Absalom Jones Center webinar laments two pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Jun 3, 2020

Panelists participated via Zoom in the June 2 Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing’s final in a series of three webinars focused on public expressions of collective grief as a path to healing. Screenshot: Pat McCaughan

[Episcopal News Service] Atlanta Bishop Robert C. Wright, during a June 2 online webinar, said the nation’s eight days of protest and civil unrest are the result “of denying the pain of an entire group of people since 1619” when the first African slaves arrived on America’s shores.

His remarks came during “A Cry to God Together: Lament in the Midst of COVID-19,” the third and final webinar in a series about public expressions of collective grief as a path to healing. About 1,300 Episcopalians from across the church participated in the series, hosted by the Absalom Jones Episcopal Center for Racial Healing, in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, Georgia.

Executive Director Catherine Meeks said the June 2 webinar intentionally focused on Native and Latino Americans, in general, and the so-called “forgotten” but now deemed essential people in particular: agricultural and sanitation workers, caregivers, cooks and delivery people, whose continued employment makes them vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.

“We want to say to them that we don’t have any expendable people in this country. We don’t have any people we can throw away. We’ve got to stop thinking that way,” Meeks said.

Wright, a panelist, said lament is both revolutionary and necessary to generate healing. Protests have swept the country and spread worldwide since the May 25 killing of George Floyd, 46, an unarmed black man who died after being pinned to the ground by police with an officer’s knee to his neck in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The police officer, Derek Chauvin, faces a second-degree murder charge and three other officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder as of June 3.

Other panelists included Roxana Chicas, a nurse and postdoctoral fellow at Emory University whose research on cooling interventions has helped protect farmworkers from heat-related illness while working in extreme conditions; the Rev. Brad Hauff, The Episcopal Church’s missioner for indigenous ministries; and the Rev. Isaiah Brokenleg, the church’s staff officer for racial reconciliation.

‘They bring us fresh fruit and vegetables’

Webinar panelists linked systemic racism and its aftereffects — poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to education and health care — with chronic disease and other conditions that lead to COVID-19 vulnerability.

Chicas aims to raise awareness about Georgia’s low-wage agricultural workers who are experiencing a coronavirus outbreak — news she said has been both suppressed and underreported.

About 80% of the workers are Latino, and many are undocumented, she said. Their harsh living conditions make social distancing nearly impossible — as many as four to five share a room; communal bathrooms are used by up to 10 people.

Undocumented workers have been labeled criminals, she said, referring to the president’s anti-immigration rhetoric. But their contributions have sustained the nation’s food supply during the pandemic. “You can’t pick Vidalia onions through Zoom,” Chicas said. “They are the ones who bring us fresh salads and vegetables.”

Employment conditions are worse — workers lack adequate health care benefits and occupational protections, and forego lunch and water breaks during eight- to 12-hour daily shifts, “to try to make enough money to get by” while earning about $15,000 yearly, she said.

Now, many have received “hypocritical” government letters saying they are essential workers, she said. “So, if they get stopped by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they cannot be deported. Before COVID-19, we were in a rush to try to deport everyone out.”

She urged webinar participants to consider how their vote in the upcoming November presidential election will impact the larger society, and to think, instead of through a lens of “how much progress we’ve made … through the lens of the most vulnerable.”

‘As you lose your culture, you lose your health’

Native Americans, particularly those living on tribal lands, have been hard-hit by COVID-19, according to Hauff, an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota Nation, headquartered in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

In Navajoland, for example, as of May 20, there were more than 4,253 reported cases and 146 deaths from the COVID-19 virus.

Hauff said the lingering historical effects of “genocide, land theft and slavery,” as well as continued systematic oppression, have placed indigenous people at greater risk for contracting and dying from the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 has the possibility of doing extensive damage to our indigenous community. It’s going to kill our elders, and our elders have been the guardians and keepers of our traditions and our spiritual lives and language. If we lose our elders, we will lose those things and that’s all we have left,” he said.

Brokenleg agreed. “As you lose your culture, you lose your health — that is true for the American Indian. You lose community, a sense of belonging, it’s a downward spiral. They took away our way of life.”

About 22% of the 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands. The overall percentage living below the federal poverty line is 28.2%, more than twice the 12.3% national average. Many are without running water, electricity and telephone service, which they consider luxuries.

Poverty, discrimination, substance abuse, and even dietary changes as Native Americans were forced onto reservations have contributed to increases in such chronic health conditions as diabetes, cancer, tuberculosis and heart disease, Brokenleg said. There is a lack of access to adequate health care —about 55% rely on the underfunded Indian Health Service, which meets about 60% of the need.

Local governments have even attempted to thwart efforts to establish checkpoints to safeguard residents from the coronavirus, Brokenleg said.

“When people sometimes ask us why we can’t just get over it, the answer is, until you heal from generational trauma, the same stuff will keep coming up,” she said.

Often, Native Americans are rendered “invisible. People don’t realize we’re there. We get left out of health data, lumped into the ‘other’ category, which is not helpful to anyone.”

Brokenleg referred participants to “Learn, Pray Act,” which includes resources for responding to racist violence, compiled by The Episcopal Church’s Department of Reconciliation, Justice and Creation Care and the Office of Government Relations.

There are things everyone can do, she added. “Don’t be silent when things come up. Silence only hurts the people who are oppressed. It does not hurt the oppressor. Get out there, let people know you see them, that you support them.”

Hauff referred congregations to the Native Land website, to learn about “The Acknowledgement,” a movement in the church to discover, honor and pray for the original indigenous owners of the land.

“You can make it part of the prayers of the people, or put it on the church’s webpage or in bulletins or newsletters, essentially saying that the land on which their church is built was once the home of an indigenous person and it was taken away from them.”

Acknowledging that history “doesn’t take much to do, but it can be so healing and transforming,” Hauff said.

Wright, the Atlanta bishop, called white Americans to advocacy and action. “If you got white privilege, we need it to be channeled in constructive, positive ways to change systems.”

– The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.