When you’re in the midst of a global pandemic, caring for the sick isn’t likely the first thing on your mind. Most of us are thinking about our own survival, whether it’s with our physical health or economic well-being. All you have to do is look at the empty shelves in a grocery store for evidence of this reality.
Social distancing, remote working, and limiting group gatherings become our new way of life. Even church services stop (or move to online streaming for those who have the technology in place).
What an exciting time, right?!
While the uncertainty of things to come can be a bit maddening, the Church should not lose focus on what it means to be the Church. The key to this is that we were called to:
- take our eyes off ourselves, and…
- put others’ needs before our own.
Does that mean we neglect our needs? Certainly not. But when it comes to things like caring for the sick and needy during a pandemic, there is definitely an opportunity for the Church to shine.
the power to change things is in our hands
In the United States, we’re very fortunate to have a government that makes taking care of citizens a high priority. It’s actually refreshing to see both sides of the aisle set (some of) their differences aside and work together on solutions.
With the COVID-19 Coronavirus outbreak, we’re seeing an unprecedented level of action from local to state to federal government getting things done. They’re focusing on slowing the spread of the disease and ensuring needed medical support is there for everyone who needs it. And they’re dealing with the economic downfall resulting from the measures taken to protect people.
Whether you agree with some of them politically or not, you have to admit that there are lots of really smart people making some big decisions in an unprecedented time. #respect
But, when I (co)wrote Activist Faith, the main premise was simple…
“We believe that the greatest agent of change in our world isn’t in the power centers of Washington, D.C., or New York; it’s in the hearts of ordinary believers transformed by the power of Christ.”
And that’s one principle I never want to lose sight of.
The real power to change things is in the hands of everyday people. When we see tragedy happening in the world around us, we shouldn’t just go into self-preservation mode and think that somebody else is going to take care of everything. That’s not what Jesus taught us to do, and that’s not how the Church has responded to health crises throughout history.
the church’s history of caring for the sick
I love studying church history. As Christians, we have a connection with every other Christian throughout history. So I love learning about how the generations before me have worshiped and practiced their faith.
There were a few major plagues, including the Antonine Plague and the Plague of Cyprian, during the first couple of centuries after the time of Jesus. And the early church made a huge impact during these plagues by caring for the sick.
The Plague of Cyprian is named for St. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, who witnessed and documented the plague in great detail. Cyprian’s biographer, Pontius, writes about the outbreak:
Afterwards there broke out a dreadful plague, and excessive destruction of a hateful disease invaded every house in succession of the trembling populace, carrying off day by day with abrupt attack numberless people, every one from his own house.
He continues by describing the societal response to the plague (emphasis mine):
All were shuddering, fleeing, shunning the contagion, impiously exposing their own friends, as if with the exclusion of the person who was sure to die of the plague, one could exclude death itself also. There lay about the meanwhile, over the whole city, no longer bodies, but the carcasses of many, and, by the contemplation of a lot which in their turn would be theirs, demanded the pity of the passers-by for themselves. No one regarded anything besides his cruel gains. No one trembled at the remembrance of a similar event. No one did to another what he himself wished to experience.
It sounds a lot like what’s going on during the current health crisis. But the Christian response during that time was quite different. Pontius continues (emphasis mine):
There is nothing remarkable in cherishing merely our own people with the due attentions of love, but that one might become perfect who should do something more than heathen men or publicans, one who, overcoming evil with good, and practicing a merciful kindness like that of God, should love his enemies as well. . . . Thus the good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.
This practice of the early church continued throughout early church history. In the late 5th to early 6th century, the Christian theologian Dionysius writes:
Most of our brother-Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of the danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.
The Christian example before us is not to retreat back into self-preservation mode, but rather to run to the aid of others (Christian or non-Christian) to care for the sick and meet the needs of the community. And historically, it was this kind of response that fueled rapid growth in the early church.
bible verses about caring for the sick
Jesus tells us that caring for the sick is a practice that honors Him. In Matthew 25:39-40, we read:
‘When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’
Furthermore, in Galatians 6, Paul encourages us to care for each other in times of need:
Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
In Philippians 2, Paul takes it a step further and tells us to not be concerned with our own needs, but to put others before ourselves:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.
