COVID-19, Racial Disparities, and the Church

Diane J. Chandler Part 3 of 6

The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced many stark realities—the fragility of the human body when faced with a destructive invader, the consequences of relational isolation and restricted mobility, and spiritual uncertainty regarding how to relate to God and others amid interrelated crises. While everyone has been impacted by the pandemic in some way, ethnic minority groups in the United States have been the hardest hit, leading to more cases, hospitalizations, and deaths than white citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed just how vulnerable minority communities are to various inequities at multiple societal levels.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when comparing minorities to white Americans, Black Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.8 times more likely to die of COVID-19. Similarly, those who are Latinx are 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalized and 2.8 times more likely to die than their white counterparts. Native Americans fare similarly. The CDC recognizes that “race and ethnicity are risk markers for other underlying conditions….”1

Likewise, the CDC acknowledges that discrimination contributes to these health disparities: “Discrimination, which includes racism, can lead to chronic and toxic stress and shapes social and economic factors that put some people from racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk for COVID-19.”2 Not surprisingly, the pandemic has further exposed other interconnected factors, including preexisting conditions; lack of affordable healthcare; educational, income, and wealth gaps; and crowded housing where contagion may be heightened.3

As for employment, many Black and Latinx workers who are considered essential workers face increased health insecurity, in contrast to those in higher income brackets who can work from the safety of their homes.4 Consequently, medical researchers view these alarming disparities as “an urgent research priority” to reverse them.5

Tragically, for the Black community, the year 2020 heralded a double-layered pandemic: (1) COVID-19 and (2) the killing of unarmed Black Americans. Racial injustice blanketed many Black Americans with cumulative pain, fear, and loss.6 Mental health experts voiced concern about these compounding traumas, notably because of rising suicide rates of Blacks.7 One result is that Black pastors began addressing mental health from pulpits, invited mental health professionals to address their congregations, and/or added therapists to their church staffs.8

Black Christian authors shed light on the effects of racism resulting in racial trauma. For example, Sharon Rowe emphasizes that racial trauma develops from various sources, including systemic racism, manifesting through institutions, and environmental racism that negatively affects poor communities of color.9 Both forms of racism came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, Barbara Peacock notes that generational trauma caused by racial oppression has produced various outcomes, with one outcome being a determination to endure, which is threaded throughout African American history. On the other hand, Peacock notes the reluctance of Black church members to ask for help when mental health issues arise.10 Although Peacock chronicles the legacy of soul care and spiritual direction within Black church history, she likewise acknowledges that not all Black churches are equipped to provide the degree of soul care needed.11 Many churches (both white and ethnic, for that matter) were unprepared to provide the degree of spiritual care and direction needed during this pandemic. With heightened risks of contracting COVID-19, many Black churches remain reluctant to return to in-person worship services.

What has COVID-19 helped us to see when it comes to racial and ethnic injustice? This pandemic has opened my eyes to the societal inequities that evade my purview and insulate me from the needs of those within ethnic minority communities. These inequities are not easy for one person, group, or church to address, much less to solve. However, it does mean that I am fundamentally obligated to actualize Jesus’s words that punctuate how I am to respond when others are in need:

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Mt 25:35–36)

Jesus’s words challenge us to find ways to tangibly contribute to supporting underserved ethnic communities. For instance, both now and going forward, how can we become available to listen to those who need to process their fears and anxieties from this last year? During times of crises, soul care and spiritual direction help Black and Brown people “to withstand high winds and parching drought so that…souls can be nourished and…spiritual lives can flourish.”12 O Lord, teach us what we do not see.

Footnotes
  1. CDC, “COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity,” November 30, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/investigations-discovery/hospitalization-death-by-race-ethnicity.html (accessed January 2, 2021).
  2. CDC, “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” July 24, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html (accessed January 2, 2021).
  3. CDC, “COVID-19: Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities,” December 10, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/racial-ethnic-disparities/index.html (accessed January 2, 2021).
  4. Elise Gould and Valarie Wilson, “Black Workers Face Two of the Most Lethal Preexisting Conditions for Coronavirus—Racism and Economic Inequality,” Economic Policy Institute, July 1, 2020, https://files.epi.org/pdf/193246.pdf (accessed January 2, 2021).
  5. Shirley Sze et al., “Ethnicity and Clinical Outcomes in COVID-19: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis,” E-Clinical Medicine (The Lancet), November 12, 2020, https://www.thelancet.com/journals/eclinm/article/PIIS2589-5370 ( 20 ) 30374-6/fulltext (accessed January 2, 2021).
  6. See Diane J. Chandler, “Spiritual Formation: Race, Racism, and Racial Reconciliation,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 13, no. 2 (fall 2020): 156–75.
  7. Michael Johnathan Charles Bray et al., “Racial Differences in Statewide Suicide Mortality Trends in Maryland During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic,” JAMA Psychiatry (online), December 16, 2020, E1–E3, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/fullarticle/2774107 (accessed December 30, 2020).
  8. Aneri Pattani, “Black Churches Enlist Mental Health Pros to Support Community,” Kaiser Health News, November 30, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/30/health/mental-health-Black-community-wellness-partner/index.html (accessed December 30, 2020).
  9. Sharon Wise Rowe, Healing Racial Trauma: The Road to Resilience (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2020), chap. 1.
  10. See Rita Omokha’s interview with Barbara Peacock in “It’s Okay Not to Be Okay: How African American Churches Are Ministering to the Mental Health of Their Communities,” Christianity Today, 64, no. 8 (November 2020): 48–52. Also see Barbara L. Peacock, Soul Care in African American Practice (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020).
  11. Peacocke, 51.
  12. Robert W. Kellemen and Karole Edwards, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 22.
Diane J. Chandler is an associateprofessor of Christian Formation and Leadership at Regent School of Divinity
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