Pandemic, Year One: Gary Abdullah Of State College: A Black Church Stays Connected

Mar 24, 2021

Gary Abdullah is retired from Penn State.
Credit Gary Abdullah / courtesy of Gary Abdullah

We asked WPSU listeners to share their experience of the pandemic. WPSU’s Kristine Allen brings us their stories for our series, Pandemic, Year One. For today’s story, she spoke with a Penn State retiree, an elder at his church, who’s helping to keep the congregation connected.

Gary Abdullah of State College has been very careful to avoid catching COVID-19.

“I wear rubber gloves everyplace I go nowadays,” he says. “Everybody’s got a mask.”

In the past year, he says, the pandemic has changed some of his habits.

“Yeah.  It’s cut down on all my bargain shopping, you know.  That’s what my wife always points out. But you know, I haven’t been inside a supermarket in at least nine months. We do everything by curbside pickup, or have it delivered to the home.”

During the pandemic, Abdullah has been devoting much of his time, as he always does to his church.  He’s an elder at Unity Church of Jesus Christ in State College, where he also plays the bass at services. But the pandemic has changed that routine, too.

“We haven’t been to a church service since last March,” Abdullah says. I do activities at the church, because I’m a musician. I will go in, into the empty building with a few other musicians and provide the music for the online services, and that sort of thing. We have been providing music, a sermon – just kind of a way for church members to stay connected and be encouraged.  We’ve been doing that since last March.”

Abdullah said the congregation has remained together in spirit, but socially distant.

“We haven’t had any gatherings.  Because we’re a Black church, we’re really concerned about the COVID disease having a greater impact on the Black community. And we don’t want to be the people in Happy Valley, within the community who generate the hot spot.”

He said the church has long been an important gathering place for the Black community in State College.

“When Happy Valley, when Penn State started developing or growing a Black community, one of the first things the Black community did was form a church. So it’s always been a place of uplift.”

“State College, Penn State, doesn’t have a Black neighborhood,” Abdullah said. “And so the way that you find Black community, as with a lot of other subgroups, is they gather and do things.  They have activities. And so COVID has just cut all of our activities out.”

Although they’re staying apart physically, he says the congregation has been looking out for each other during the pandemic.

“The elders and leaders of the church have just put together phone lists. And what I tend to do is I will call about 7 or 8 people and just say, ‘How are you doing?’ But also, ‘Do you need anything?’ Because COVID has had such a profound impact on people’s financial situations.”  

And, he says, there are those who offer of help.

“One of the things that has been amazing is that there are people, within and without our church, who have been coming forward to say ‘I know times are tight for some people.  If you know of anyone who is in real need, I can donate.’”

In an email, Abdullah told WPSU that the pandemic struck “at a weird time for Happy Valley’s people of color.”

“Yeah,” he said, in our interview. “The timing was terrible. I guess there’s really no good time to have a pandemic. But one of the fascinating things was with the George Floyd incidents, the situation in Minnesota, for many people of color, was a continuation of oppression and violence. And so as people were responding to it, they also had to deal with the fact that you can’t have a mass demonstration of Black people coming together, because the pandemic effects Black people at higher rates than it does the general population.”

The danger of protests in the COVID era has caused Abdulla to change the ways he works for social justice.

“It pushes me to do things that are more mainstream, as opposed to out in the streets,” he said. “Phone calls, everybody’s zooming nowadays, letters, email.”

But, looking ahead to the time when crowds can gather again, Abdullah got his COVID-19 vaccine. And once the vaccine has time to fully kick in, Abdullah hopes to get back to his bargain-hunting.

“I have the date marked on my calendar,” he said. “Here’s the day I can go back into T.J. Maxx.”

While at Penn State, Gary Abdullah worked for WPSU-FM about two decades ago.  You’ll find this and all of our pandemic stories with our COVID-19 coverage at WPSU.org/radio.