Coronavirus Diary #9: Comorbidities –Pandemic and Racism

Often illness is complicated: a person doesn’t typically just have heart disease; he likely has comorbidities, or other diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure that are present at the same time. Depression often coexists with anxiety; skin rashes often accompany allergies. When someone gets sick, the doctors often first deal with the ‘presenting problem’ or the one that is currently causing the most difficulty. However, in the course of treatment, other underlying issues are often discovered.

Several years ago, I went to the doctor with a presenting problem — actually a few presenting problems — joint pain, fatigue, and inflamed patches of skin. The doctors diagnosed psoriatic arthritis, and I began treatment. In the wake of that diagnosis, other issues surfaced — iritis, scleritis, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, a tendency toward overwork, a highly critical spirit, and deep, soul-wrenching, unexpressed grief.

Several weeks ago, we were all sent home because our nation had a presenting problem — a coronavirus pandemic. Now that over 1.7 million of us have been diagnosed with this illness and over 100,000 have died, some comorbidities are starting to surface — broad weaknesses in structures like education, health care, and criminal justice; a struggling economy; and, most notably right now, flaring systemic racism.

We were wearing our masks, staying at home, washing our hands, and applauding our essential workers when we started hearing about the disproportionate impact of this virus on people of color (nearly two times as many as would be expected based on population). And then another series of senseless deaths hit the headlines:

Ahmaud Arbury was shot to death while he was out for a run on February 23.

Breonna Taylor on March 13 was killed by police who shot her eight times in the middle of the night in her own home.

George Floyd died with a police officer’s foot on his neck, begging for air, on May 25.

It wasn’t enough that communities of color were losing fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters every day to Covid — now they (and we) have over and over watched video clips of two of their own (Arbury and Floyd) actually being killed.

Citizens across the country — black, white, Hispanic, male, female, gay, straight — are outraged and are taking to the streets demanding attention for this sickness — this disease — this epidemic.

It’s not new. Racism is part of the very fabric of our country — its threads are dyed with the blood of Native Americans and African slaves who paid the price for straight white males to expand their territory, build their monuments, and amass their riches. For centuries, non-whites have provided manpower in exchange for lower pay, fewer opportunities, and a gaze of suspicion. For centuries, the lives of brown and black people have been deemed expendable — by slave owners, by riot police, by the judicial system, by the educational system, by you, and by me.

We have never had this disease under control, but now that we are weakened by our presenting problem — Covid 19 — and starting to feel the added pressure from the resulting financial crisis, the underlying sickness is starting to flare. In a matter of just a week or two, its strength seems to have dwarfed that of a global pandemic — a pandemic that sent all of us racing to our homes, dragging out our sewing machines to create masks, and washing our produce and surfaces like our lives depended on it.

While just a few weeks ago, most of us were reluctant to leave our homes for fear of catching a life-threatening virus, thousands are taking to the streets to fight a bigger demon — one that questions our humanity.

If we can watch a man die on national television and not be moved to action, who have we become?

If we can stand by while a woman is shot inside her own home — a woman who had not committed a crime or posed a threat to anyone — what else will we tolerate?

If we are not sickened by two white men gunning down an unarmed human in broad daylight, what is the matter with us?

If I’ve learned anything about healing sickness, it’s this — to have any hope of recovery at all, you’ve got to be willing to look the disease straight in the face and see it for all it is, and then you have to be willing to make drastic intentional change.

To recover from what on the surface appeared to be psoriatic arthritis, I had to slowly and carefully examine each underlying issue and then I had to make significant changes to my home, my job, my diet, my exercise, my ways of dealing with emotion, and my attention to self-care. Even then change did not happen overnight. Slowly, over the course of more than seven years so far, I have experienced improved health.

For our nation to have any hope of recovering from a centuries-long battle with racism, we’re going to have to start with taking a long hard look at how deeply this disease has permeated the cells and tissues of our society — and I think we are starting to. We are scratching the surface. We are starting to see the disparities in pay, in health care, in education, in the judicial system, and, you know, I think Covid-19 paved the way for that. When the numbers started showing how hard communities of color were being hit, brave leaders started to talk about why. And now that we are seeing these blatant horrific examples of outright racial hostility, thousands are taking to the streets, demanding that the rest of us take that long hard look, that we see the pus-infected wounds, and that we make sweeping intentional changes — to tear down oppressive policies and practices, to promote reparative measures, to provide spaces in which people can air their grievances and be heard, and to create new systems that provide access for all people regardless of color, or gender, or income, or background.

