NEW YORK — One religious leader appeared with nursing home workers seeking safer conditions. Another broadcast a roundtable with colleagues in three states. Another talked about a campaign he helps lead that’s raised more than $1 million for masks and hand sanitizer.
In one 24-hour period this week, three prominent people of faith from different denominations pushed for more aid to workers and areas most acutely affected by the coronavirus.
All three are leaders in the black church –- underscoring the outsized pain the pandemic has exacted on communities of color -– but Christian advocacy on behalf of lower-income populations struggling with the virus is a diverse and nationwide cause.
The missions of those religious advocates are distinct, with California pastor Michael McBride’s Masks for the People campaign focused on cities while the National Farm Worker Ministry and its allies home in on rural workers. But their efforts show that activism grounded in the values of faith is playing a vital role during the outbreak, pushing Republicans and Democrats alike to do more even as most churches remain closed.
McBride’s campaign to distribute masks and sanitizer, which includes diverse and secular allies, is part of a larger project he leads that also works on issues such as gun violence and voter suppression. It operates under the umbrella of Faith in Action, a national organizing network that champions liberal-leaning goals, but McBride described his work during the pandemic as unconcerned with political partisanship.
“Our effort is a wonderful expression of what it means to be faithful to the whole of the teachings of Jesus, and not just ones that fit a very narrow political, racial demographic,” said McBride, lead pastor at The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has pledged $1 million to the campaign, among other donations that McBride projected would fund the distribution of more than 1 million masks. The campaign is also producing tens of thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer with domestic partners, McBride said, prioritizing distribution in cities where the racial disparities of the virus’ toll are particularly apparent.
“Faith leaders are doing this and working through our existing network of congregations who have proximity to those who are largely left out of preventive and responsive health care in a pandemic,” he said. “For us, it’s an act of survival. It’s not an act of altruism.”
McBride’s not alone in zeroing in on black Americans who are succumbing to the coronavirus in disproportionate numbers. Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is also using its megaphone to spotlight the needs of black congregations, holding a Facebook roundtable this week.
Rev. William Barber, a former head of the North Carolina NAACP, allied with nursing home workers this week — part of multiple efforts he’s made for greater protections for people of color and other low-income Americans through his Poor People’s Campaign. Faith in Action held another Wednesday event with northeastern religious leaders urging governors to expand testing, data collection and other measures to prevent “disproportionate suffering and deaths in communities of color” as areas reopen amid the virus.
Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian social justice group Sojourners, connected religious advocacy on behalf of populations most devastated by the pandemic to Jesus’ urging in the Gospel of Matthew that his followers pay heed to “the least of these.”
“Let’s be blunt, the least of these whom Jesus talked about are the least important in Washington,” Wallis said, pointing to congressional aid packages that have passed on a bipartisan basis. “Yet I’m seeing people rising up all over the country saying, ‘That’s not going to stand.’ I’m seeing it across racial lines and theological lines.”
Wallis joined leaders from multiple denominations who are part of the Circle of Protection coalition on a letter last month urging members of Congress to expand assistance to lower-income Americans and virus testing for immigrants, among other priorities.
In addition, leaders from multiple denominations have worked alongside the National Farm Worker Ministry on efforts to secure protective equipment, sick leave and other virus-related needs for food and agricultural employees whose jobs are considered essential to feed a hungry nation.
Rev. Sharon Stanley-Rea, a board member of the farm worker ministry, tied her work on behalf of vulnerable populations to another biblical passage, from the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, that cites God’s call to “do what is just and right.”
“The food I eat every day is grown by farmworkers who continue to be enormously at risk at this time, in new ways, in the midst of COVID-19 — but who’ve been perpetually underpaid and without just conditions in their work life,” said Stanley-Rea, who serves as director of refugee and immigration ministries with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
One ally of the farmworkers’ organizing effort is Anne Hodges-Copple, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, who noted that “Bible story after Bible story is about marginalized communities.”
“The Bible doesn’t dictate public policy, but it does dictate priorities,” Hodges-Copple said, adding that Christians from multiple background can align in favor of priorities that broadly help the disadvantaged “because they’re right there in scripture.”