Some of the most vulnerable communities facing COVID-19 are also those active in large public protests centered around the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
How can those communities best safeguard their health and also hold a prophetic voice?
Dr. Theon Hill of Wheaton College asked that question June 5 as part of a webinar hosted by the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and the Humanitarian Disaster Institute of Wheaton College. Themed “Race, Church & Response in Crisis,” the webinar was part of a series on churches and COVID-19, expanded to prepare churches responding amidst racial unrest and concerns about police brutality following the death of Floyd.
Hill asked three African-American, evangelical panelists how churches can address fear and anxiety amidst ongoing crises.
“Trauma is always with you,” assessed the Rev. Dr. Alvin Sanders of World Impact. “It does no good to debate if the [Floyd] killing was justified or not justified. For all intents and purposes, police brutality is there. Because it is there, what can we do about it?”
Sanders, who served as a denominational leader with the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) noted both the importance of being with others to lament and reflect and of movement towards seeking the common good of the community.
Sanders described a “Black Christian tax” that must be paid during moments of racial unrest, in which “you have to more carefully watch your emotions during these times.”
There is a balance of wanting to be there for others and also a sense of obligation to one’s self, added Dr. Nicolette Louissaint of Healthcare Ready, a non-profit organization focused upon strengthening healthcare supply chain preparedness and response around natural disasters and disease pandemics.
“For Christians, that is compounded further because not only do we pick up our own crosses but we feel the need to pick up others’ as well,” Louissaint, a former U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officer described.
Balance between things that reduce and things that consume was mentioned by former Acting Director of the Department of Homeland Security Center for Faith-Based & Neighborhood Partnerships Marcus Coleman. Coleman suggested being in scripture (the Word), around people with productive conversations, and stepping away from news.
“We don’t want pastors to burn out,” Coleman relayed, and “not just to care for themselves, but to care for others around them.”
“I’ve never seen a disaster create a vulnerability that didn’t already exist,” reported Louissaint, noting that some health vulnerabilities today are a manifestation of disparities that existed before COVID-19.
Louissaint noted that many chronic conditions can exacerbate the body’s inability to respond to COVID-19.
“Black people do not have an increased prevalence for COVID,” Louissaint reported, but added that many front-line essential workers are low-income and have greater exposure to the Coronavirus. Some in Black communities have difficulty accessing a test and navigating the healthcare system to get top-line care, with disparities throughout. We have to think about ways that we can do more to limit exposure.”
Hill asked how to protect vulnerable communities who will be protesting, and how to hold a prophetic voice and also safeguard health.
“It’s not either/or, it will always be a both/and in social activism, upholding the vulnerable and protecting health,” replied Louissaint, suggesting there are ways to demonstrate safely, including talking through a mask.
“The things you do after are as important as what you do in a physical protest,” Loussaint advised, suggesting that people change clothes and shower before interacting with family, and are tested the week following participation in a protest. “Social justice requires an all-hands approach. You don’t have to protest on the front lines in order to participate.”
Sanders offered that discussion and influence with those in your world were also important.
“There is a misperception that you have to be [Dr. Martin Luther King] in order to make a difference – but there were many people who carried the movement forward,” Hill noted.
King’s strategy was nonviolence, recalled Sanders, adding that the civil rights leader understood why people were rioting in the 1960s, but it was not a justification for it.
Protests and rioting will end, Sanders predicted, declaring that it is then up to the long-term institutions of the African American church to pick up the pieces and do the activities that a church normally does.
“God will show up if you don’t get tired,” Sanders encouraged. “Be out there with your brooms to clean up the glass. The church’s main role is right belief combined with right actions. That’s the role of the church before, during, and after riots.”
Hill asked whom to trust.
Sanders suggested the Asset-Based Community Development Institute for instruction on how to do community asset mapping of institutions within the neighborhood that you think you can partner with. “When I was a pastor, I used that a lot.”
Louissaint named the People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond.
“A lot of people are rushing to donate right now, and we are only barely six months into 2020. We have no idea what is ahead, and sometimes rushing to donate and allocate resources is against our strategic best interest,” Louissaint cautioned, advising that churches first determine where the resources need to go before making a donation. “Give it time. There will be an abundance of needs that will emerge, so you don’t need to rush to donate.”
Marcus reminded that there is a difference between charity, development, and investment.
“There is a massive amount of resources out there, but they are addressing immediate needs. We don’t want to expend too many resources at once,” Marcus advised. “Also: you may accept a large check that takes you far away from your main mission. Let’s not lose our long-term vision.”
Hill cautioned against conflating charity with justice, noting both are good, but are different topics.
“I reject the idea that preparedness should be an individual burden,” stated Louissaint. “Shifting the burden of preparedness to an individual or household is no longer working. Communities need to respond together. How do we dissipate that burden? Who has capacity in various components of preparedness, and how do we prepare and respond as a community?
NAE President Dr. Walter Kim closed the web conference in prayer.
“Lord, we call out to you. When we think about the current situation we are in, and when we think about the racial gap and the turmoil that is roiling our nation we join with the Psalmist and ask Lord that you would be merciful to us, because we are in distress. In Christ you have lifted us up, and by your spirit you give us up. May the gospel be proclaimed.” Spiritual first aid resources are available at spiritualfirstaidhub.com