My first thought when I heard that the U.S. government would be sending cash payments to most Americans was about my bathroom. With the $3,900 “stimulus” my family of five will receive from the federal government, we could make some long-overdue home renovations.
My wife Diana quickly dismissed this idea. If we–a middle-income American family who, for the moment, still have our jobs–are going to receive unanticipated, unearned income, she insisted, we should distribute the funds among families from our church who have lost their jobs or have had their work hours dramatically reduced. Within our mostly-immigrant Spanish-speaking church, there are a number of individuals who work in the restaurant industry and whose families are now struggling.
It’s very natural in times like these to think about how to protect and benefit ourselves and our immediate families. But the Christ-like model–which was my wife’s instinct, but not my own–is to “value others above yourselves” (Philippians 2:3).
How then should we live, as rich Christians in an age of coronavirus?
It’s a question adapted from Ron Sider’s provocatively-titled Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, first published in 1978. It’s easy to get defensive over this title, because most of us don’t consider ourselves rich. We know lots of people wealthier than us, who live in larger houses, drive nicer cars and go on more elaborate vacations. What’s more, our lives have been dramatically upended by the COVID-19 pandemic: my wife and I are both trying to work from home, learning to homeschool our kids while down to just a few remaining rolls of toilet paper, with no replenishment foreseen. We miss physically interacting with our extended families, our friends and our church.
In reality, though, we bring many privileges into this challenging moment. Our paychecks will still be direct-deposited this week. We own a home in which to “shelter in place,” with wireless internet that allows us to continue working, shopping online and staying connected to loved ones.
Compared to the average Christian around the world, almost all American believers are relatively privileged in terms of income, access to adequate nutrition, shelter, education and healthcare. This global pandemic presents an important opportunity for those of us who have “been entrusted with much,” (Luke 12:48) to be good, open-handed stewards of those resources.
That starts by respecting governmental instructions to stay at home and practice “social distancing.” We do so not out of fear for ourselves but out of love for our more vulnerable neighbors. Most churches are rightly refraining from gathering to preserve the health of others. While we keep our distance, we can still look for ways to convey concern and affection: phone calls, dropping off groceries or other gifts or old-fashioned letters to those struggling in isolation.
Beyond that, though, we should also care for those who are largely unable to practice social distancing and thus are uniquely at risk of contracting COVID-19, including those who are incarcerated, those in homeless shelters and immigrants detained by the U.S. government. Volunteers with World Relief Seattle, temporarily unable to visit asylum-seekers and other immigrants held in the Northwest Detention Center, are now sending letters to detainees who form the church that meets within the facility. We can all be stewards of our influence by urging our elected officials to release those who do not pose a threat to public safety.
Many other immigrants were vulnerable before this crisis and now face unique challenges, particularly for the many working in the restaurant and hotel industries. If you don’t personally know individuals who have lost their jobs, you might reach out to a pastor of an immigrant congregation to ask if there are individuals within the congregation in need, or support organizations and ministries that help immigrants to find employment. Undocumented immigrants–who generally do not qualify for governmental social safety nets, unemployment insurance or stimulus payments (even those who file and pay federal taxes each year)–are among the most vulnerable.
Finally, we should be fervent in our prayers to limit the spread of this disease to parts of the world with far fewer healthcare resources. In the U.S., where there is roughly one critical care bed available per 3,000 residents, many hospitals are already overwhelmed. Imagine how much worse the devastation could be in Kenya, where there is just one bed per 250,000 residents, or in other countries with even fewer resources. And when a global health threat is layered upon situations of active conflict, the suffering compounds exponentially.
And perhaps prayer will lead many of us to action. In addition to prayer, we can financially support efforts through local churches to help inform people about best practices to prevent the virus’ spread–handwashing and social distancing, just like here–utilizing networks that have already been effective at helping to stop the spread of Ebola. World Relief’s church mobilization staff, for example, is utilizing cell technology to help pastors pass on vital public health information.
This urgent work is continuing even as the global economy is contracting, which will almost certainly result in reduced giving from individuals and foundations that have lost a significant share of their wealth in the past month.
As many Americans receive an unexpected check from the federal government in the coming weeks, I pray that (relatively) rich Christians in the U.S. will follow the model of Jesus, who, “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor,” (2 Corinthians 8:9) and sacrifice our conveniences on behalf of the most vulnerable.
is the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief and the coauthor of Seeking Refuge: On the Shores of the Global Refugee Crisis (Moody Publishers, 2016).