As Urban Missioner in Worcester, it is clear to me that there are many boats out in this storm. Some are large enough to withstand most of the waves, some are being tossed around, and some have either already capsized or are in danger of doing so, no matter how hard the occupants bail.
I am blessed to be one of the folks on a big boat. I have a comfortable home and a network of support. I may be bored occasionally or inconvenienced, but I’m in good shape. There is food in my refrigerator and gas in my car. I have access to masks and mask makers, and I have the WiFi, computers and technical expertise to use Zoom and Google MeetUp, and other social platforms. I miss family members and friends, but I’m fine, for the most part.
And, let’s be honest, I’m white and well educated. I have all the privileges that being white and well educated bring. I have had better than average healthcare for most of my life. I have a savings account and credit cards. If I had not chosen to work as your Urban Missioner, I could be working from home. My income has continued through the shut down. One of my sons and his children are living with me, so I have people to talk to and kids to cuddle.
Most of the people I meet through my work at Walking Together have no such privilege. By virtue of having little education and even less access to technology, they could not even dream of a job where they could work from home, assuming they have a home to work from. Many of the folks I know have jobs as line cooks or home health aides. They run cash registers or make deliveries for furniture stores. They clean houses or wash windows, often under the table. Of course, many of these jobs ceased to exist once the shut down began in earnest.
Most of the people who come to Walking Together also have some sort of pre-existing condition. Many have asthma, some are immune compromised. A large proportion of them smoke cigarettes. Most have had less than adequate healthcare for most of their lives. They have bad teeth, which makes healthy eating more difficult, and many live in rooming houses where they share kitchens and bathrooms, often with dozens of other people. Social distancing is not an option.
Others live in shelters or on the street, away from the sinks and hot water we take for granted. Something as simple as frequent hand washing is almost impossible. Any water at all is difficult to come by. Public bathrooms are closed, stores are drive through only, and water fountains are almost as scarce as pay phones. If you live on the street and you don’t have the money to buy a bottle of water, you go without.
Even the social safety nets that so many of us take for granted are hard to access for my folks. I received my stimulus check from the federal government several weeks ago. It went directly into my bank account. Most of the folks I work with do not have banks. They can’t afford the fees, and cannot maintain a minimum balance each month. They will need to wait for their stimulus funds until checks are mailed later this summer. The people who need the money the most will receive it last, and since many of them lack stable addresses, they may not ever get it.
The storefront which houses our ministry in Main South is closed, and probably will remain closed for several more weeks at the very least. It is not set up for social distancing, and with more than 40 percent of Worcester’s unhoused population testing positive for the virus, we cannot risk opening now.
As a result, we’ve returned to our roots. Every weekday we are out talking to our folks on the street. We bring hygiene items like toothpaste and soap, as well as snacks to eat. Thanks to dedicated mask makers in your parishes, we are able to give out masks to each person, and we also have gloves for those who need them. We bring bottles of water and small treats.
It’s not enough, and we know it. We can’t wave a magic wand and provide WiFi so people can attend virtual 12 step meetings, although we do leave the WiFi on at the storefront so people can stand on the street and use it there. We can’t change pre-existing conditions like diabetes or HIV, but we can and do provide healthy snacks. We can’t cure the isolation that leads some to desperation and overdose or suicide, but we can and do remind people that they are loved and cared for.
Not everyone is called to be out in the streets at the time. Not everyone is able to make significant financial donations. But all of us can remember our baptismal covenant, and respect the dignity of every person, and see all people as Christ among us.
Pray for the people of Main South. Pray for the folks like them in your own city or town. Advocate for decent healthcare for all. Ask your town or city how they are providing technology to all of the students in their schools. Respect the hard, and often frightening, work that our essential employees provide. And recognize your privilege—we may be in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat.