Being the church when the world is crumbling requires providing help taking care of bodies – and hearts.
The Gospels demonstrate over and over again that Jesus was concerned with care of bodies.
Jesus was concerned with healing to bodies. He healed bodies that could not see, that could not walk, that were bleeding – whose infirmities caused isolation and embarrassment.
Notably, Jesus healed people when religious leaders and social norms suggested he was out of line or the time was not right. And this healing brought people back into community.
Jesus was concerned with sustenance for bodies. He orchestrated the feeding of hungry crowds, he told stories that emphasized providing food for the hungry and trading riches for empathy.
He taught us to pray for our daily bread. And Jesus’ use of hunger and thirst in metaphors demonstrated a keen awareness of how powerfully hunger and thirst affect our bodies – and our daily strivings.
Jesus was concerned with care for our hearts – or our beings. (Acts 17:28, “in whom we live and move and have our very beings,” comes to mind).
Jesus provided compassion in the face of hurt and doubt to disciples who never seemed to understand, to Mary and Martha as they navigated their work and worth, to Zacchaeus, to Thomas; again and again, he spoke of deep belonging rooted in God’s love for us, not in our own striving or ability to comprehend.
The church has the responsibility to claim these concerns as our own when the world is crumbling (always, really, but there is particular urgency amid particular crises.)
The church has the opportunity to support the provision of medical care, of sustenance, and of connection amid crisis.
And the church must consider how to go about this work for those who are a part of each particular congregation, as well as for those in the community.
Churches might house their own feeding programs. They might support local nonprofits or food pantries. They might support efforts to feed children who are missing the free lunches they would receive at school.
They might provide volunteer help and fundraising to address food and housing insecurities that are symptoms of the economy, unjust systems, or natural disasters. They might advocate for adequate funding of social safety nets.
Churches might support local efforts to keep those at risk of isolation connected. They might set up teams to check on shut-in or isolated members of the congregation.
They might support local efforts to check on seniors or support children in the foster system or support those who are imprisoned.
They might visit those in care facilities or ensure that folks without access to transportation can get where they need to be.
And in the face of the physical distancing restrictions of COVID-19, they might lean into letter writing, email, and telephone calls.
But in all things, the church would do well to remember two things:
- Always ask what is needed and what structures are already in place.
- Always work to move from charity to justice.
Ask what is needed. Churches – and the inspired, energetic, and well-intentioned clergy and laity who lead them – have been known to come up with an idea about what needs to happen and passionately seek to implement it without fully understanding what is happening in the community, what is actually needed, and what the unintended consequences of their intervention might be.
Often, such brazen certainty frustrates the efforts of those with expertise, who have worked to understand and implement policies and protections, who are tending to details of grant reporting about individuals served and services provided, and who have practice in people-first interventions.
Trusting and following the lead of those who understand these intricacies is critical. Churches do not want to get in the way of those practices that make the provision of help safe, equitable, and supportive.
Leaning into people-first language is especially necessary as churches partner with the community.
People-first language impacts the way we think and speak about those whom we help, focusing on the hardships people face rather than identifying people by these hardships.
For instance, talking about people who face food insecurities rather than people who are hungry, or people who have been impoverished by systems rather than people who are poor.
Learning this way of thinking and speaking helps us to be neighbors instead of “saviors.” And that changes so much about the way we think about help.
Churches can provide so much needed support to community efforts by simply asking school leaders, nonprofit leaders, and civic leaders: What needs to be done and how can we help? What rules do we need to follow? What are the best practices?
There will be times when churches identify needs that are entirely unmet and for which entirely new systems need to be created.
But more often than not, churches will find that showing up with people and funds made accessible to those who are already doing the work is a coveted gift.
This asking what is needed is critical for care for congregants as well. Though needs may seem obvious, care must be taken to protect those who may benefit from help from overbearing insistence that help is needed.
Offers for help can be experienced as supportive rather than paternalistic when framed as a question that truly allows for refusal.
These questions might include: May I come and visit? Would it be OK if I picked up groceries? What are some things that would be helpful for me to bring? How can I support you today?
Move from charity to justice. Most churches do well with charity, with showing up at times of crisis and raising the money to meet community needs. Thanks be to God!
All over this country, children who are missing out on school lunches are being fed by funds raised by churches, storm clean-up after natural disaster is being accomplished by church folks, people who have lost their homes for any number of reasons are sleeping in warm and dry beds. Charity can save lives.
But charity is never enough. Charity is only a temporary stopgap. Charity is a finger in the dam. Charity is a Band-Aid. Charity is giving one a fish and then talking about teaching fishing when, in fact, there are no fish and no fishing rods.
Justice changes systems to reduce the instances in which charity is required. Justice brings about permanent solutions. Justice mends the hole in the dam. Justice heals the wound.
Justice identifies why there are no fish and no equipment and works for a remedy.
(For more on this idea, check out the Racial Equity Institute’s use of the fish metaphor to talk about systemic racism and some of the ways in which charity falls short of justice.)
The prayer Jesus taught us to pray petitions for the coming of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
As we make this prayer our own, we have the opportunity to do the work of justice, moving from the temporary efficacy of charity toward justice – justice that cascades as rolling waters, changing everything.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on exploring how we might be the church while the world is crumbling. The previous articles are:
Associate Minister for Care and Welcome at United Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she lives in Durham with her family. She is the editor of “Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss.”