The heart of the Christian is to care for others. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wise about our own care and safety. When we’re on commercial airlines, the instruction we get regarding an emergency is to put your own oxygen mask on first before you help others. Otherwise you may not be able to help someone else. There are ways to help others, and use wisdom doing it. But we’re definitely called to be different than the rest of the world, and to be a light by supporting one another in times of need.
the #activistfaith guide to being the church during a pandemic
At the heart of our message in Activist Faith is that not everyone can do all of the big things. But everyone can do something. And we should! It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we look at all of the big problems and issues that surround us and think we can’t have any kind of impact. But it’s not up to any one of us to solve everything. We just deal with the pieces in front of us.
I’m also not a fan of slacktivism. The idea that we can share a graphic on social media and think we made a difference with very little effort or commitment.
The key is to think about all of the needs the pandemic is creating and find ways that you can do something about them, no matter how small. And this is certainly not an exhaustive list, but just a few things that come to mind for me right now:
- Respect, and overcome, social distancing. While social distancing is a great way to slow the spread of a disease, it can lead to widespread isolation and loneliness. And the psychological impacts of this can be just as damaging as the disease itself. Pick up the phone and call people. Get on Facetime, Skype, or Google Hangouts and talk to people. Social interaction, especially when it is encouraging and hope-filled, can have a very positive impact.
- Help those who get marginalized. I love hearing stories about people like a young college student in Nevada who, along with a few friends, started going to get groceries and run errands for elderly who had difficulty getting out and/or obtaining items they need. When I heard about this, she was already up to 90 volunteers helping with this initiative, and it’s spreading into a nationwide movement.
- Support workers impacted by societal changes. Everyone’s work is changing. Office workers are asked to work remotely from home. And restaurants, daycare facilities, gyms, and several other types of businesses are either shut down completely or just not getting customers as people move towards isolation. Even businesses not directly impacted are grinding to a halt simply because everything is grinding to a halt. I love seeing people buying gift cards for local restaurants and non-profits emerging to help provide financial support to workers who rely on tips for income. But there is a great deal that can be done to keep small, local businesses going so that they can continue to meet payroll.
- Help those who are overwhelmed by school and work changes. With schools shutting down, and people working from home, there are undoubtedly families who are reaching a point of overwhelm. Certainly, it would be important to respect social distancing and other safety measures, but there is a great need for relieving some of this pressure off of some families.
- Support nonprofits making a difference. There are many nonprofits out there meeting the needs of the community, like food banks (don’t get me started on kids who don’t get meals when they’re not at school). They require support to make that happen. There may be opportunities to volunteer or contribute financially so they can continue their important work. Also check in with your favorite nonprofits who aren’t directly responding to pandemic needs, because they are likely hurting right now (like other small businesses).
The opportunities to make a difference are unlimited. Whether it’s with supporting an organization working in your community or identifying individual needs for people you know, you can make a big impact in response to a pandemic. It’s a natural disaster on a global scale. And that’s a call for Christians to step up and be the Church to the whole world (or even just our neighbor).
There’s more to disaster response in a pandemic than just caring for the sick (but that’s part of it, if that’s your role). Ultimately, it’s about caring for people. That’s the one thing Christ called all of us to do. So finding a little #activistfaith during a global health crisis isn’t just a suggestion (or an option), it’s what we were made for.
One thing I love seeing in the aftermath of a disaster is the stories that rise up about people who made a difference in the lives of others. I expect the current crisis will be no different. We’ll hear stories of faith and hope and love that inspire us and connect us.
For Christians, we have an opportunity to show the world what we’re all about. So my prayer is simple…
May we rise to the occasion. May we be the (washed) hands and feet of Jesus and show the world the Way of Love. May we be protected and safe from disease. May we shine the Light that draws people into a close relationship with Christ. And may God be glorified in the stories of hope and redemption that come from this. Amen.