In the few weeks after the pandemic hit the United States, several people remarked that this is the first time for many of us that we were truly “in the same boat.” While previous generations of Americans were bound together against a common enemy as a result of the Spanish flu epidemic or WWII most of the generations alive today have yet to experience something where all of us—across the nation—are equally impacted by the same event.
But have we been equally impacted?
Although I appreciate the unifying force behind this statement and do believe at some level “we are all in this together”, we are most certainly not in the same boat. Instead, I prefer what Damian Barr has said, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.” This pandemic has impacted us all at different times in entirely different ways and, what’s more, as Barr points out, we all came into this pandemic with varying levels of preparedness—economically and otherwise. Likely, your ministry setting includes people who have been impacted in a variety of ways as well. It’s dangerous to assume that everyone has experienced the pandemic in the same way.
Playing off that storm metaphor, here are some of the various economic experiences of the pandemic I have seen so far:
- Capsized: These people have experienced the full blow of the economic crisis: layoffs, business closure, loss of insurance, death of loved ones, and more. Some of these boats were caught off guard by a gale force wind and others went into the storm with rickety boats to begin with so even small waves threatened to throw them overboard.
- Barely afloat: These folks are currently being tossed about by the waves. They may be adjusting to a new financial reality, coping with illness, or trying to keep their business afloat. They are bracing for impact—taking each day as it comes and trying to keep their heads above water.
- Storm clouds up ahead: This group sees the storm looming on the horizon. They may have felt a little bit of the immediate financial impact—reduced pay or hours—but they fear this is just the tip of the iceberg. They see the capsized boats and those barely afloat and wonder anxiously: “When will it be me?”
- Calm waters: These are the eople who have been neutrally or even positively impacted by the pandemic. They may have the opportunity to work more hours or work in a business that benefits from people staying at home. They are watching from a safe distance as the storm passes by for now.
While it might be easy to just focus on helping those in the capsized boats or trying to rally those in calm waters to help fill in your congregation’s financial gap, I would argue that each of these groups need your help, but they need it in an entirely different way:
- Capsized: These people need your help connecting to essential services like the local food pantry, safe housing, and financial relief organizations as soon as possible. While you may not be able to help them get back on their feet again financially, connect them with resources in your area who can.
- Barely afloat: These folks are living day to day. They need your permission to focus on the present and meeting their own basic needs. They may not be able to give to the church the way they used to. They may need your permission to step back, if needed, knowing others in the community will fill in the gap until they are out of the storm.
- Storm clouds up ahead: When you are anxiously awaiting a storm that could strike at any moment, it’s easy to turn in on yourself and take on a mindset of scarcity—hoarding what you can for the long, dark winter that may never come. These people need your help to quell their anxiety and strike a balance between adequate preparation and hoarding, scarcity and sufficiency. The need for this group is more emotional and spiritual than it is financial.
- Calm waters: It can be easy to write off those experiencing calm waters. Don’t forget these folks have watched the storm from a safe distance—they have seen the capsized boats and those struggling to stay afloat. They are likely experiencing survivor guilt: “Why am I doing okay while so many others are struggling?” This guilt can be debilitating. They likely want to help but with so many people, businesses, and causes in need, they may not be sure where they can make the most impact. Giving people a way to help that meets a few different needs like Lord of Life Lutheran Church’s “I Can Help” initiative can be a balm amidst decision fatigue.
- Everyone: No matter how the storm has impacted us, we all need to hear that God is with us, no matter our place in relation to the storm, calling us to love our neighbor and care for ourselves in the midst of the chaos.
So, how do we sail together when we are all in different boats? There are so many things we can do, but I invite you to start by cultivating a culture of radical transparency. Create a virtual space where people can talk about the ways the storm has (or has not) impacted them. If it’s helpful, open the conversation with the storm metaphor I’ve used in this article and outline the various experiences so everyone feels welcome at the table. You might do this through small group meetings via Zoom, conversation in your church’s private Facebook group, a virtual retreat, or “breakout rooms” during Sunday morning worship. Create a non-judgemental space for people to share their experience and name their worries, fears, and joys.
Next, invite everyone to move out from their own experience and focus on their neighbor using the question that has guided my congregation’s small groups: “What do you need and what can you offer?” While someone might need a job, others may need a daily connection with someone else who lives alone, healthy recipes that only use pantry staples, or a link to exercises they can do at home. Someone may be able to offer financial support, while others may offer homemade masks, sourdough starter, free financial counseling, or resume editing skills. No need or offer is too small. We’ve found through these conversations that regardless of your experience of the storm, everyone needs something and everyone has something to offer. Like the early Christian community in Acts, we find ourselves bringing what we can to a common table to help all to be fed spiritually, physically, financially, and emotionally as we continue to ride out the storm.
Finally, how can you be the one who sees and names God’s presence in these times? How can you help people expand what they identify as God’s work in the world, frame up hope, and inspire them to not just ride out the storm, but to contribute to fashioning a world that could be more just and merciful than the one we knew before the pandemic? This is holy work, the work of redemption, and our calling as baptized children of God.
Photo by Johannes Plenio