Interview with pastor Doug Williams by Marcia Dixon MBE

Doug Williams is one of the most influential Black pastors in the UK.  He is Senior Pastor of Emmanuel Christian Centre (ECC) in Walthamstow, East London.  During the UK lockdown in March, news swept through the Christian community that Pastor Doug was seriously ill with COVID-19.  The much-loved Pastor has lived to tell the tale.  This is his story.

KEEP THE FAITH (KTF): Before the lockdown in March, there was a lot of talk about COVID-19. What were your initial views about the pandemic?

PASTOR DOUG WILLIAMS (PDW): My initial reaction to news of the pandemic was shock. I kept asking, how could something of this magnitude be allowed to happen? I was so disappointed at how China concealed the true genesis and impact of the issue in their country, and also concluded that the political manoeuvring on the issue within the World Health Organisation was unacceptable.

KTF: How did you discover you had COVID-19?

PDW: After an ambulance crew was sent to my house! My family noted the degeneration of my health with horror. My wife then decided to make a call to the emergency services and they came. The ambulance was outside our home for some time, and they conducted a number of doorstep tests. I asked to remain at home, as I didn’t need a ventilator. My family stepped up my care in an amazing way. One day I said to my youngest daughter, Leanne: “This could be COVID-19.” She said: “Could? Dad, the medical notes say that your presenting complaint IS COVID-19!” I was stunned, and just had to let that sink in.

KTF: In what ways did COVID-19 affect you physically, mentally and spiritually?

PDW: Physically, I was subject to profuse sweating shivers and chills. I lost my appetite. I had intense aches in all my joints. The coughing was ugly and rocked my whole body, as it filled my lungs with a disgusting substance that had to be expelled. My breathing was heavily laboured. It would take me two or three attempts to go down or up the stairs. Mentally, I was constantly tired, and my family said sometimes I actually appeared to lose consciousness for short periods of time.

KTF: How did the wider Christian community learn about your illness?

PDW: My church leaders stepped in to manage ministry requirements, sharing with the local church and wider Christian community what was happening to me. They asked that folk seriously pray for me. This prayer cover was to prove more significant than anybody really knows.

KTF: At what moment did you feel that you were on the road to recovery?

PDW: I knew something was going to happen, when people I hadn’t spoken to for a while began to make random calls to me, asking about my well-being. I had calls from around the UK, USA, Holland, Portugal, Estonia, Ghana and Malaysia. Perhaps the most intriguing of all of these calls was from a man called Gilmar Carmo from Brazil! He had found me in a Cross Rhythms magazine article, and felt a burden to pray for me and the band! He told me he was part of an intercession network that prayed for musicians, artists and worship leaders. That article was written when I was in my mid-twenties; I am now 61! I knew God was planning something. I had emailed Gilmar on the Wednesday, and his team were committed to pray that following weekend. On the Tuesday morning after the prayers, I woke up feeling weak and heavily congested. As I had attempted to clear my nose, the discharged mucus was black and contained blood clots. I had to move quickly to the bathroom, and cough up all the substance in my lungs. I then convinced myself that the condition was getting steadily worse, so tomorrow I would ask my wife to call the ambulance again, as we had promised. 

The next morning I woke up, ready to call the doctor again. I sat up carefully, to minimise the pain in my joints but, to my utter surprise, I experienced no pain! I checked my breathing and it felt normal. So I sat on the side of my bed and just began to weep. I thanked God that He was still my Healer, and as I worshipped, I suddenly smelt bacon! I hadn’t been able to smell for weeks and weeks. I knew my wife was cooking breakfast, so I threw on my dressing gown and headed for the kitchen. I walked down the stairs, then suddenly realised I had done so without stopping, and without holding onto the stair rail. I promptly turned around and walked back up the stairs, just to test this! When I reached the top, I felt like I had conquered Mt Everest, and punched the air in sheer joy! I hollered out to my wife, and she came running to the stairs to join me in praising God! From that day my recovery kicked in. It had been a long struggle, and I was happy and blessed to be on the mend.

KTF: What are the three key lessons you learnt about life and faith in God whilst going through and overcoming COVID-19? 

PDW: My lessons were:

  1. Life is more fragile than we would like to admit! Don’t take it for granted.
  2. Treat your family well; the favour does get returned!
  3. Do all that is medically possible during your illness, and be wise.
  4. Upgrade your devotional habit, and ask people to pray for you like never before.
  5. Trust God, and choose to worship through your crisis. If you can’t sing, YouTube can! 

KTF: You are now back, working at church. How was your congregation impacted by COVID-19, and how is ECC supporting members?

PDW: Life goes on… and it has to! We had to develop our online presence and services to a new level, and find ways of keeping in touch with our members in small virtual groups via Zoom! Amazingly, we have had few major COVID-related tragedies amongst direct members, but some of them have lost relatives who had underlying illnesses, etc. We have also increased a hardship fund to provide financially as much as we can for families in dire need, and we have also delivered food parcels.

KTF: It seems that we are over the worse of it. What is your focus as a church during the next six months?

PDW: The threat of a winter spike in the virus is still a possibility, so complacency on this issue isn’t recommended! There are still regional lockdowns, and we are encouraging our members to have caution. However, on another level, the changes in church have given us the opportunity to overhaul the ministry as a whole. We are now in the middle of a process called ARQ (asking the right questions). In consultation with Dr Joel Edwards, we are reviewing and adjusting just about everything inside the church structures, to clarify vision, maximise venues, and develop fresh leadership models. This process is going to be challenging and exciting at the same time, but it’s needed if we are to love God passionately, build church biblically, and serve our community relevantly. Pray for us!

KTF: What lessons do you think the wider church needs to learn from COVID-19, as well as from the BLM protests that took place in May and June?

PDW: The pandemic highlighted the need for church to seriously pray for government. The political handling of this crisis has been found wanting on so many levels. Our leaders need prayer, but most churches don’t step up to this very well at all.

In terms of the BLM protests, I have been very clear that in my saying, “Black lives matter”, I am not saying that others don’t!  George Floyd’s death has put fresh focus on an unresolved issue for the Black community, and if justice for Black people is withheld, then justice for ALL people is under threat! In addition to my holding sentiment for the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’, I still hold the right to NOT embrace all the stated agenda and objective items of the BLM movement, with is leanings toward Marxist political philosophy. As a Christian leader, the movement’s apparent aversion to heteronormativity and traditional family values are things that I cannot embrace. The wider debate in this movement, about how human sexuality is to be understood, is at odds with my theological perspective, and something I really question being tagged to a Black Lives discussion. If true Christian discernment is compromised here, our prophetic credibility is lost. The focus must not be lost; racism, prejudice and the abuse of power are all to be challenged in the most robust and socially appropriate manner.

KTF: How will you be spending Christmas? 

PDW: Quietly…in my family bubble… with heartfelt thanks to God!

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