COVID-19 and the Two Americas

Editor’s Note: The following blog post was first published on Reformed Margins, an online platform for Reformed Christian thinkers from various ethnic minority backgrounds to join in the broader Reformed and Evangelical conversations, on December 3, 2020.

The church where I serve is a truly multicultural church, not just in ethnicity but also in class. During one of my first Sundays I was here, I witnessed an ex-drug-dealer, an elderly woman, and a Johns Hopkins psychiatrist all getting baptized. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

Fast forward seven years, and the COVID-19 pandemic had swept the country. It became apparent that we needed to do two things. Firstly, we needed to move as many things as we could online. Secondly, we needed to provide resources for the most vulnerable. And that’s exactly what we did.

We started to have online services, online community groups, and online prayer meetings. Eventually, we had an online trivia season, an online summer retreat, and online panel discussions on topics varying from racism to mental health.

At the same time, we called people to donate to a new benevolence fund (to buy people groceries, to pay for utilities or phone bills, to cover temporary motel stays, etc.), collected and delivered thousands of face masks to hundreds of families, and contributed to a local food pantry. 

But we soon discovered that there were two problems. The first is that our church was becoming more and more segregated. It became clear that the demographics reflected in our online events was not representative of what our diverse church used to be. Some of the people from working class backgrounds didn’t have smartphones, and many who did didn’t have internet at home, so they couldn’t participate in things that were online.

In August, we started to hold small in-person events, in large part for those with whom we weren’t engaged online. Thankfully, many of the folks who were absent during all of these online events started to come out of the woodwork and show up in person. At the same time, many people who had been attending online events didn’t come to in-person events. As a result, our church started to look like two different churches. There was the online white-collar church, and there was the in-person blue-collar church. 

The second problem was that despite all of our efforts in helping the poor, it was clear that the issues of poverty, unemployment, and sickness were much too large for our church to handle. It seemed that we were just scratching the surface of the immense needs all around us. Individual acts of kindness seemed to be no match for systemic problems.

If you don’t regularly run into the poor, I want to tell the stories of two people I know, to give you a taste of what people are going through.

One person is Parker. From age 4 to 10, Parker bounced around in four different foster families. He was finally adopted at 10, but it was to a family that had alcoholism in the home. On one occasion, his mother’s domestic partner even attacked him with a knife. By the time he was 18, he was homeless and regularly using marijuana. On one occasion, his marijuana was laced with something, and he started hallucinating, and he ended up in a psych ward for two months. 

At this point, he knew that something needed to change. Two of his closest friends had recently died—one from a shooting, and one from an overdose—and he didn’t want to go down that route. So eventually, he found himself at a halfway house and got himself into a rehab center. He would go there Monday to Friday, take financing classes, take art classes, and do meditation. It wasn’t the best situation, but for the first time in his life, he had some stability, and he felt that he was moving in the right direction.

I met him on March 10, 2020. He was 19, and at that point he had been five months clean. But he had just had a series of disagreements with the authorities at his house, and he had walked out and left. Our church got him some McDonald’s, and we put him up in a motel for two nights so that he could figure out his next steps. Eventually, he decided to go back, but he would soon find out that it wouldn’t be the same.

Since March, he has continued living in the house with other recovering addicts, but the rehab center has been closed because of COVID-19 restrictions. Parker is almost never allowed to leave the house, so now he doesn’t do much except do chores and play video games. He does get “homework” sometimes. Every now and then he’s told to write a page about his feelings and turn it in. But all sense of physical and emotional progress has ceased.

Parker and I talked on the phone a few days ago. He told me that he knows he’s made a lot of bad decisions in his life, but he wants to get better. It’s just that he doesn’t know how. He feels stuck.

I asked him what he wants with his life, and he said that he wants to get a GED and work a job, and he wants to have a good relationship with his biological mom.

Another person is Rick (Rick’s name has been changed to protect his identity). Rick was 58 when I met him on May 1, 2020. He had been released from prison about a month prior, after serving 27 years. Before he was released, there had been a job lined up for him, but unfortunately, the pandemic had swept the nation, and the job had fallen through.

