July 20, 2020

Whatever you do now will prepare you for what you can do in the future

COVID-19 and the uprisings in response to the murder of Black bodies have brought into sharp relief the continued economic, health, environmental, and racial injustices and brutalities impacting the Black community. Some have felt helpless, anxious to respond compassionately and participate in effectual work that changes brutal conditions, but feeling at a loss about where to begin, overwhelmed with the magnitude of the task.

And the task is overwhelming. Neither health inequities nor police injustice began with COVID-19. Both are the result of long-term, structural injustices. They are the result of how we are situated socially. Where you find yourself today is the consequence of where you were months or years or even generations ago. Many feel flat-footed because of decades of separation. The good news is, whatever you do now can change where you will be, where we all will be in the future.

When COVID-19 hit, I got a call from a White parishioner at a relatively large congregation in Greensboro. “What can I do to help?” she asked. She has since been a central member of our ministry that delivers meals and groceries to almost 200 people every week. The families we get to share food and other supplies with are lower income, many had been “doing fine” until their wage earners were laid off early on. They include immigrants and refugees from Central America and West Africa. Latino members of our ministry, who themselves needed help with groceries, also began calling up to ask, “What can I do to help?”

I had an immediate answer to the question because our church had a broad network of relationships. We had these relationships because we went and prayed.

I have been doing prayer walks for years with the mission congregations where I serve. Our motivation each time we go out is to get to know our neighbors and be vulnerable about our own needs. Praying together puts us in relationship to each other. We learn our neighbors’ joys and concerns. We learn who we can be together. Jesus, and the power of his new life, are already at work in the world. Our job is not to go out and make God’s Kingdom happen but to name and amplify the Spirit of Life at work in each other’s lives. So, we don’t go out looking for problems to solve; we go out wanting to know people, and risk being known. We go out to discover God’s mission where we are.

People were praying about their lives. 65% of the residents of our area are People of Color. The median income is lower than in other parts of the city. Their lives are shaped by racial inequities. You don’t have to do a study or gather data about racial injustice if you engage people’s lives. Praying with people and focusing on the slow work of relationships prepared us to envision a collaborative ministry for health care access, food security, and collective healing practices in our neighborhood.

In 2019 we opened the church for a weekly ministry called “Abundant Life,” gathering 30-40 people around a shared sit-down meal, Bible Study, a community nurse people could see for free, and a food and diaper pantry to help folks get through the week. We also built relationships with larger, more resourced parishes as well as community agencies, retired nurses, caterers, groceries, local food growers, and university nursing and public health programs. Like the neighbors we met on prayer walks, these partners have a stake in health access and food security, and they got excited about collaborating to help make this ministry possible.

As we gathered, we began to imagine what seeking “Abundant Life” together could look like. It looks like each person claiming their joy, their gifts, and naming their hurt and yearning for healing. “Abundant Life” looks like naming how the systems meant to promote health and safe living conditions are falling short. It looks like working together to change those systems so that all our neighbors, especially those getting left out, can experience healing and flourishing.

When the pandemic hit, out of concern for public health we stopped gathering in-person for our weekly meal and nurse’s ministry. It felt like a crushing loss, but we felt accountable to the relationships we had built. Focusing on those relationships, our ministry has grown, and the help has grown with it. We’ve gone from serving 30-40 people a week to almost 200. Many of those receiving help have also offered it, preparing food, delivering meals, groceries, and diapers to families around the city, and calling people to offer prayers and encouragement. We’ve been able to use the trust we’ve established to build new relationships and encourage people to connect in new ways for mutual support.

When you find yourself in new relationships, this is what happens. God opens up your life in amazing ways and prepares you to serve and to meet the Risen Christ in the people you meet, especially the poor. Don’t start with thinking up a program to fix systemic racism or any other problems. If you weren’t doing it before, you can’t just do it now. But, and here’s the wonderful news… whatever you do now, whatever connections you start to cultivate that put you into humble, real relationship with people marked by the brutalities of systemic injustice, will begin to position you to work to change that system with them. And even more, focusing on building connections will prepare you for what you can do in the future. Start today by relating.