Dear Sister & Brother Vincentians,
Peace be with you. I hope and trust that each of you had a safe, enjoyable, and blessed Easter. I imagine that this Easter Week witnessed each of us being more reflective than in past years. Social distancing certainly promotes reflection!
A relentless virus has infiltrated our ranks with devastating effectiveness and has caused us to engage in unprecedented practices aimed at “flattening the curve.” In last month’s column, therefore, I discussed the corona virus pandemic and how SVdPD has continued to serve those in need. This month, I discuss our nation’s alarming rise in inequality and what SVdPD can and should do to help “flatten that curve”. Of particular note, the discussion includes soon-to-be disbursed funding to help empower Districts to do precisely that.
As of May 1, 2020, our Staff will have worked “remotely” for more than six weeks. During this difficult time, the sustained commitment to our mission and our core values exhibited by our talented staff and dedicated Vincentians has been a source of quiet inspiration for me. To be sure, our “routine” has been terribly disrupted. But SVdPD has responded to this dreadful challenge by finding innovative ways to continue to serve. Indeed, times of great challenge can bring out the very best in each of us, especially if we work together. That is precisely what I am seeing as those in our organization care for neighbors in need and each other. Thank you, all, for remaining outwardly focused and committed to our mission.
This month, our nation faces the truly thorny challenge of striking an appropriate balance between personal safety and re-starting our economy. It seems that the most frequently discussed question these days is when will we “re-open”? Notwithstanding a virtual consensus among medical experts, everyone else seems to have an opinion on this critical and hugely consequential topic. Health pandemics do not come with instructions.
Rather than wade in on that on-going debate of “how and when to re-open”, therefore, I discuss instead social justice. Why? Because, as beautifully captured in our inspirational Rule, our Society is expressly committed to the noble cause of striving for it.
1. What Seems to Be the Problem?
Covid 19 continues to ravage our nation. It has claimed lives in every state. For that reason, some have described it as an “equalizer”, i.e. everyone is susceptible to this virus. In one sense, that is true. But with every day that passes, it becomes more clear that this virus has been far more harsh and devastating on some more than others. Indeed, it is exacerbating the inequalities in American society, taking a disproportionate toll on low-income Americans, people of color, and others who were marginalized long before this crisis hit. Last month, I referenced Pope Francis’s Easter message to the world about, spiritually, how we are all in the same boat with Jesus. Amen! Economically, however, as writer Damian Barr aptly put it, while “we are all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat.” Whereas some are in massive yachts, so many others are riding huge waves clinging to flotsam!
Millions of white-collar workers, while surely inconvenienced, have worked from home. Meanwhile, a disproportionate share of our front-line workers still head to their jobs. As many recent articles, especially one in the New York Times, have pointed out, many are women and people of color. Even among those staying at home, inequality is a huge issue. For example, some order delivery while a growing number of others meet their needs by visiting food banks. SVdPD continues to operate many such facilities.
Overall, a startling lesson of Covid 19 so far is that while the virus itself can infect anyone, those hit hardest by this dreadful health pandemic are those who were already hurting. The following is a sampling of what contributes to our nation’s growing inequality – a crisis of far greater ramifications than even Covid 19 at its worst.
- Pandemics have always had a disproportionate impact on people who are already vulnerable — and often ignored, e.g. people over 65 and those who are immuno-compromised;
- African Americans are disproportionately more likely to get sick and die from Covid 19. An undeniable reason that African Americans are being affected so much more are “the underlying health problems that they are already experiencing, e.g. hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. Each can worsen the effects of the coronavirus;
- At a time when people are being advised to stay home to minimize their risk of exposure, many literally can’t afford to do so. There are people whose jobs can’t be done remotely, like grocery store cashiers, delivery workers, and bus drivers. These workers have already been devastatingly impacted by the virus;
- An estimated twelve million children do not have internet at home. How do they engage in remote learning? Many, many more are missing school lunches as well. Trauma at an early age adversely affects brain development;
- For lower income Americans who lack sufficient rainy day funds, expenses far exceed income during a crisis like this;
- Workers in front-line industries are also disproportionately female. In many occupations within these industries, such as bus driving, warehouse work, and building cleaning, people of color are over-represented;
- In 2020, an estimated 27 million Americans, perhaps far more, do not have access to basic health care coverage; and
- Even among those staying at home during this crisis, inequality is a huge issue.
You get the point. Social distancing? You bet! Moral distancing? No.
Stated simply, the coronavirus pandemic stands to worsen the already enormous problem of inequality in America. As the disease continues to spread and the economic impact increases, more and more people around the country will be in need of help — whether it’s caring for loved ones, healing from their own illnesses, or paying their bills. The impact of the pandemic, now and in the future, will likely remain disproportionately concentrated among those who were already at a disadvantage before it hit.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Robert F. Kennedy once pondered that, “some . . . see things as they are and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not.” Shouldn’t we?
2. What DOES This Problem have to do with SVdPD?
William Sloane Coffin reminded that the prophet Amos said “Let justice” – not charity – “roll down like mighty waters,” and for good reason. Whereas charity alleviates the effects of poverty, justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it. Charity is a matter of personal attribute; justice is a matter of public policy.” In doing so, Reverend Sloane pointed out that charity, after all, does not threaten the status quo whereas striving for justice can lead to robust debate and confrontation.
