New Jersey’s Episcopal bishops issue joint pastoral letter on COVID-19’s disparate impact on persons of color

Posted May 7, 2020

[Dioceses of Newark and New Jersey] The Rt. Rev. Carlye J. Hughes, bishop of Newark, and the Rt. Rev. William H. Stokes, bishop of New Jersey, have issued a joint pastoral letter addressing public policies that fail to adequately address the disparate impact the COVID-19 virus is having on black and brown people, immigrants and the imprisoned.

“It is inarguable that much of the damage and destruction of the novel coronavirus is the result of a capricious force of nature beyond human control and culpability,” the bishops wrote in a joint pastoral letter issued May 7. “However, it must also be recognized and acknowledged that, as with previous national and health disasters, there is indisputable evidence that this disaster has exacted greater human costs and a higher death rate on black and brown persons in the United States than on the predominant white culture. …

“This predictable pattern is the tragic result of deeply entrenched systemic and structural injustices, especially the injustice of systemic racism, that have plagued this nation since its inception. Ongoing, long-term, often deliberate policies in our nation and in the state of New Jersey targeting persons of color have resulted in huge racial inequalities and disparities across major areas: education, housing, economic opportunity, net wealth and income. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the effects of all of these.”

The bishops go on to address how the evil of mass incarceration has been underscored by the spread of the virus:

“New Jersey has among the highest incarceration rates in the nation and also among the highest levels of racial disparity of those incarcerated,” the bishops write. “Unjust sentencing requirements and unsafe conditions in our nation’s jails and prisons, including those in New Jersey, make incarcerated persons, as well as those who guard them or otherwise work in prisons, ‘sitting ducks’ for the COVID-19 virus.”

To address this, Hughes and Stokes call for the following public actions:

  • Stopping or severely curbing the arrest and incarceration rate of persons for low-level offenses;
  • Releasing those in prison who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or health conditions and who statistically represent a low risk of recidivism.

“We urge the people of our two dioceses to contact our governor and state officials and urge them to support these life-saving steps,” the bishops write.

The health risks of incarceration extend to undocumented immigrants, detained and at risk for deportation, and the letter calls for public policy shifts to address the situation. In particular, the bishops draw attention to changes made by the Trump administration to the so-called “public charge rule,” which allows the government to exclude immigrants it fears will place a “burden” on cash assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

“We feel strongly that the ‘public charge rule,’ which the Supreme Court upheld on April 24, 2020, is both draconian and cruel and should not be implemented,” they write.

“The coronavirus pandemic is a threat to human beings, but, as is so often the case with crises, it is an opportunity as well. This pandemic affords us a chance to discover our deeper humanity and invites us to live into Christ’s most urgent command: ‘Love one another’ (John 13:34).”

Pastoral Letter in English

Carta pastoral en español