response September/October 2020 Issue

Loving God and Neighbor

United Methodist Women advocates for communities made even more 
vulnerable during the coronavirus global health crisis.

Loving God and Neighbor
Monica Bartley participates in a public witness at the state capitol in Columbus, Ohio, for a fair living wage, part of Assembly 2018.

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” —Matthew 22:37-39

What does it mean to love your neighbor during a global health crisis? It means staying home. It means washing your hands. It means wearing a mask. It means making and donating personal protective equipment and food and funds. It means phone calls and letters and videoconferences. But it also means advocating for those most at risk and with the least access to resources. It means service and advocacy.

To love our neighbor—and ourselves—means more than just providing care and comfort in times of suffering; to love our neighbor as ourselves we must change the systems that do harm in the first place.

For more than 150 years, Methodist women organized for mission have worked in the name of Jesus to take positions on social justice issues and change legislation, systems, structures and practices considered unjust and oppressive.

Today, we continue to build on this foundation as we work to end maternal mortality, attain a living wage for all, fight mass incarceration and the criminalization of communities of color and ensure energy that is just for all, work even more acute as COVID-19 exacerbates these injustices and even more deeply harms vulnerable populations.

COVID-19 and populations in vulnerable situations

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has named several groups of people as most medically at risk for contracting COVID-19: adults 65 and older, those who live in long-term care facilities, those who are immunocompromised, and people with asthma, lung disease, diabetes, serious heart conditions, severe obesity and chronic kidney disease.

But we know these are not the only populations disproportionately sickened and dying during the global health crisis. Other groups, among many, are those with barriers to health care, those whose health is already affected by air pollution, those not paid a living wage, and communities of color targeted by systemic racism in the arenas of health care, economics, housing, environment and criminal justice.

“Maternal mortality has hit communities of color especially hard for decades, and experts worry the current COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the racial disparities already present in the United States,” said Kathleen Pryor, United Methodist Women’s consultant for maternal health. “The United States is last compared to many wealthy nations in maternal health, with 17.4 deaths per 100,000 live births. That number is 2.5 to 3.1 times higher for black women, as CDC data released earlier this year show. The CDC data illustrate that COVID-19 death rates among Black and Latino people are substantially higher than those of white or Asian individuals.”

United Methodist Women’s social action priorities are intersecting and systemic.

Adequate public transportation is essential not just because it’s a means to reduce carbon emissions but because it also allows for affordable transport and reduces barriers to employment, education and health care access. Yet, those reliant on public transportation are more at risk during the COVID-19 crisis if proper safety measures aren’t taken, safety measures that can’t be implemented if public transportation is not a priority. The health crisis has also shone a spotlight on racial disparities in health care. African Americans and Latinx people are dying from coronavirus at disproportionately higher rates than other racial ethnic groups, revealing even more clearly systemic racism leading to higher disease rates, lower median incomes, increased environmental risk factors and limited access to education and economic opportunities and adequate health care. These existing factors are in addition to direct bias in testing and treatment. People of color also experience a higher rate of incarceration, a population uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19. And those low-wage workers we’ve currently deemed essential? The majority are women and people of color and do not have a living wage or paid sick leave, even during a health crisis.

Calls to action

True to form, United Methodist Women members sprung to action writing and calling their elected representatives to protect the incarcerated, ban utility shutoffs and expand paid sick leave for all workers and include tipped workers in COVID-19 relief actions. They also participated in Just Energy for All webinars and a screening of Zero Weeks, a documentary on the fraught state of paid sick leave in the United States.

The online screening, part of United Methodist Women’s Living Wage for All campaign, was hosted in partnership with Family Values @ Work. Together the organizations are engaged in a campaign for universal, portable paid family and medical leave and are taking action for both short-term paid leave during the COVID-19 crisis and for more permanent solutions. Attendees viewed the documentary together and participated in group discussion and biblical reflection and have been hosting their own virtual screenings across the country.

Claire Jencson, social action chair for the North Coast District United Methodist Women in the East Ohio Conference, attended the screening.

“I was impressed with the Zero Weeks presentation,” she said. “I would like to do one with my church women. Thank you for bringing this important issue to the forefront.”

Learning more about lack of access to paid leave was paired with legislative advocacy. In March 2020, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a historic bipartisan vote for the United States’ first emergency paid leave program. But it left out millions of workers, especially those on the front lines and deemed essential, from emergency responders to grocery store workers. Especially during a pandemic, paid time off to stay is essential. Close to 500 United Methodist Women members called on more than 3,000 of their elected officials to ensure that the upcoming COVID-19 relief legislation expanded paid sick days and paid leave to cover every worker, regardless of employer size, where employees were born or the kind of work done.