Sweeping systemic change and recovery won’t happen immediately, but if we are willing to commit to working together to make space for the stories of individuals who have been harmed by broad systemic racism, to interrogate our own conscious and unconscious biases, and to insist on structural changes; if we will commit to stay the course day in and day out, having hard conversations and working through difficulty; slowly, over time, we will begin to see life return to our bodies and restoration spring up in our communities.

When all of us — all of us — are breathing freely, walking safely, and sleeping peacefully, we will enjoy a new kind of freedom, a new way of living, a rich expression of humanity.

I beg you to join me in joining those who have been doing this hard and essential work.

I’ll start by posting some resources. Will you start by checking them out?

75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice

26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets

The Next Question with Austin Channing Brown

We Live Here

Code Switch

Black Lives Matter

If you have other resources you would like me to add to this list, please share them in the comments below.

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

Micah 6:8

Celebrating Freedom? a re-visit

I wrote this piece last year on the Fourth of July, when one of the biggest concerns of our nation was the fact that children were being held in detention centers at the border. As of June 8, 2020, according this New York Times article, 124 children were still in being held in our country’s three family detention centers. A federal judge has ordered that they all be released by July 17 due to the danger of the coronavirus running rampant through these centers. These children won’t be able to celebrate this weekend. They are not alone — many Americans are still waiting for true freedom. As we celebrate differently this year, may we also think differently. What are we willing to do to ensure liberty and justice for all?

Donned in red, white, and blue many of us this weekend will find our way to picnics and gatherings; we’ll light sparklers and watch fireworks. It’s a national holiday to celebrate independence — freedom from tyranny, freedom to vote, and freedom to speak our minds.

What a privilege we have to live in a country that is free — that for hundreds of years has been a destination for those fleeing oppression, longing for liberty, hoping for a better life.

So, it seems a bit ironic to me that as we celebrate our freedom, hundreds of children whose parents dared to walk a road toward what they hoped would be a better life, are held in crowded rooms, clutching tinfoil blankets, unsure of when they will see their families again.

It seems impossible that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, children going to school, families attending church, or friends going to a concert can be gunned down in moments by an assailant with a semi-automatic weapon; that kindergartners learn how to Run, Hide, or Fight; and that whole webpages, programs, and organizations exist for the sole purpose of training people how to respond in the event of a violent attack.

One hundred fifty-six years after the end of slavery and fifty-five years after the Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, African Americans are 75% more likely to face a charge carrying a mandatory minimum sentence than white offenders committing the same crime (University of Michigan School of Law), Muslims are subject to travel restrictions and hate crimes, and women receive 80% of the pay men receive for comparable jobs (AAUW). Injustice persists for Native Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and members of the LGBTQ community.

Aren’t all men (and women and children) created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights?

In the United States, where someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds and 1 out of 6 women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (RAINN), where 84% of women and 43% of men experience sexual harassment in the workplace (NPR), who, I ask, is free?

Is this what our ancestors fought for? Is this their more perfect union?

Did they fight to give us the freedom to lock up children away from their families?

Did they consider only white Christian men to be created equal? not people of color, women, or children? Do we?

Did they ensure the right to bear arms so citizens could freely gun down innocents as they live their daily lives?

Did they include among our unalienable rights the freedom to take the innocence and safety of others?

Is that what freedom looks like?

Or can we do better? Is it possible to live in a society where all can experience the same freedoms? Or is that simply an American dream?

As we light our grills and watch our fireworks, can we pause to consider the high price that was paid for American freedom and the high price that some are still paying? Can we think about what we’d be willing to sacrifice to offer safe haven to the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

Can’t we find a way to provide life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all inside our borders? Wouldn’t doing so ensure domestic tranquility? provide for the common defense? promote the general welfare? ensure the blessings of liberty?

Wasn’t that the hope in creating one nation, under God — the God who created all men, women, and children, who loves all people?

The God who commanded that we not only “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, and minds” but also “love our neighbor as ourselves”? The God who, when asked “who is my neighbor?” told a story of mercy to strangers and perceived enemies (Luke 10:25-37)?

The God who told us to “seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17)?

The God who requires us “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8)?

Aren’t we free to do just that?

