Dear Church, The Virus Attacking the Body of Christ
I am writing to you, sheltering in place with my family, from my home in Washington, D.C. in the midst of the 2020 Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that has impacted the entire planet.
Our world has changed, and it will never be quite the same again. Nor should it. My prayer is that the world will change for the better and you, the Church, should lead in servant leadership and unity to be a source of hope and light in the world. The COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on many issues, including the issues of race and racism. Although the Coronavirus does not discriminate based on race or ethnicity, the impact and outcomes of the pandemic have revealed to us existing disparities in health and life expectancy by race in our nation.
As of April 14, 2020, more than 70% of COVID-19 deaths in Louisiana were black lives, which is more than twice the 32% share of the state’s population. In New York, 17% of lives lost because of the outbreak are black, far greater than the 9% that make up the state population.
Church, be careful, because there are many churchgoers who may consciously or unconsciously peddle racist ideas that African-Americans are somehow biologically inferior to whites and use this racist trope to explain the health disparities we are now seeing. The fear around COVID-19 has also led to an outbreak of racism and xenophobia against Asians and Asian-Americans in our nation and throughout the world. As of April 23, 2020, Stop AAPI Hate received over 1,700 reports in its first two weeks of opening its website for Asian and Asian-Americans to self report acts of discrimnation and racial hatred.
In one particularly egregious attack, a Burmese-American family was targeted for attack in the Dallas suburbs. Three people were stabbed, including two children, age 2 and 6. The perpetrator confessed he committed the crime because he thought the family was Chinese and thought they were spreading COVID-19.
The dictionary defines “revelation” as “the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.” The pandemic has revealed more clearly the underlying reality of structural and cultural racism.
As a Korean American who has been serving in an under resourced African-American community for almost 25 years in D.C., I am especially heartbroken by what I am seeing in the news, and in my social media feeds, as well as the community in which I live. It is so painful to see Asian-Americans physically and verbally attacked in videos and to see so many obituaries on my social media feed, disproportionately African American.
In the midst of the grief, we have all heard the news about the murder (lynching) of Ahmaud Arbery. Many of us have seen the video of his body, almost in slow motion, folding and crumpling to the ground. Thanks to the public outcry from the video being seen by millions, arrests were finally made. It gave some hope for justice, but one can’t help but wonder how many victims never get justice because there’s no video or it never goes viral enough for public outrage. Racism, even in 2020, is not quarantined. It is still a virus without a vaccine. The gospel that embodies justice should be the vaccine, but we as the Church have not produced it for the world or even for the Body of Christ to see.
I lead a community organization called Little Lights. We have mobilized to meet the needs of the public housing communities we serve here in DC. The population we serve is 99.9% African American. The average family we serve has an annual household income of less than $15,000 in the nation’s capital. So as schools have been closed for several weeks and will continue to be closed until at least the fall, food insecurity has spiked for those who were already vulnerable. Most of our students also do not have high-speed internet at home and struggle to access distance learning from school. Again, the digital divide has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
In D.C., as most cities in America, poverty and the wealth gap is highly racialized. In our nation’s capital, the average white family in our city has 81 times the wealth of the average black family. It is an astounding disparity. In order to understand that kind of wealth disparity based on race, we need to understand our history. We need to understand how our systems have historically disadvantaged and advantaged groups based on race. If we don’t, we will easily buy into the stereotypes and racist tropes that tell us that the disparity exists because of biological or “cultural” inferiority.
There are those who want to give simplistic responses to the racialized wealth disparity or racialized poverty especially in our cities. Statements like “You need to pull yourself up by the bootstraps like my parents did” are not always helpful when it comes to understanding these inequities between racial groups. Trite statements that only factor individual responsibility and choices when it comes to these disparities only further divide while minimizing the oppression others have experienced. Isaiah 1:17 exhorts us to “seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” If we want unity in the Body, we cannot minimize and trivialize the oppression our brothers and sisters in Christ have experienced.
As followers of Jesus, we need to be educated on this issue called race that has impacted countless lives and harmed so many. At Little Lights, for the past 4 years, I have been teaching a class geared to church-going folks called Race Literacy 101. It’s an 11-week class with a diverse group (of mostly Christians) who gather together to learn and dialogue around the issue of race. We try to answer questions like, “Where did racial ideology come from?” and “How has racial ideology evolved over time?”
One thing that has been eye-opening to me is that in a city like Washington, D.C., which is one of the most educated cities in the world, is how few people, Christians and pre-believers alike, have learned about the issue and history of race.
As I have had the opportunity dig deeper into the racial history of our nation and of the institutional church with participants of the Race Literacy class, I believe more deeply than even when I started the class that in order to reach healing and reconciliation there needs to an accounting of truth and solidarity to seek justice as Scripture tells us to do. Superficial answers to deep pain will not suffice.
As God speaks in the book of Amos 5:23-24 (AMP): “Take away from me the noise of your songs to the melody of your harps. I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Church, we are not going to experience a lasting, transformative revival without a commitment to truth and justice. Our singing worship songs and church gatherings are going to be rather meaningless without a commitment to justice and reconciliation in the Body of Christ on the issue of race.
Scripture tells us in Matthew 10:16 to be “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves.” We need to learn our history and understand the depth that our enemy has manipulated this ideology called “race” to destroy lives and create deep divisions within the Church.
In the Gospel of John, the writer records what I see as the “deathbed prayer” of Jesus. The Gospel of John is amazing because it is the only gospel that records lengthy prayers of Jesus. In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays this before the Passion of Christ, when he is arrested and sent to the cross:
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Our Lord and Savior hears and is still praying for this kind of unity in the Body of Christ. This unity he prayed for, justice, is the cure to the virus that divides us. Jesus is praying for us right now that we would be one. Yet, we have so far to go to see true and equal justice.
Superficial, feel-good unity will not be enough to show the power of God’s power that will reveal God’s reality, not just to believers, but to the world. If we want to see true unity, we must seek true justice. We can’t look for simple solutions and easy answers. We need to do the hard work of learning deeply, building relationships, addressing inequity and injustice, and lamenting the loss caused by racism.
God is inviting us to take up our cross to follow Jesus in the ministry of racial justice which can lead to reconciliation for blessed are the peacemakers.
Steve Park is the Founder and Executive Director of Little Lights Urban Ministries, an urban ministry celebrating 25 years this year. Little Lights provides holistic, Christ-centered ministry for youth and families living in public housing in Washington, D.C. with youth development, relational ministry, and economic empowerment programs. Steve is a co-founder of DC Unity and Justice Fellowship, an all-volunteer organization dedicated to racial unity and justice in the Body of Christ. He is a husband, father, and most importantly, he is a reconciler.