Just as we entered Holy Week 2020, we heard some of the most grim news from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, who told the American people on Palm Sunday that “this [week] is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment” as COVID-19 infections continue to rise. Many leading public health officials have described the week of April 5, 2020 (Holy Week), as potentially the hardest and saddest week of increased deaths related to the coronavirus. This pandemic has affected the entire world in very alarming ways. It has also continued to spike the globally uncured diseases of racism and xenophobia. The University Health Services at the University of California, Berkeley recently retracted a statement (@tangcentercal) advising students that “xenophobia: fears about interacting with those who might be from Asia and guilt about these feelings” is a normal or common reaction. This shows the high level of insensitivity and present-day normalization of racism even from a school whose demographics report that more than 30% of the student body is of Asian descent. This institution’s culture and ethics in communication should be far above the curve for understanding racism of any kind as an unacceptable reaction to this pandemic. But like many institutions, it continued to be complicit in the propagation of systematic and systemic racism. This must stop, especially at a time when we are finding that people of color are and will be affected fatally by this pandemic at disproportional rates.
In fact, Propublica.org reported that early data shows African Americans have contracted and died of coronavirus at an alarming rate. In the very city that hosted the African Descent Lutheran Association’s (ADLA) August 2019 Biennial Assembly (Milwaukee, Wis.), African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 coronavirus cases and 81% of its 27 deaths in a county whose population is only 26% black (as of April 3, 2020). This level of disproportionate rates of infection and death is a direct result of economic, political and environmental factors that have been growing for decades. These factors, along with so many other sociological trends, have put black people at higher risk of chronic conditions that leave immune systems vulnerable and battling pre-existing illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, HIV and asthma.
ADLA has ramped up advocacy efforts to pressure the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to release race data related to the coronavirus. The CDC typically tracks widespread demographic data with all virulent outbreaks but has provided little information about race during this current pandemic. This data is and will continue to be important to address racism and other disparities to health care access. If this Holy Week 2020 will begin the deadliest season (to date) of this pandemic, then the United States will experience a devastating loss of black lives. Now more than ever we must be reminded that Black Lives Matter.
We must also acknowledge that government and religious leaders have requested and strongly encouraged the nation to “shelter in place” and remain at home. However, that becomes a very privileged request when many people do not have the same levels of resources with which to do so. For instance, imposing curfews, demanding lockdowns, or even expecting people to stay at home without canceling their rent, helping them secure adequate food and meet all other related bills is an unjust request. With the rise in unemployment, this pandemic has created a greater wealth divide in access to basic income and adequate housing for all. The CARES Act and stimulus package(s) will assist some people in this season but will not greatly protect the most vulnerable, who are at higher risks related to this pandemic.
Holy Week 2020 should bring us all into a greater understanding of the realities of death and access to life in our nation and world. We as people of faith easily grasp the understanding that Jesus died for all of our sins and brings us to eternal redemption. He did it so that we might have life and that life more abundantly (John 10:10). We are reminded that God so loved the world and God gave us Jesus so that we wouldn’t perish but have access to eternal life. In the same way we celebrate access to a better life with Jesus, we must claim access to health care as a human right that provides a better life for all. This COVID-19 pandemic is uncovering major disparities in access to health care. With the rising death tolls, we need high-quality public health care that is guaranteed to all and not just as a private marketplace.
Many of the sociological trends (health, economic, etc.) affecting people of color globally and nationally can easily be seen among the participants, members and leaders of color in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For far too long, we have watched our friends and colleagues (especially of African descent) die or grow gravely ill because of health conditions such as those mentioned above. The economic inequities among many of the ELCA’s congregations often reveal the most impoverished communities having to do so much more with fewer resources. Many rostered leaders of color are still struggling to pay health insurance premiums and deductibles out of meager church budgets and inconsistent paychecks. We as a church can do so much more to reverse these trends and inequities. We need to continue to increase our support and advocacy for people of color who are disproportionately affected by this pandemic and are in critical need of help. Let’s take up this cross that we bear right now in 2020 and follow Jesus, who has led us to a better life for all.
Rev. Lamont Anthony Wells is the Program Director for LuMin/ Campus Ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). LuMin is a network of over 240 colleges and universities. He is also the National President of the African Descent Lutheran Association (ELCA).
Pastor Wells is a graduate of Morehouse College and the Interdenominational Theological Center, both in Atlanta, Ga; and has studied at Harvard, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell University.
As a dynamic speaker, Rev. Wells is frequently called to share prophetic messages of ecumenism and social justice which motivates him as a leader and community organizer.