COVID and the Community

Comments for a panel discussion at ASRS2021.

Though I work for the North American Division and travel frequently promoting chaplaincy and caring for chaplains, I remain deeply rooted in my own community. A little place about three hours east of here called Houston.

We moved to Houston in 1998. My kids attended public schools in the diverse Alief neighborhood from first grade through high school. I have been involved in the community as a chaplain, pastor, teacher of world religions, and participant in interfaith dialogue. 

My professional focus the past decade has been on suicide prevention, growing out of my work as a National Guard chaplain. I serve on the advisory board of the Texas Suicide Prevention Council. Four years ago I was asked to be a faith-based representative for the Harris County Public Health department’s strategic planning process. These experiences led me to start work on a Master of Public Health degree in the summer of 2020.

My public health studies have given me a theoretical foundation for what I had grasped instinctively. That there are so many issues in our society that we will only be able to solve through community-based multi-sector partnerships addressing what we call the Social Determinants of Health. Faith-based organizations must be part of the mix.

I think we do that well in Houston. I am proud of the way Houston has come together to confront the many challenges of the past two years.

On June 2 of last year 60,000 of us marched in remembrance of George Floyd, together with his family.

A week later, while George Floyd’s funeral was taking place in another part of Houston, 1000 students, faculty, and healthcare professionals marched through the Texas Medical Center as “Whitecoats for Black Lives.”

People outside of Texas associate our state with our Governor and our Senators. My community has a Seventh-day Adventist Congresswoman, Sheila Jackson-Lee. The Texas Medical Center is home to stellar scientists like Dr. Peter Hotez, author of two highly relevant books: Vaccines Didn’t Cause Rachel’s Autism and Preventing the Next Pandemic: Vaccine Diplomacy in a Time of Anti-science. 

Unlike the science-denial we see at the Texas Capitol, in Houston faith leaders, health care professionals, researchers, and city and county officials have come together for common purpose throughout the pandemic: in weekly Zoom calls to disperse information and in sponsoring clinics to make testing and vaccines readily available.

One Adventist church in Houston, World Harvest Outreach of the Southwest Region Conference, has been an example of community service, distributing food and water after our deep freeze last winter and hosting vaccine and testing clinics. I wish more of our churches did.

My first public health class in the summer of 2020 was on equity and disparity in the COVID pandemic. It gave me tools to better understand how the history of our once segregated southern city impacts the health of its citizens today. I believe the church–especially this church whose racial diversity we celebrate–has to be outspoken in addressing the systemic nature of racism. We need to critically examine the role race has played in our communities and in our churches. We need to reclaim our radical roots—and, just as radical in this new dark age, reaffirm a commitment to promoting evidence-based public health interventions.

We also need a broader sense of community. Beyond the city and state, beyond nationalism, we need a sense of planetary community. We say we are a remnant drawn from “all nations, kindred, tongues, and people.” We proclaim a call to “worship the one who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters.” We should be active participants in promotion of OneHealth and Planetary Health–and I want to thank especially Greg and Sigve for their papers yesterday. 

Good teachers taught me long ago that passionate care for community is where the rubber hits the road in ministry. Forty years ago Charles Teel introduced me to the 19th century Boston Unitarian transcendentalist and abolitionist Theodore Parker. They and other prophetic pastors like Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King taught me that to be a pastor is not to be an entrepreneur or a salesman, but to be a shepherd—a shepherd who is with their sheep. And to be so close to them that, as Pope Francis said, “you smell like sheep.” It is to follow Christ into the community. To love the community. And to work for its justice, health, and peace.