By Kelly Brown Douglas & Liz Theoharis
March 26, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed an ongoing crisis that has long been ignored — endemic injustice and growing inequality.
This current health crisis has called faith communities to account. On our watch, poverty has reached epidemic proportions; children are being neglected, the homeless are ignored, and immigrants are dehumanized. Before the coronavirus struck, there were already 140 million people in the United States who were poor or one $400 emergency away from deep poverty. In a nation that throws away more food than it takes to feed everyone and has more empty luxury housing units than homeless people, this is an affront to God and Jesus’ call for abundant life for all.
So, we must hear the call of God in this time of crisis asking for us to be the church. For far too long, the “least of these” have been neglected, even by those of us who claim to be church. The fact of the matter is, calling ourselves church is aspirational. To be church, for a faith tradition with an incarnation at its center, means that we must embody the very ministry of Jesus in our world. To be church is to be the body of Christ in the world, which means nothing less than showing up as Jesus did in his own day — in solidarity with the forgotten, outcasts, poor, and marginalized. Whether or not we live into that aspiration has much to do with how we respond to those on the underside of justice in this country.
This is nothing less than a Kairos time. As South African clergy and theologians said in their 1985 Kairos Document, this is for us a, “moment of grace and opportunity, [a] time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action.” Yet, as this document goes on to say, it is also “a dangerous time, because if this opportunity is missed, and allowed to pass by, the loss for the Church is immeasurable.”
As we face this particular Kairos time, the church must make itself known by refusing to sit quietly by, allowing those who have long since been neglected to become expendable.
It is in this that we can hear the words of Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris, reminding us that “church is real when it gets down to the nitty-gritty nub of life where Jesus was in the lives of people.”
The church is called to meet Jesus in the streets with the homeless — for in a time when people are called to shelter in place they have no place to go. The church must also meet Jesus in places like Flint, Mich. where poor people who are already suffering from respiratory conditions related to contaminated water are amongst those at highest risk.
Jesus can be found picking up a free lunch from a shuttered school, lining up at the border after walking miles in desperation, or as a dishwasher out of work and pay when the restaurant closes due to a pandemic. To be where Jesus is means that as church, we must be with the people who are suffering most during this pandemic.
We must raise our voices and make them heard on the public square, fighting for the policies and laws that begin with a concern for those on the underside of economic and social justice in this country. We can’t let up.
The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas is dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and author of Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Liz is the author of Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor (Eerdmans , 2017). She is co-author of Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing (Beacon), 2018). Liz is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.