The World Council of Churches executive committee released a public statement on the role of churches in the context of COVID-19. Focused on love, steadfastness, hope and courage, the statement reflects on the damage COVID has wreaked over the last five months—and how churches can offer hope.
“Though in some ways the pandemic has been a great equalizer in its range and global impact, it is also exposing and exacerbating the deep divisions, injustices, economic inequalities and racism in our societies,” the statement reads. “Churches and faith communities are called to accompany the most vulnerable people and communities, as well as to be in solidarity with each other.”
The church is called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth, the statement reads. “We pray that churches everywhere will be empowered and equipped to be messengers of unity, trust and truth, against the voices promoting division, suspicion and unsubstantiated rumour.”
And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10 NRSV)
Do not fear, for I am with you,
Do not be afraid, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my victorious right hand. (Isaiah 41:10 NRSV)
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic – direct and indirect – are grave, global and unprecedented. In a mere five months, the virus has spread all over the world, reaching 216 nations and territories, resulting certainly in many more than the 6 million cases of infection so far officially confirmed, and the deaths of more than 379,000 people, including many healthcare and other frontline workers.
Public health systems in the worst affected countries have been stretched to the limit and beyond, access to essential health services for many other conditions has been compromised, and the disruption of routine immunization services is putting an estimated 80 million children – in rich and poor countries alike – at risk of diseases like diphtheria, measles and polio. Approximately 1.2 billion students – 70% of the world’s student population – have had their education disrupted by the closure of educational institutions. Moreover, closures, lockdowns and isolation measures have been attended by a sharply increased incidence of domestic violence and abuse against women and children.
Economies have been tipped into recession, unemployment driven to record levels, the livelihoods of vast numbers of people around the world imperilled, food insecurity massively increased, and life in countries and communities already mired in poverty has been made even more precarious. While water, hygiene and waste management services are essential to prevent the transmission of the virus, this pandemic is occurring in the context of a global water crisis, in which billions of people around the world do not have access to safe drinking water, sanitation services, or even basic handwashing facilities.
With its concurrent impacts on health, education and income, the pandemic is expected to provoke an overall reversal in global human development, and significantly to disrupt progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). And meanwhile, natural and human-made disasters – such as the recent tropical storm in El Salvador, the locust plague in east Africa, and the conflict in Cameroon – and many other pre-existing challenges afflicting the world continue, but with less attention and diminished capacity to respond.
Daily life for people and communities around the world has been radically altered. Physical distancing has reshaped human interaction in many contexts – including worship and religious observances. Many church communities have been unable to gather for months, even during the Lenten and Easter season, the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
Though in some ways the pandemic has been a great equalizer in its range and global impact, it is also exposing and exacerbating the deep divisions, injustices, economic inequalities and racism in our societies. The virus does not respect borders, wealth or status and is affecting all people directly or indirectly. But it especially threatens the most vulnerable people – those suffering from chronic illness, the aged, the poor, racial minorities, Indigenous Peoples, disabled people, migrants and displaced people, and all those living on the margins of society.
Churches and faith communities are called to accompany the most vulnerable people and communities, as well as to be in solidarity with each other. Our Lord Jesus Christ shows us with his life, teachings and actions that concern, care and compassion surpass all boundaries, and in this moment of crisis, fear and division it is our calling as Christians to bring hope and healing, for the transformation of society.
Even though we may not for the time being be able to gather in large numbers for worship, we remember Jesus’ words that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20), and recognize that also in the smaller gatherings required by public health protocols, our Lord is present and at work. At many times during the history of the Church, Christians have been obliged to meet only in small groups, and have yet succeeded in spreading the gospel and continuing the faith. So too can we continue to worship and witness in these times.
In this pandemic, churches and their specialized ministries have continued to serve their communities, to accompany and support those in need, and to work with their constituencies and marginalized people to overcome the challenges they face. We have experienced how partnerships between churches in different parts of the world have strengthened in the face of this crisis, and how churches are striving to support people suffering extreme hardship in these circumstances. We have been inspired by the creativity with which churches have found ways to worship and witness even when unable to gather physically. We have seen how local bonds of community and solidarity have flourished and grown, even as at the level of our governments and societies the commitment to global solidarity has withered and xenophobia even increased.
This crisis and its impacts have been made worse by systemic neglect of public health systems, lack of preparedness for the known risk of pandemics, the prevalence of greed and self-interest in exploitative economic systems, accelerating environmental destruction and ecological degradation, the lack of unity among nations in facing a common threat to humanity, political expediency and short-term interests.
Facing the multidimensional global crisis precipitated by the pandemic is self-evidently beyond the capacity of any country, no matter how powerful. International solidarity and cooperation are critically needed now, much more than ever. The multilateral organizations and instruments created to facilitate such cooperation are essential tools for this purpose. They should be used, supported and where necessary reformed and strengthened, not undermined in the very moment when they are most urgently needed.
Many countries are currently relaxing measures imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But it is clear that there can be no return to the status quo ante, which was in any event and in many ways unsustainable, unjust and inhumane, to the detriment of relationships in families and communities and in God’s creation. It helped create the conditions for such a pandemic to emerge and to take such a heavy toll on humanity.
However, from this time of crisis, we have learnt that relationships can be restored, that transformations previously thought impossible can be envisioned, and that life-giving alternatives to the previous unjust and unsustainable normality are possible. It is a salutary opportunity to reflect on our fundamental values, and to seek to renew our families, societies and economies in accordance with them. We must draw on this experience and these reflections to build new and better models for just and sustainable communities.
The church is called to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Both in ‘normal’ times and in times of crisis, we give witness to the love of God. We acknowledge and proclaim that God’s love is steadfast. Though the darkness of uncertainty may currently surround us, our God stands with us and assures us: “Do not fear.”
In the knowledge of the risen Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives we find courage to face this pandemic and to look beyond it. We will continue to protect ourselves and each other by observing appropriate safety measures, in mutual solidarity and accountability. We will continue to be the church of Christ in these uncertain times, by ministering to all those in need and whose need the world does not see. We will shun stigma and discrimination and embrace love, love that heals. For, like the virus, love knows no boundaries, and breaks all barriers.
We regret that in some places the fear and uncertainty engendered by the pandemic have provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories, and misleading theological interpretations. We pray that churches everywhere will be empowered and equipped to be messengers of unity, trust and truth, against the voices promoting division, suspicion and unsubstantiated rumour. We will promote solidarity and cooperation among nations. We will challenge governments and authorities that seek emergency powers not to protect public health but to quash principled dissent and to violate human rights. And we proclaim the continuation of a pilgrimage of justice and peace beyond the pandemic, envisioning and working for a more equitable and sustainable future.
In this Pentecost time, and in this critical moment, we invite all member churches, ecumenical partners, specialized ministries, and ACT Alliance into a renewed relationship of sharing and active solidarity in the spirit of the first Christian community, in which “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), so that we may better serve all of God’s people through this time of crisis and change. May our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who guides us on our journey of life and through these challenging times, equip us with love, steadfastness, hope and courage.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 NRSV)