To make things worse, he didn’t have a social security card, nor did he know his social security number. He is pretty confident that he knows seven of the numbers, but he can’t remember the last two. Under normal circumstances, there would have been a few hoops for someone like him to jump through to get a social security card, but it wouldn’t have been too difficult. But in a pandemic, when all local SSA offices are closed, and when everything has to be done through the mail, it has been a logistical nightmare. So he has been working odd jobs here and there while playing the waiting game.

Our church got him a grocery store gift card, and I also gave him a quick tutorial on how to use a cell phone (he had never owned one before). Since then, we’ve seen each other pretty regularly, and we’ve helped him out with grocery store gift cards a few more times. 

I talked to Rick several days ago, and he told me that a local community center was able to help him get on Medicaid recently. It was good timing, because he has been having all sorts of stomach pains. He told me that he had scheduled a surgery on December 7. He asked for prayer, because the pain is unbearable at times.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said that there are two Americas. He said, “One America is beautiful for situation. And, in a sense, this America is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and the honey of opportunity. This America is the habitat of millions of people who have food and material necessities for their bodies; and culture and education for their minds; and freedom and human dignity for their spirits. In this America, millions of people experience every day the opportunity of having life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in all of their dimensions. And in this America millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But tragically and unfortunately, there is another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this America millions of work-starved men walk the streets daily in search for jobs that do not exist. In this America millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums. In this America people are poor by the millions. They find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”

What was true in 1967 is still true today. Ken Schorr, the executive director of the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy, recently said of the current state of America, “Inequality has been building for decades, and the pandemic ripped it open.” 

I realize now that what the COVID-19 pandemic is doing to our church is a microcosm of what’s happening in America. 

You have, on the one hand, the upper-middle class. By and large, white-collar workers have the ability to work remotely. Many of their industries have not only recovered from the initial downfalls but have even far exceeded pre-pandemic expectations. The stock market continues to set record highs. In fact, American billionaires have collectively gained over a trillion dollars in less than nine months.

When this demographic needs to have a work meeting, they have Zoom. When they want to catch up with their friends, they have FaceTime. When they don’t want to leave the house for food, they have Instacart and GrubHub. When they are bored at home, they watch Netflix. Yes, the pandemic is definitely making things inconvenient, but for the most part, their lives are carrying on as usual.

And on the other hand, you have the blue-collar workers. Many of them cannot avoid public places, because that’s where their jobs are. Many of them don’t have cars, so they have to take public transit. Many of them don’t have good health insurance, so they are not even aware that they have preexisting conditions. As a result, those who suffer the most from the virus itself are the poor

As early as July, the CDC reported that 9% of all workers in the meatpacking industry had been diagnosed with COVID-19. The Washington Post reports that “residents of nursing homes account for roughly 35 percent to 40 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in the United States.” Furthermore, a joint Johns Hopkins and UCLA study from July revealed that those in prison are 5.5 times more likely to get COVID-19 and 3 times more likely to die from it than those who are not. 

And not only are the poor and disadvantaged the most susceptible to getting the virus, but they are also the most susceptible to being affected by our economic restrictions. Tens of millions of people have filed for unemployment, and the majority of these people are in the working class. While many tech jobs have been recovered, many manufacturing jobs have not.

Many of these people don’t have Zoom, FaceTime, GrubHub, or Netflix. They’re not on Instagram or Twitter. They are just quietly suffering on the margins. 

I believe that one of the largest effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on America is the unintended marginalization of the poor and the working class. And unfortunately, many people in America are completely ignorant and unaware. The poor are simply not on their radars. 

But the church cannot fall into the same lethargy and apathy. The church is called to love the poor.

Why? Because God loves the poor. God’s heart for the poor is all over the Scriptures.

God instructed the Israelites in the Mosaic Law, “If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).

God declared in the Wisdom Books, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13).

God proclaimed in the Prophets, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh” (Isaiah 58:6-7)?