The very purpose of our Society is to follow Christ through service to those in need and thereby bear witness to His compassionate and liberating love. Our Society manifests this noble goal by concerning itself with “not only alleviating need, but also with identifying . . . unjust structures” that cause those needs in others. Our Society believes that charity and the pursuit of justice are inextricably intertwined. Chapter 7 of our SVDP Manual could not be more clear and persuasive.
Our Society believes in the dignity of every human being. Rule 7 mandates that we commit ourselves to a more just society in which the rights, responsibilities, and development of all people are promoted. It encourages that we proactively promote a “civilization of love” and that we view social justice from the perspective of those who suffer from injustice. We have the opportunity to be a persuasive voice for the voiceless. Wherever “injustice, inequality, poverty or exclusion are due to economic, political, or social structures, our Society should speak – clearly and forcefully”. As followers of the “suffering Christ”, Vincentians should strive to change the attitudes of those who view the weak or those who are “different” with prejudice, fear or scorn. Why? Because such attitudes “gravely wound the dignity of others.”
Herein lies the essence of being a Christian, a Vincentian, and a good human being. It is not an easy (or painless) path to follow the risen Jesus. But in the Vincentian spirit of friendship, let us commit to helping each other do precisely what Chapter 7 of our SVDP Rule provides. Indeed, according to Fr. Richard Rohr, “you do not think yourself into a new way of living, you live yourself into a new way of thinking”.
3. What can SVdPD do to help?
It is truly ironic that Covid-19 slammed our nation during Lent and Easter season. To date, it has been a microcosm of the mystery between the agony of death and the hope and promise of life. Difficult times can “try our souls”. But they can also bring out the very best in people. We see that currently now as people care for one another through numerous acts of kindness.
A. Advice from Pope Francis about the Pandemic
According to a recent article in America Magazine, Pope Francis said that today’s pandemic crisis parallels that of the disciples of Jesus after his death and burial in the tomb. Like them, “we live surrounded by an atmosphere of pain and uncertainty.” During our fitful hours “between Friday and Sunday morning”, we likewise wonder, “Who will roll away the stone from the tomb?”
Our Pope analogized the stone that sealed the tomb of Jesus to the tombstones of the pandemic that “threatens to bury all hope” for the elderly living in total isolation, for families who lack food, and for those on the front lines who are “exhausted and overwhelmed.” That includes, among others, “doctors, nurses, people stocking the supermarket shelves, cleaners, caretakers, people who transport goods, public security officials, volunteers, priests, women religious, grandparents, teachers, and so many others”. He continued by observing that many are participating in the passion of Christ today, either personally or at the side of others. He reminded everyone: “We are not alone, the Lord goes before us on our journey, and removes the stones that paralyze us.” This is the hope that no one can take from us.
Pope Francis encourages us to be open to the Spirit, who can “inspire us with a new imagination of what is possible.” Let us help each other do precisely that.
B. Being there for others in need
Clearly, effecting change oftentimes take money. There may be a will, but there needs to be a “way.” It is precisely for that reason that I am so grateful to announce that our Council will be rolling out an exciting new program aimed at challenging our Districts to engage in innovative ways to help neighbors in need and offering funding as well. Nancy Szlezyngier and I have shared the concept with our Board. Details to follow shortly!
Be assured, it is not our intent or interest to decide what each District or Conference should do with these funds. Rather, we intend to empower. In that spirit, we encourage you to look around your neighborhood and make decisions on how best to use allocated funds. When you choose, “see the possible.”
Especially during this health crisis, I am so grateful to work in conjunction with Nancy, our BOD, and our very talented and dedicated Leadership Team to position you to help those in need by providing much needed financial assistance.
Tragically, Covid-19 has already left painful scars in countless hearts. But in a real sense, its legacy need not be entirely soul crushing. Each of us will contribute to the eventual legacy of this unprecedented experience by how we choose to respond. Clearly, the “heavy lifting” lies ahead.
Our nation will soon decide when we “re-open” for business and, in effect, how best to get there. That will be a terribly important, hopefully collaborative, process. In a very real sense, though, an equally important question, which we will help answer with our daily choices, will be “what kind of nation will emerge from this crisis”? Will it be merely “business as usual”, e.g. racing back to shopping malls, restaurants, bars, and eventually sporting events and concerts? Surely. Or will it be more? During crisis or normalcy, every day presents opportunities to be there for others. May grace, compassion, selflessness, and justice help guide us in creating a future worth building together. Robert Kennedy also observed that:
“Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal,
Or acts to improve the lot of others,
Or strikes out against injustice,
He sends forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
Together, let us see the possible and ask “why not”?
Our Council is doing its very best to negotiate through this crisis responsibly while remaining rock solid to our mission. In these difficult times, let us encourage one another to focus on that which sustains our spirit rather than on matters that drain us. Let us define our legacy through grace, compassion for others, and, pursuant to Chapter 7 of our Rule, a quiet, but relentless, pursuit of social justice.
Stay safe. Stay home. As we continue to practice social distancing, let’s also be sure to practice emotional closeness. God bless.
In Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s name,