This was followed by a specific call to include tipped workers in relief legislation, who in 43 states earn less than minimum wage and in 18 of those states are paid just $2.13 per hour. Seventy-one percent of tipped servers are women, and women who depend on tips face higher levels of sexual harassment and are likely to work when sick just to pay bills. Layoffs have pushed countless people into financial crisis. In many states, if servers even qualify for unemployment, it is at the lower “tipped wage” rate. Members wrote to congresspeople and governors asking them to extend unemployment, offer financial relief only to businesses who pay workers at least $15 per hour and establish one fair minimum wage of $15 per hour as part of their plans to reopen states. More than 300 e-mails were sent. United Methodist Women executive for community action Carol Barton also published articles on PhilanTopic and Route Fifty pointing out holes in the health care and labor systems and gig economy.

Caring for creation

United Methodist Women members believe it is a biblical imperative to care for all of God’s creation, particularly the most vulnerable. The impacts of the coronavirus national emergency threaten people’s access to basic services like electricity and water and fundamental livelihood. Members urged senators and congresspeople to implement an immediate moratorium on all electric and water utility shutoffs, waive late-payment charges, reinstate disconnected services, provide federal relief packages that make health the top priority for all people, provide economic relief directly to people, rescue workers and communities not just corporate executives, make down payments on a regenerative economy and the protect the democratic process.

The CARES Act that passed Congress in March 2020 did not include a moratorium on utility shutoffs. Without electricity access, lives have been lost due to extreme heat and cold as well as disconnection from life-saving devices like respirators and medicines requiring refrigeration. Moreover, the climate emergency has exacerbated the country’s extreme weather conditions. Unprecedented wildfires, heat waves and increased frequency and intensity of storms have necessitated a greater demand in electricity for survival and a basic standard of living, most especially in American Indian and Alaska Native and rural regions. Relief and stimulus legislation must take into account the intersectional crises of economic inequality, racism and ecological decline that have been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. United Methodist Women members responded to this crisis as an opportunity to forge a just recovery that creates healthier, more equitable and more just communities.

An Earth Day action encouraged Just Energy for All’s call to move to renewable and just energy.

“As women of faith, we have been pressing government leaders and companies to urgently transition our energy dependence from air and earth polluting fossil fuels to renewable energy because of the dire climate consequences and disproportionate health devastation fossil fuels has on children and communities of color in the United States,” said Elizabeth Chun Hye Lee, United Methodist Women executive for economic and environmental justice. “Recent reports have now shown air pollution is linked to higher coronavirus hospitalizations and death rates, and that the coronavirus is infecting and killing African Americans, who statistically live in areas with greater air pollution, at disproportionately high rates.”

Remembering the incarcerated

Another uniquely vulnerable community at heightened risk for contracting coronavirus is people who are incarcerated in jails, prisons and immigration detention centers.

“Incarcerated people, their families, advocacy groups and public health experts have all been loudly sounding the alarm: the conditions of incarceration are ripe for rapid viral spread, particularly endangering especially vulnerable groups, including those people in prison who are elderly, immunocompromised, pregnant or already sick,” wrote United Methodist Women executive for racial justice Emily Jones in an Op-Ed for Red Letter Christians.

United Methodist Women members joined together to ask their governors to reduce the prison population, prioritizing the immediate release of medically vulnerable people who pose no risk to public safety but would be themselves gravely endangered during a COVID-19 outbreak.

Leah Ostwald of the Northern Illinois Conference is one of the more than 600 members who wrote to her governor.

“Having had the humble opportunity to join a United Methodist Women seminar on mass incarceration, this specific concern churns in my gut,” she said. “I had a conversation, just today, with a community organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Metro Chicago about a woman sitting in Cook County jail for four years because she couldn’t pay a $27,000 bail. Let’s keep this justice rolling.”

United Methodist Women also encouraged members to help end racist myths and stereotypes and call out discrimination and abuse that targeted Asians and Asian Americans during the health crisis because of false attributions for the virus’s outbreak. The organization also put out a statement decrying the racially motivated murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, a death happening, as the statement says, in a moment when the broader structural racism in our society is increasingly revealed through enormous racial disparities evidenced not only in the U.S. COVID-19 death statistics but also in the biased enforcement of social distancing regulations. Black people have been ticketed, beaten and arrested for minor violations of social distancing while armed white people gathering in enormous crowds have been given a free pass.

Continuing advocacy

Service and advocacy is still needed and will continue through and beyond the COVID-19 emergency. United Methodist Women’s campaigns make it easy to put faith, hope and love into action, educating members and alerting them to ways to make change. Action alerts harness the voice of hundreds of thousands of members to let decision makers know women of faith expect just policies and actions. Often this can be done via a simple form with a pre-written letter that sends your letter to your representatives for you simply by entering your ZIP Code.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Start by signing up for social action alerts at unitedmethodistwomen.org/action.

Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 9/12/2020 12:00:00 AM