And God exhorted in the Epistles, “For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or, ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him” (James 2:2-5)?

Therefore, given the biblical commands to the church to love the poor, how have we done? Unfortunately, though there are certainly many Good Samaritans through modern history, the research shows that in the past few decades, the church has not done its job of caring for the poor.

A 2012 study published by Research in the Sociology of Work examined church attendance numbers at two points in time: 1972 and 2010. They found—not to anybody’s surprise—that church attendance had gone down across the board. But what is also notable is that church attendance declined more than twice as fast among white people who do not have high school degrees than among white people who have college degrees. In 1972, less educated white Americans were not significantly less likely than the most educated white Americans to attend religious services. But they were clearly less likely to do so in 2010. In other words, every demographic is seeing a decline in church attendance, but the less-educated is seeing a steeper decline.

Why? Nobody is actively kicking the poor out of the church. But one of the factors is that there has been a gradual shift in mainstream Christianity—churches have been moving to the middle-class suburbs, churches have been adopting middle-class discipleship methods, and churches have been turning over the God-given responsibility of caring for the poor to the welfare state. As the American church by and large has chosen the paths of comfort, consumerism, and convenience, we have neglected the poor. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we have drawn socioeconomic boundaries, so that many in poverty have found themselves left out.

So what can we do to reverse this trend? What can those of us who are in the America of prosperity do to help those who are in the America of poverty? There are no magic bullets, but here are a few suggestions.

  • Volunteer. Identify organizations in your vicinity who are doing good work. These can be shelters, food kitchens, schools, or community centers. Learn about ways you can get involved, and sign up. Preferably, if you have the time, commit yourself to doing something regularly.
  • Give. Find organizations that are on the front lines of attacking poverty from a holistic standpoint, and give to them. In particular, look for organizations that not only hand out fish, but also teach a man how to fish. There are plenty of great organizations out there that not only provide food and shelter but the resources for change, whether that is life coaching, financial literacy, or spiritual discipleship and mentorship.
  • Interact. Many of us don’t think about the poor because we don’t interact with the poor. For some of us, because of where we live, it’s almost impossible to find the poor. But for others of us, we see the poor, but we’ve had a habit of avoiding them. Instead, let’s seek to practice life among them. Seek to get to know them and develop relationships with them. Maybe this means spending time in specific parts of town, or choosing to use certain transportation methods or visit certain convenience stores. Much of the discrepancy between the rich and the poor is that the poor don’t have social capital. They don’t have relationships with people who can help them. So seek to build relationships with the poor. And while you do that, seek to be a learner.
  • Advocate. As you talk to people who are poor, try to learn about the systems and structures that keep them poor. Learn about zoning laws, learn about social security, learn about rehab centers, and so on. And advocate for national, state, and local policies that actually help the poor. Yes, personal responsibility is a huge factor in poverty, but so is our national responsibility. 

Will any of these efforts make a difference? After all, the issue of poverty is complex and multifaceted. Sometimes we can be so overwhelmed by the intersecting factors of politics and education and health and homelessness and incarceration. But I believe that, collectively, our efforts can make a difference. Because we as Christians have something that the world doesn’t have—the church.

Randy Nabors writes in his book Merciful, “The best strategy for helping the poor is to plant the right kind of church among them.” I truly believe that with its combination of truth, compassion, justice, and mercy, the church is uniquely suited to be the best weapon we have against poverty.

“But shouldn’t the goal of the church be to make disciples, not fight poverty?” one may ask. Well, certainly. Fighting poverty is not the main purpose of the church. But the plethora of biblical commands regarding the poor shows that fighting poverty is one of the goals of the church. Or to put it another way, if we truly want to make disciples of all nations, then that includes making disciples of the poor. And if we are truly making disciples of the poor—not just in an intellectual Bible-trivia way but in a holistic life-transformation way—then we will find ourselves discipling the poor out of poverty.

As we approach Christmas, may we remember the generosity of God. May we remember that Jesus, though he was rich, became poor for our sake, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9). And may we give of our time, our money, and our resources to love the poor among us.