By Kacie Chase and Caleb Brooks
We rarely think of service to others in terms of things we don’t do. For most of us, service is a verb, and when we consider acts of service they are just that: active. In this rare moment, however, we are presented with an opportunity to reframe our Christian duties to one another in ways that may seem counterintuitive. What we are referring to is social distancing.
In this unusual time of global pandemic, it’s actually what we
do not do that can be most impactful. Social distancing is a fairly basic concept: limiting your social contact to those that you live
with and avoiding public spaces unless it is absolutely necessary. Scientifically, the strategy behind social distancing is also simple: by removing ourselves from the larger pool of those that can be carriers of COVID-19, we contribute to a broader effort to curb the rate of infection within the population. In doing this, we slow or “stagger” the number of infections so that local healthcare systems are not overwhelmed by coronavirus cases that will require hospitalization to survive.
This may go without saying, but social distancing will probably feel like something of an inconvenience. “Aren’t I a healthy, free person?” you might ask. “Why would I limit my own movement and access to the people and places that help fulfill me and add meaning to my days?” The answer to these questions lies within the concept of neighborliness.
We all know the passage in Luke 10 where Jesus tells the Parable of the Good Samaritan. After a brief back and forth with an expert in the Torah, the man answers with the first and greatest commandment: To love God with all that we are and love our neighbors as ourselves is the way to eternal life. But in a step further, this man of the law poses the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Each time I read this question it kind of rings in my ears. In the text, the question seems to be instantly placed in the mouth of the reader. There is a power in its simplicity, and I imagine a wry grin crossing Jesus’ face as he begins his answer in the form of the parable.
During this outbreak we are reminded, as Jesus reminded those gathered that day, that each one of us has an opportunity to be a good neighbor. Many of our neighbors are now, as always, people that we may not ever meet or know. Because of the ease with which COVID-19 is spread from one person to another, our neighborly duty has become the act of self-limitation, and even self-isolation. By understanding that we each represent part of a greater whole, we can love our neighbors as ourselves by staying at home, avoiding crowded places, and encouraging those around us to do the same. In the way that monastics through the centuries have committed to lives of isolation and deprivation in service to God, we can now serve our numbers by acts as simple as playing board games with our families in the living room and preparing meals from whatever we have in the pantry.
But there are also ways we can love our neighbors more actively. One such way is recognizing that social distancing will be inordinately difficult for those with less privilege. Consider the homeless who don’t have adequate hand-washing facilities. Consider the children who live in single-parent homes and will face the fear and uncertainty of being home alone or suddenly having a parent with no income. Consider low-wage workers who are being sent home without notice and don’t know when they will have work again. Consider the hospital cleaning and maintenance staff that will work through this pandemic with high risks and low pay. Those of us able to work from home and care for our children all while still getting a paycheck are persons of privilege during this season.
Social distancing precludes in-person acts of kindness for these folks, but there are certainly still ways we can support them. We can be generous in our giving through the support of local non-profits that address these insecurities in our communities. We can encourage legislation that will ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and there are no big winners or big losers as a result of something so broadly impactful and so completely beyond any one person’s control.
These are ultimately small acts, and may not always even feel like direct service, but social distancing and awareness are the most effective ways to show mercy to those around us in the weeks ahead. In this unique period of pandemic, we live out our sanctity for life by taking a break from life as we know it.