…” Then two weeks later, everything shut down. Reality set in for all of us. COVID was really happening and it was spreading quickly. We realized we had a big problem.
“If you went to the store, you could tell people didn’t want to be next to one another. I’d go into the grocery store and see people in the aisle and I’d go around the other way. I saw someone without a mask and ask myself, ‘Why doesn’t that person have on a mask?’ I had to stop myself and say, ‘Don’t be judgmental. You focus on you and your family.’
“There was a lot of confusion — we saw it with toilet paper, where people were afraid to go out and get staple items.
“I remember our pastor saying to us one day, ‘People, everything is going to be okay.’ There are many days that resonates in my spirit: Everything is going to be okay.
“We had shifted into this state of panic.”
Things are different now.
“I’m so glad we’re at the point now where we’re calm. Now you can look at a person in a mask and tell if they’re smiling. People weren’t smiling a year ago. Our community went through that fear. We are on the trajectory of coming back to a place of some kind of normalcy and acceptance and I pray we don’t ever take this for granted.”
COVID-19 hits hard
The pandemic hit Little and her family — indeed greater Rochester — hard in April.
“A friend of ours died. He was a doer, a helper in our community, Donald Starver. He was helping people. I remember many posts on his Facebook page — he had Lysol, disinfecting wipes, and asked who in this village needed these items.
“Then, there was a time he wasn’t posting anything. One day I sent him a post, ‘Hey, Don, haven’t heard from you. How are you?’ Then my daughter called and told me he had died. That was a hard one. He was the first person I knew and loved and respected that died from COVID. Our community was shaken by that. He was just 56. That was difficult.”
Starver helped found Pillars of Hope, where Black and Hispanic men counsel city school students, and he was central to the local My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which created a supportive network to develop boys into young men with careers. He was well-known for taking kids fishing and bringing back fish to people who were hungry. He was the city’s deputy director of communications for three years. A big loss.
Little has known six people who died from COVID-19. Her niece was hospitalized with it, as was her brother.
“There’s a sadness about this…an anger. So many emotions attached to that loss. Not being able to hold your loved one’s hand. So, what do you do with those emotions? How as a community are we going to help people to grieve and grieve in a way that’s safe and acceptable? With all of this, we have to, in our community, figure this out. How are we going to handle the scope of all of this and people being alone and not be able to hug on their loved ones and not give them that proper burial? Those are things we can’t lose sight of as a community.”
She said IHMC had just received some funding from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation and four churches will provide counseling services that will roll out in April. “Our goal is to meet the need of families who are going through loss — the job, your marriage, a family member — our children who have lost so much by not being social, not being with their friends.”
Some sunlight in the dark
This February, as vaccines started to become available, Little had IHMC at the forefront.
“Aenon Missionary Baptist Church is one of the largest churches in our community, with a more elderly population. On Feb. 6, partnering with Common Ground Health, we offered a vaccine clinic for Black and brown people 65 and older. We registered 500 people. We put together a team, registered these folks. That was the day I decided to be vaccinated, too.
“To watch our community, our Black and brown elders, walk into Riverside Convention Center — beautiful people, retired individuals, distinguished-looking men and women. It impressed me to see our elders lead the way. I was overwhelmed. They were also so appreciative that we reached out to them. It was one of those days you realize what it’s all about, that a community moving together, the community saying, especially our elders, ‘We are going to lead the way to make sure we are among the first ones to take this vaccine.’”
People came into the center to first get the shot, then to thank Cathy Little.
“They were so appreciative that they didn’t have to jump through hoops to even register. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘You know, if they can get vaccinated, I’m going to follow. At the end of the evening, any volunteers who wanted to get vaccinated could. I got my shot.
“Watching our folks being so happy to receive the vaccine, I had to remember — this is a small percentage. We know people of color are not getting the vaccine like they should…we really have to focus on what we can do different. A small percentage has been vaccinated, but it’s my hope that percentage will share with the next people and the next person and we will educate people as a whole and allow people to shut the noise down.
“One gentleman said to me, ‘You know with this vaccine, they are trying to eliminate our race of Black and brown people.”’ My response to that was, ‘You just think about what you just said. 80% of the people who have taken the vaccine are of the white race. In our community a lot of people feel the white race is the superior race. Why would they try to eliminate themselves? Think what you are saying. If they are taking the vaccine more than we are — they’re not trying to eliminate themselves.
“He looked at me like, ‘I never even thought about that.’
The resistance to vaccines and federal programs is real in the African American community, due in part to the Tuskegee Experiment in Macon County, Alabama, that started in the 1930s and didn’t end until 1972. The federal Public Health Service conducted the experiment to study the effects of syphilis, promising medication and care, then letting subjects die or go insane without any treatment. President Bill Clinton apologized for the program in 1997.
Little knows that’s an issue.
“Vaccination has nothing to do with eliminating a race,” she said. “We will do that to ourselves if we do not take the vaccine or take more responsibility for our own health.”
So far in Rochester, the vaccine clinics are a hit.
“We have done three clinics since early February,” Little said. “It’s a blessing. I feel so humbled and honored to be able to serve in this capacity.
During one of the clinics, she had a moment she won’t ever forget.
“I received a pie,” she said.
She keeps a photo of it on her phone. With the pie was a note, thanking her for her service and leadership during the pandemic.
That had a profound effect on her.
Ask Cathy Little to describe her role in the faith community, she has a simple answer.
“I strive to be a servant leader,” she said.