Diocese of Chicago hosts discussion on injustice amidst the COVID-19 pandemic: What is the church called to do?

Posted Apr 29, 2020

[Diocese of Chicago] With infection and death rates in the COVID-19 pandemic surging in communities of color, the Diocese of Chicago’s Antiracism Commission sponsored an evening teleconference April 28 on “COVID-19, Health Disparities and Systemic Racism: How do we respond as people of faith?”

Almost 150 participants joined Bishop Jeff Lee and other diocesan leaders to hear a four-person panel discuss long-standing injustices that have been thrown into stark relief by the COVID-19 pandemic. Afterward, participants broke into small groups to discuss steps the diocese might take in response.

The Antiracism Commission plans to study this feedback and determine how to bring it to the attention of the wider diocese. More immediately, Lee encouraged all Episcopalians to join the Episcopal Public Policy Network, the grassroots organizing arm of The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, describing it as “a simple and effective way to make your voice heard.”

Moderator Derrick Dawson, co-program coordinator for Chicago Regional Organizing for Antiracism, opened the program by reminding participants that 30% of Chicago’s population, but 70% of its COVID-19 fatalities, are black. He said environmental, political and economic factors helped foster medical conditions that are driving the steep rates of death in black communities.

“Why is this about systemic racism, and not just medical issues or epidemiological issues?” he asked a panel that included the Rev. Fulton Porter, rector of St. Thomas’ Church, Chicago, who is also a doctor at Community Hospital in Munster, Indiana; Laura Leon, a hospital program manager and health care justice advocate from Trinidad Lutheran Church in Chicago’s Humboldt Park; Rebecca Linder Blachly, director of The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations; and the Very Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean, Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary.

Porter, whose hospital is treating COVID-19 patients, described coming home each day, taking off his clothes, putting them into the washer and immediately taking a shower to protect his family from the virus. He said the answer to Dawson’s question lay in data that demonstrates a clear racial component to infection and death rates.

“The data really helps to shed light on these intersecting forces of racial disparities and underlying conditions and poverty that affect how the virus spreads throughout the United States,” he said. The problem, he added, is that resources have not been allocated in response to these findings.

“We’ve really got to affect public policy in a way that is meaningful across the board,” Porter said. He urged people of faith to do more than support candidates who agree with their positions. “I think we have to raise up candidates in our own midst who support what we believe in if we are going to stop this spiral,” he said.

Leon, who has served on the State of Illinois Comprehensive Health Insurance Board of Directors and the State of Illinois Medicaid Committee, said the Latino community has been hit hard by the pandemic.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latinos account for 27% of COVID-19 deaths, but only 18% of the population in virus hotspots.

Those numbers may underestimate the scope of the problem, Leon said, because Latinos have been unable to get tested and so their deaths may be misattributed. “But from the ground, knowing what people are doing, I know it is a very dangerous situation.”

The pandemic is also taking a significant economic toll in Latino communities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 84% of Latinos are unable to work from home, In roughly 50% of Latino households, someone has lost a job or taken a pay cut, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.

“They are the ones doing the unprotected work,” Leon said, and they are frequently doing it without health insurance. “Sometimes I want to close my eyes and not see it, but I think it is important that I see it and that I speak.”

Blachly echoed Porter’s and Leon’s calls for better data about how the pandemic is affecting communities of color. “Data will allow us to see what the disparities are and better target resources to address those disparities and to see which communities are most vulnerable – for this crisis and the next,” she said. “We can’t address what we don’t measure.”

Better data can provide deeper insight into a myriad of problems that take a disproportionate toll on communities of color, she said. “We can try to better understand the role of vast inequities in wealth, access to health care, employment, psychosocial stressors, environmental pollutants and access to clean air and clean water, access to fresh and healthy food, incarceration, student debt, predatory lending, education equity, immigration status, relationship to law enforcement, experience with the criminal justice system, so many different aspects.”

The Office of Government Relations is currently lobbying for increases in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, through which recipients receive food stamps; an end to predatory lending; rental and housing assistance, including the suspension of evictions during the pandemic; equal treatment for immigrants and the undocumented; and support for indigenous people and those living on tribal reservations, among other issues.

It is not surprising that communities mired in poverty due to centuries of systemic racism are suffering gravely during a pandemic, Douglas said. Some pundits have attributed high mortality rates to the prevalence of complicating medical conditions in communities of color, she noted. “They are talking about co-morbidity as though people of color don’t know how to take care of themselves,” she said.

The bigger problem is that people of color often cannot protect themselves from the virus for economic reasons, Douglas said. People who are considered essential front-line workers are treated as inessential and even disposable at other times, she said.

“What is revealed is that when we call ourselves a democracy … that claim is really aspirational,” Douglas said.

The same, she added, is true of the church. “This injustice and inequity has happened on our watch,” she said. “What makes us even more accountable than government is that, as faith communities, we are the only communities that by definition are not accountable to the way things are. We are accountable to the way things are supposed to be, and that’s the just future that God has promised us all.”

In small group sessions, participants discussed numerous ways the church could respond to the injustices made clearer by the pandemic, including preaching on the topic, supporting community organizations responding to inequalities, advocating for the redistribution of resources and calling upon churches to become more involved in their communities.

In closing the teleconference, Lee urged participants to continue working for justice, and not to lose heart. “If the reign of God can’t be built in the here and now, then I don’t understand the vocation of the church,” he said. “The gates of hell won’t prevail against that movement, let alone this virus. Let’s not neglect the power that has been placed into our hands.”