“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Romans 8:35
Separating ourselves from each other is hard. Yet social distancing is precisely what medical experts have told us to do during this season of the COVID-19 global pandemic — a season in which more than 1 million people are experiencing the disease and tens of thousands have died from it. The disease is strengthened by our lack of medical supplies or a cure. Fear is an understandable human response.
In the Pan-African community, this fear is heightened. We are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 when compared to whites. A main factor has been mistrust of the medical system, which has practiced racial bias against African Americans, historically. In addition, many people in this community hold hourly, low-wage jobs. Dr. Lisa Cooper at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says “fear of lost wages or loss of employment may lead African Americans and other vulnerable Americans to try to work when they are ill, contributing to further spread of the disease within their communities." Dr. Stephanie Miles-Richardson at Morehouse School of Medicine says considerations like these "make Black people bigger targets for contracting and succumbing to the coronavirus."
There are also other practical, cultural and spiritual considerations. While the practice of social distancing can be lifesaving, this practice may be countercultural and impractical for many in the Pan-African community. Working from home is not a viable option for many in Africa or in the African diaspora, given their jobs or the lack of an adequate safety net that would allow them to survive without working for a period. The choice is to stay home and not feed your family or to continue working with the risks.
Historically, Pan-African communities have survived great moments of trial, in part, because they were able to gather. One of the greatest testimonies to this was immediately following the enslavement period when formerly enslaved African persons sought to gather their separated families. This led to a renewed model of the extended family over the smaller nuclear family.
The gathering at churches and places for education became centers of Black life after enslavement. Churches have and still do serve as safe, inspirational and educational places for Pan-African communities. But social distancing has restricted this lifeline of survival and thriving.
There are, however, innovative models of gathering emerging, just like in this earlier history of Pan-African communities. Churches are moving to online platforms and reorganizing their leadership. Joint advocacy — through targeted group phone calls and writing to our congressional leaders — is making a difference.
Thanks to those who have joined in our advocacy agenda to make COVID-19 legislation better address the needs of people struggling with hunger and poverty. Romans 8:37-39 reminds us that through faith, we can still make a difference together in times like these. May this scripture be a source of encouragement in this COVID-19 season during Lent and Easter.
Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith is senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox church engagement at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C.