How are we to love our neighbours when we are told to stay away from them?
“Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” – Galatians 2:10
For many people – believers or no – in these strange days the answer to the above question is entirely clear: stay home. There are many posts on social media trumpeting the saving power of sitting on the couch and watching Netflix.
There is good reason for the stay home message: this virus is extremely catchy, and deadly, particularly to those who are vulnerable due to other underlying medical issues. Partaking in this almost Lenten practice of self-discipline and self-isolation is not just about protecting oneself: it is about stopping the spread to others.
But there is a problem with this approach. It works and is appropriate for many settings, especially where people have online options.
But it may not work everywhere.
There are many communities around the world that are vulnerable in large part because people have no safe home to go to; no reliable means of washing their hands every 20 minutes; no ability to be permanently removed from crowded conditions; and no way of keeping themselves fed and supported while also self-isolating.
This includes Tapachula, Mexico, where hundreds of people from around the world live in tents outside a government office without reliable access to clean water or food; and the Kutupalong refugee settlement in Bangladesh where approximately 855,000 Rohingya refugees have fled from genocidal displacement.
It also includes my neighbourhood, Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where over 7000 people live in tents or dilapidated, crowded hotel rooms. Many of our neighbours have no real gauge of the scope of the pandemic, no solid information on what to do if they start to feel sick, and a deep-set and well-earned distrust of any government restrictions or pronouncements.
They are reeling, uncertain where and when food will be available, far from the centre of decisions being made on their behalf, and caught up in the general panic that is hovering over the neighbourhood, the city and the world.
Libraries, Church meetings, public showers and community centres are all shut. Worst of all, people who have been around to listen, play games, and speak hope and life and faith are not allowed to gather with them at this time. A vulnerable community feels especially isolated and fragile.
“How are we to love our neighbours when we are told to stay away from them?”
Which leads us back to what it means to love our neighbours in these times. Many of us are privileged enough that we can stay home and wait for this to run its course.
But this cannot be the only response of the Church.
If all the social agencies and Christian ministries closed shop at once it would be a disastrous abandonment. The Church’s call to remember the poor has not been set on pause for this time.
There are safe and responsible ways to continue helping. In our neighbourhood we deliver groceries to homes and hand out hot meals, sanitation packs and pamphlets with health information and Psalms to our friends on the street.
We call our friends as often as we can and get phones for those who don’t have them. And we pray with people. Other ministries around the world are likewise finding creative ways to remember the poor in their midst.
Each meal given out, each prayer offered, each connection on the street or over the phone is a humanising moment in the midst of fear and dismay.
It is a reminder that people are not alone, that they are seen and loved by us, and by God.
If you are not able to be physically present with people at this time, consider supporting the work of those who are. This of course includes frontline medical workers, but it also includes the life-giving work of the Church around the world.