RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Hoping to open up dialogue about cancer and the racial disparities in treatment outcomes, Rudene Haynes decided to bring the Black faith community and medical experts together.

The effort led to weekly conversations between Black clergy in Virginia and health leaders, including guests such as Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Haynes, a finance lawyer and Richmond-based partner at Hunton Andrews Kurth, thought about the idea after learning in 2019 that Dr. Robert Winn was set to become the new director of VCU Health’s Massey Cancer Center.

“One of my board members had mentioned to me that he [Dr. Winn] was an African American lung cancer specialist, and that peaked my interest because I know that cancer is not something that we really like to talk about in sort of the Black faith community in particular,” Haynes said in an interview.

Haynes first connected Dr. Winn with Pastor F. Todd Gray at Fifth Street Baptist Church, a church in North Richmond that she used to attend, and then with others in the Black faith community. She said she brought them together because the respect and trust that pastors and preachers have within the Black community.

“I think the other piece to this too was the fact that it was really important to have someone who is trusted from the medical community,” Haynes said. “There wasn’t these intermediators. You were talking specifically to the director of the cancer center.”

But the conversations started before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyday life and shifted their discussions towards the unknowns of the new virus.

“Our conversation just started talking about all the misunderstandings and misconceptions about how covid was transmitted in the community,” Haynes told 8News. “We just realized that a lot of our faith leaders were struggling. Like they didn’t know what to tell their congregations.”

With the confusion and concerns surrounding the pandemic swirling, Dr. Winn agreed to start discussing and addressing the questions pastors had about COVID-19 on a weekly basis.

“Because people just started joining the call and more people were asking questions and we were exploring information about testing, and what a different test meant, and how you can mitigate the spread, I was like maybe we should start branding this,” Haynes said. “We should call it something.”

After thinking about some names, Haynes eventually went with “Facts and Faith Fridays.” Now, about two years later, the series has grown and included notable guests such as Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. First Lady Jill Biden spoke about the series during her visit to the Massey Cancer Center last February.

“Facts and Faith Fridays” evolved as people started learning more about COVID-19 and mitigation practices, with topics such as general wealth disparities, education disparities, voting rights, protests and other health disparities being discussed.

Haynes wants the series to refocus on her initial objective of connecting the medical community with the faith community to discuss cancer. She acknowledged that fear over cancer keeps some from wanting to discuss it, but pointed to her own experience as a reason to open up spaces for discussion.

“I think now, I kind of would like to go back to where I started with my original thought of what can we do to equip our pastors to help their congregations deal with cancer,” Haynes said. “The crazy sort of twist of events in all of this, I actually was diagnosed with breast cancer in November of 2020. So, during the course of the ‘Facts and Faith’ conversations I myself had to have like a up close and personal touch with cancer.”

Haynes said “Facts and Faith Fridays” has taught her many things, including the importance of having all people participate in clinical trials to address health disparities. She also said the discussions have shed light on changes to improve the connection between the Black faith community and medical experts.

“Our communities could really benefit from some sort of centralized mechanism to be able to communicate with one another. I feel like so many churches are independently doing their own thing, but it’s helpful when they can come together and collaborate,” Haynes said, noting that addressing these gaps helped pastors and Virginia’s Health Department work together to organize COVID-19 vaccine pop-up sites.

Through her work, Haynes has been named a 2022 Richmond History Makers honoree for “Promoting Community Health” and will be celebrated along with her fellow honorees during a celebration hosted by The Valentine on Tuesday, March 8.

Haynes said she was overwhelmed when she first heard about the honor, adding that while she has received other awards for her community work and “Facts and Faith Fridays,” being named a Richmond History Maker was different.

“This one really sat with me. I was taken aback because the Valentine is such a noble institution in Richmond and I know they take pride in who they identify to be a History Maker. I was really touched,” she explained.

“Not to say that I was happy that someone noticed the work I had done, but the fact that someone thought the work was impactful and transformative enough to actually give it recognition. That, I think, struck me more than anything.”