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The Challenge to the Church during Covid-19

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That communities of color have been disparately impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the ongoing crisis of growing racialized injustice and inequity in this country. This crisis has meant that people of color have been disproportionately susceptible to the realities of poverty—such as lack of housing, health care, and employment. Unfortunately, this social-justice crisis has been long ignored not only by political and civil society, but also by the church.   For far too long, the church has neglected the “least of these.”

The truth of the matter is racialized oppression and inequality has grown on the watch of those who claim to be church. Hence, calling ourselves church is aspirational. In many respects, therefore, the Covid-19 pandemic has called the church to account. For whether or not we live into the aspiration to be church has much to do with how we respond to those on the underside of justice in this country—to the “disinherited” classes of people like the poor and people of color, those rendered most vulnerable to Covid-19.

And so, while the realities of the Covid crisis have compelled the “church” to focus on the theological appropriateness and spiritual efficacy of “at-home” eucharistic feasts or spiritual communion, we cannot be so focused on eucharistic and other rituals of the church that we forget about the meaning of our gathering in the first place. To do such a thing would be to betray what it means to be church.

For at the center of Holy Communion itself is Jesus’s call for anamnesis, that is, memorial sacrifice—“Do this in memory of me,” Jesus says (Luke 22:19). This call is not a passive process, but rather one in which Christians are invited to enter into the sacrifice. It is about being accountable to the past that was Jesus’s ministry in the very present. Inasmuch as we are called to gather and come to the altar for communion, therefore we are challenged to go out into the world “remembering” Jesus. Such anamnesis remembrance means nothing less than bringing healing and life-giving justice to the “least of these,” hence showing the way toward God’s just future as did Jesus.

In the final analysis, we must hear the call of God asking for us to be the church. This is not about returning to a normal that allowed for increasing injustice. Rather, the call of God requires that we move beyond our altars to embody the very ministry of Jesus in our world. It requires that we show up in solidarity with the forgotten poor and subjugated even as we fight for the policies and laws that begin with a concern for those on the underside of justice in this country and world—particularly people of color.

In the words of Episcopal Bishop Barbara Harris, “Church is real when it gets down to the nitty-gritty nub of life where Jesus was in the lives of people.” The Covid-19 crisis challenges the church to become “real.”

This article is reprinted with permission from We Shall Be Changed: Questions for the Post-Pandemic Church, Edited by Mark D. W. Edington (Church Publishing, November 2020, $6.95). Order online at https://www.churchpublishing.org/weshallbechanged.