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”

Galatians 5:1

He who watches over us doesn’t slumber, a re-visit

I wrote this piece when citizens were demonstrating in Ferguson in the wake of the Michael Brown killing. Looking back now, I feel so naive. I believed that change was happening, that finally we would see an end to racial violence. Today, in the midst of nation-wide protests over the murder of George Floyd and countless others — I am feeling hopeful again — hopeful that change is gonna come and that the endless disregard for the lives of black and brown people will be something we talk about in history classes and not see on the news. I know that the God who holds us all — the black, the brown, the white — in the same hand is able to bring peace and reconciliation. I want to be part of that change.

I was sound asleep just a little while ago. Something woke me. I reached down to check on Chester, my Golden Retriever who sleeps on a doggy bed on the floor within arm’s reach. His bed was empty.  

I don’t know why I reached under my bed, but that is where I found him. In his six and a half years of life, I have only found Chester under the bed one other time…shortly after our son left for the Army. He could sense our distress then; was he sensing distress now?  

I checked my phone. Maybe one of my kids texted in the middle of the night with some sort of emergency…I mean, the dog was under the bed…something was not right in the world.  

My news feed told me that once again teargas was used in Ferguson, Missouri. In fact, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor was arrested for protesting.

What is happening?

From 2005 to June of this year (2014) I taught in a small Christian high school on the north side of St. Louis — two miles from the QT that was burned down in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown. At the time, the school had approximately sixty percent African American students and thirty-five percent white students; the remaining five percent were Asian, Hispanic, or otherwise classified.

The North side of St. Louis has a reputation for being violent and racially divided. Some people are afraid to go there. Some people wondered why I taught there. 

But in that space — at that intersection of white and black, urban and suburban, conservative and liberal — we had an opportunity.

My students and I were able to discuss issues in my classroom with humor and candor that might not be discussed outside those walls. The school fosters an open dialogue that values Christian unity amid diversity. My students taught me so much about dispelling stereotypes and respecting difference. They changed me forever.

I am not teaching there this year — the year of a violent police shooting — the year that many of my students go home at night to a broken and hurting Ferguson, the year that some of my grads are demonstrating every night, the year that neighboring public schools have closed in response to the violence. I am not there. 

Instead, I have started a new chapter in Ann Arbor, MI — which has a reputation for being inclusive, liberal, conscientious. This morning I went to the post office and was jokingly reprimanded by the African American postal worker who didn’t like me calling him ‘sir’. I smilingly explained to him that I had just moved back to Michigan from a place where using ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ is respectful and expected. He smiled knowingly and we wished each other a great day. Then, I exchanged pleasant conversation with the African American cashier at the grocery store who didn’t need to check my ID when I purchased some wine because it was her ‘job to know’ who to card. My nails were done in a salon staffed exclusively by Asian American women who joked with me and my daughter and exchanged smiles with us. I came home to a campus that houses a small but diverse population that, at least on the surface, seems to be respectful and equitable. I didn’t have a hint of racial tension in my day.  

Before I went to bed I checked the news and saw peaceful protests in Ferguson, an upbeat interview with the new chief of police there, a statement from President Obama encouraging open dialogue and peaceful resolution. I wanted to believe we were moving in the right direction — that all would soon be right with the world. I went to sleep with Chester on his doggy bed by my side.  

But several hours later, I am aware that all is not right in the world tonight — Chester is hiding under my bed. The dog who follows me everywhere, did not budge when I came to the living room at two in the morning to write. He, like many tonight, is distressed. 

I, too, am distressed. This — racism, violence against people of color, inequitable policing, systemic disparity — has gone on too long. People I know and love are hurting, protesting, putting themselves in harm’s way for the sake of change.

Like Job, I “weep for those in trouble.” As I “hope for good, evil comes,” As I “look for light, then comes darkness” (Job 30:25-27). 

But even in trouble, even in darkness, God is still God. He is in Ferguson; He is in Ann Arbor. And “He who watches over us will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3). Right now He is keeping watch. I pray that Ferguson, and those that I love there, will one day feel free to sleep in peace.

Resources for learning about/building racial equity:

Teaching Tolerance – free resources for educators “to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants.”

Anti-racism Reading List – from Ibram X. Kendi’s

Also, there are many places that could use your donations right now, but I’ll suggest two schools that I am aware of that foster racial dialogues and provide strong educational opportunities of students of color:

Lutheran North, St. Louis, MO – the school mentioned in this post

Elan Academy, New Orleans, LA – an elementary school started by one of my former students, who is also a graduate of Vanderbilt University