This story was originally published Feb. 26, 2021, and it has been updated as of March 30, 2021.


Rev. Bronson Woods was planning to send 35 people to Ethiopia on behalf of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on March 1, 2020. That date sticks out to him for obvious reasons.

During that trip, the team was honored at the Royal Palace by the first woman elected president of the country, Sahle-Work Zewde. But back home, news of the rapid spread of the coronavirus around the world forced massive shutdowns and self-imposed quarantines by local leaders to stem the spread of the disease COVID-19.

Woods and Ebenezer ultimately halted in-person services at the church in Sweet Auburn—led by Reverend and current Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock. While Woods, the Assistant Pastor for Young Adults and Outreach Ministries, couldn’t physically interact with crowds from the former church of pastor and civil rights icon Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he knew the work of the church was just beginning. The pandemic wasn’t going to stop Ebenezer’s ministry.

“By March 1, the pandemic was in full effect, and as soon as it hit, we immediately knew we needed some sort of response,” Woods says. “We were able to get ahold of about 54,000 face masks and hand sanitizer, and in a few short weeks we were able to assemble those to provide that to the community.”

The church started off providing masks and sanitizer, but once testing had expanded, Woods says they were able to connect with a lab that could do COVID testing on their campus starting in early summer 2020.

“Since then, we have been testing every week,” he says. “We developed a relationship with the Fulton County Board of Health, and we now have what we call ‘Testing Tuesdays.’”

Ebenezer Baptist Church tests each Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to this, they’ve partnered with local food banks to provide food to the community as well.


Partnering for health equity

Woods’ church has also partnered most recently with United Way of Greater Atlanta as part of a broader faith-based initiative to expand testing, education and other resources for communities of color across South Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties.

Ebony Johnson, director of Place-Based Initiatives for United Way, says this Choose Healthy Life initiative kicked off on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021. Choose Healthy Life was spearheaded in New York City roughly a year ago by Debra Fraser-Howze, who is widely recognized for her leadership work in communities of color regarding public health issues, is a former Senior Vice President of Government and External Affairs at OraSure Technologies and Founder of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS. Fraser-Howze is widely recognized for more than three decades of global leadership to communities of color regarding teenage pregnancy, social welfare and HIV and AIDS. She also advised two U.S. Presidents while serving on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

COVID-19 has spread throughout the U.S. and devastated the Black community, and this program is centered around churches in communities of color and their ability to provide vital information as a trusted source in their community.

“I came into the project with the goal of recruiting and onboarding church partners to serve in this initiative and help them identify community health workers to do health education and outreach,” Johnson says. “Our goal with community health workers is to make sure as many as possible come from the church in that community where it’s located. They are going to be extremely important in providing that peer-to-peer trust within the community.”

Choose Healthy Life has testing events in March at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Impact Church in East Point, Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam in Atlanta, Gateway Restoration Church in Forest Park, Salem Bible Church in Atlanta and Debre Bisrat Saint Gabriel Church in Clarkston.

Helping children and families in Greater Atlanta gain access to information and testing is one of the ways we can help address regional disparities and improve conditions in South DeKalb, South Fulton and Clayton Counties. We know that every person whose life we change or positively impact, will go on to change the lives of countless others. When we work together—pooling our resources, our time and energy—our community impact grows exponentially. United, we can do more for our community. This is important work—work that is never over.

But we can all achieve more if we unite for more.

This work is particularly important in “communities of color that are very hesitant to get testing,” Johnson says. Community health workers and trusted members of the church can help clear up misinformation and misconceptions about the virus, testing and, when the time comes, the vaccine.

“People trust people who look like them,” Johnson says. “Historically, the church has always been the cornerstone for the community. Anything and everything you need—information was shared at churches. That was where you got married, other important moments in life—all that happened at church. Faith-based institutions play an important role in the center of the community.”

Woods agrees.

“There’s something about coming to a house of faith,” he says. “It soothes your doubts and calms your fears.

“The pandemic has charged us to get to work, provide resources and be of assistance right now in this time of need. We’re not just testing folks, but we’re educating folks about the pandemic, what the masks are doing and how important these measures are.”

This effort, though, has done a lot to help people buy in to the importance of testing and vaccination, Woods says. Ebenezer took steps to provide pamphlets, have doctors on site to answer questions and the work has paid off.

More people are getting tested, taking advantage of the resources Ebenezer can provide. This is what Johnson and United Way know can happen in other communities where the number of positive test cases have been significant.

