The word “essential” has been used a lot over the past several months in regards to the COVID-19 pandemic—essential businesses, essential services, essential workers, etc. Essential businesses that provide essential services and should remain open include agriculture and food production, grocery stores, hospitals and other healthcare operations, pharmacies, garbage collection, water and wastewater treatment facilities, gas stations, banks, post offices, etc. Barbershops, beauty salons, theaters, gyms, museums, and bowling alleys, on the other hand, have mostly been on the nonessential list.
At the Virginia Mennonite Conference delegate assembly last Saturday (via Zoom), one of the topics of discussion was race relations. I am again reminded that when much of our lives as white people are shaped within the confines of neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, and worship settings that are mostly or entirely white, whiteness just seems normal to us—the default. Every other color of skin is…well, not normal, different, diverse. (Why is white skin not considered different?) It’s easy to assume that racism is not a pressing topic. And it’s also easy for white folks to become defensive when the subject comes up, or when words like “privilege” and “white privilege” are used—because it feels like an accusation of personal racism, an indictment on our niceness. Someone put it this way: “White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It just means the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.”
There may be some who read the headlines of this devotional and turn away without reading it, thinking, “This is not my issue; I am not prejudiced.” Yet so many of us white folks have had very limited exposure to non-white experience. Part of that may be simple geography. Where I grew up in WV, for example, there were no people of color. Zero. Even though the civil rights movement was boiling in other parts of the country, my small world was mostly oblivious to it. While I did not grow up around people of color and had virtually no understanding of their experience of oppression, I did grow up in Appalachia where there is also a long history of people being exploited and left behind by the dominant culture…and even blamed for the challenges and problems they face that keep many of them entrenched in cycles of poverty, low income jobs, lack of education, etc.
In a special edition of Leader magazine about ministry in the age of COVID-19, Fred Longenecker reaches out to “spiritual-but-not-religious” (SBNR) skeptics of Christian faith. (Fred serves as a mental health recovery coach for Oaklawn Psychiatric Center in South Bend, IN.) He notes that today’s skeptics often distrust religion, church, and the Bible, but often do believe in their inner world and their experiences. So, in his article, “Seventeen spiritual truths from COVID-19,” Fred seeks to spark an acceptance and experience of faith that begins on the inside rather than on the outside. Beginning from the outside may depend on convincing skeptics to trust in the very things they already distrust—like religion, church, and the Bible. Beginning from the inside is a way of introducing skeptics to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit as a first experience of living faith.
One of the social institutions of the United States is reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Technically, according to a Supreme Court ruling in 1943, no one may require public school students to recite the Pledge. But in schools and in other places where standing at attention, facing the US flag, with hands over hearts, and reciting the pledge is customary, it can be quite intimidating to not do what others around you are doing—especially in a world that values social conformity, and devalues what is different.