By Gabrie’l J. Atchison
When churches had to shut down in-person gatherings due to Covid-19, I conducted a number of interviews with clergy for an article. Even though those I interviewed represented diverse traditions, an overarching theme emerged concerning the true meaning of the church. These dedicated faith leaders found creative ways to care for their constituents as well as the most vulnerable members of our society – immigrants, the homeless, the incarcerated, the sick, people with disabilities and the elderly.
In his book about Hurricane Katrina, the social critic Henry Giroux defined the “biopolitics of disposability” as the dangerous way that a capitalist system can deem its most vulnerable members as disposable. Those who were disproportionately abandoned and displaced during the aftermath of Katrina were impoverished and African American.
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When we write our books about Covid-19, we will explain how a disproportionate number of people of color died due to pre-Covid-19 health disparities. Before Covid-19, in our region, college students and single mothers, in particular, were dealing with food insecurity as the urban poor experienced food deserts. The economic devastation of Covid-19 has increased the need for healthy, affordable food in our communities exponentially.
In the face of these challenges, what is the church? And, how can the church stand in the gap for God’s people?
The church is primarily a building. Beyond Sunday morning services, the church also provides space for recovery group meetings and child care. Virtual and physical bulletin boards at church help people access information about community events. With proper precautions in place, church leaders have found ways to keep their buildings relevant and central to the broader community.
Secondly, the church is a community. Whether services are online or outdoors, churches maintained a regular schedule for people to gather. Churches have provided services in the community like testing, food pantries, clothing drives, transportation, meal delivery and letter writing to the homebound and to the incarcerated.
Our crisis has made all of us value the love, connection and sense of belonging being part of a church provides. Finally, the church is a place for prayer. Prayer is another form of community-building. Praise reports allow people to share good news. Prayer requests help people support each other during hard times.
Those of us who attended in-person church services regularly miss it so much. However, when we finally are able to return, we will appreciate the experience of being together all the more.