“A big part of this that’s really important to us is the equity piece,” she says. “We had a particular drive to have [Choose Healthy Life] grantees come from our Brighter Future communities… Churches represented as part of this initiative are in South Fulton, South DeKalb and Clayton counties. Data has been an important tool, and we continue to use that to make investments where we do.

“I’m really proud that we have an interfaith approach to this work.”

When we Unite for More, everyone can climb. Work this important is never over or done alone. Can children, families and Greater Atlanta communities count on you? Unite for more today.

United Way works actively throughout the Greater Atlanta region to help pair community health workers with patients to help them avoid expensive and unnecessary emergency room visits.

Choose HEALTH partners with local hospitals and community health centers to employ and train community health workers who go out into communities to meet with patients that may have a history of treating conditions by visiting emergency rooms instead of a primary care physician or clinic. CHWs are frontline public health workers who are trusted members of the community and have a close understanding of the communities in which they serve.

As advocates, CHWs must be knowledgeable about services and be able to make contacts within the community. CHWs help families who may have language and cultural barriers and empower families to negotiate their needs with medical staff, social services or other community-based organizations.

Emergency rooms are the least effective way for people with routine or chronic health conditions to be treated. Frequent users of emergency rooms represent a small group of both insured and uninsured, vulnerable patients; however, this group accounts for a disproportionally high number of ER visits and medical care costs.

United Way saw that patients in Greater Atlanta were often waiting until the condition became too serious before they received any treatment. So, they used the emergency department as a primary treatment source. This resulted in exorbitant medical bills.

Ebony Johnson, United Way senior manager of Health, said high-risk patients are typically those managing treatment for diabetes, cardiovascular or respiratory conditions or a combination of conditions related to obesity. They didn’t have the money, or, in some instances, the transportation available to make those regular doctors’ appointments, Johnson says.

“The community health workers, through a set of interventions, do most of the work in the [patient’s] home setting to provide health education and try to improve the safety and well-being of the home,” Johnson said. “Some of the folks are not in the best living conditions and there’s an issue around transportation, so the community health worker gives them resources, so they can get access to those things. CHWs work with participants to eliminate barriers around access to medical equipment and medication, housing, food insecurity and transportation.”

Community health workers spend about 70 percent of their time in the community focusing on educating people on how to manage chronic conditions, and they also accompany patients to doctors’ visits, she said.

“A good portion of our patient population is 50 and older, and we have some patients that do have family support, but we help with the education about the chronic conditions and helping them navigate to make an appointment and tell them what to do,” Johnson said. “If they are someone who doesn’t have insurance it’s even more difficult for them.”

Johnson said Choose HEALTH partners with health systems and federally qualified health centers throughout Greater Atlanta. There are partners in Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett and Choose HEALTH does work in the rural counties to address health disparities around diabetes.

“Our biggest partnership is with Grady [Health System],” Johnson said. “It has been in existence since 2012. We target folks coming into Grady, and using community health workers, we have been able to reduce ER encounters and readmissions in the 90th-percentile.”

Bianca Barker works as a community health worker at Oakhurst Medical Center primarily educating patients in an area with a large refugee population. Barker said she gets referrals from different providers and works toward providing a “path to wellness” for the patients.

She supports patients who suffer from diabetes and need education on treating that issue. So, she helps lead diabetic self-management and health education classes. She also assists obese patients who have hypertension. She teaches classes on nutrition and how to manage diseases and potentially lose weight.

“We work with the American Heart Association very closely and identify those people who are in need of a blood pressure cuff or need consultation,” Barker said. “We give them one-on-one lessons about nutrition and help them enroll in the YMCA, which helps them lower their hypertension, as well as improve their overall health.”

Barker, who has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and master’s degree in public health, said she specialized in community health. This helps her as she serves a large population that has a lack of resources and education.

Barker works with patients to develop health goals, which help to keep them out of the emergency department, as well.

“I feel like I’m not directly a social worker and not a physician, but I give health education about individual care and their overall health and how it deals with finances and their mental stability,” Barker said. “Where a physician can’t, I bridge the gap for that overall health.”

Johnson said Choose HEALTH has expanded its work to include interventions to treat pregnant women and newborns. Johnson said they have noticed a trend of emergency rooms treating a high rate of expectant moms, some of which have not received adequate care. CHWs would divert these women from the ER and work to connect them to regular prenatal care and provide health and parenting education, as well as address social barriers in their home.


For information about Choose HEALTH and how to donate, visit