Chattanooga clergy join statewide call to Gov. Lee to expand coronavirus response

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ The Rev. Charlotte S. N.N. Williams, of the Eastdale Village Community UMC, shown in January. She participated in the call.

Clergy across Tennessee, representing more than 140 congregations and civic organizations, are calling on Gov. Bill Lee to give local governments more freedom to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

During a conference call on Thursday, the faith leaders asked the governor to support legislation that would allow local municipalities to require employers to provide paid sick leave, set their own criteria for who gets property tax freezes, expand voting access and ensure local immigrant communities feel safe. They leaned into the governor's faith, citing scriptures and Bible stories that demonstrate care during a crisis.

"As we practice social distance, we must also institute social justice," said the Rev. Charlotte Williams, pastor at Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church and member of Chattanooga in Action for Love Equality and Benevolence.

Local immigrant communities are wary of interacting with government or medical agencies, leaving them unable to access resources to help with COVID-19 and tornado recovery, said the Rev. Josh Woodrow, pastor at Bridge City Community Church and member of CALEB.

On Thursday, an investigation began in a predominantly immigrant community in Ooltewah where management is accused of hoarding donations and supplies intended for tornado victims. The governor should ensure protections for immigrants, regardless of status, so communities can heal from the natural disaster and remain safe during the public health crisis, Woodrow said.

"We have an unprecedented pandemic facing us but even an unprecedented event does not change the fact that, if you are a Christian, our God sets a precedent of care for the oppressed and the marginalized in our communities."

The Chattanooga clergy were also joined by faith leaders from Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope and Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, who called on the governor to implement other changes. To ensure the public's safety, Tennessee should allow widespread voting by mail for upcoming elections. Emergency funds for the coronavirus should also be allowed to go towards helping residents with rent relief, the clergy said.

The coronavirus pandemic has put tens of thousands of Tennessee residents out of work.

Lee is planning to reopen the state on May 1, though the state's major cities including Chattanooga are pushing back against those directives and establishing their own guidelines.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.