Editor’s note: Five powerful and diverse evangelical voices came together in a first-ever “National Town Hall on Evangelical Faith and Politics” (Aug. 6, Facebook Live), moderated by Lisa Sharon Harper, to bravely start the conversation Evangelicals need to have in this consequential year for our nation: Charles Robinson from the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma works with The Red Road, a non-profit that shares the love of Jesus with native people in a culturally relevant and biblically sound way. Rev. Dr. Alexia Salvatierra, is Fuller Seminary’s assistant professor of Integral Mission and Transformational Development in the school of Intercultural Studies and Centro Latino. Rev. Justin Adour is lead pastor of Redeemer East Harlem Church in New York City. Kyle J. Howard is a theologian and trauma-informed soul care provider. Andrea Lucado is a journalist and an author based in Texas. Everyone except Andrea is an Evangelical of color. What follows is Part 6 of our 8-part series based on the National Town Hall.
It’s of course impossible to not discuss COVID-19. We looked at the pandemic through the lens of environmental racism. Justin, who is based in East Harlem, has lived the horrifying images of body bags being loaded into the backs of semi-truck coolers for storage during the height of the COVID crisis in New York City. His neighborhood, and the South Bronx just across the river, were hit particularly hard. I asked what he learned about environmental racism, and the health of his own community in New York City, through the COVID crisis and if he reflected on this experience in scripture.
It was such a traumatic season for our city. One of the things I’ve reflected on deeply is the history of injustice and racism and the churches’ complicity with it. It has consequences. If one assumes that we are truly post-racial and we have worked out these issues, a crisis like COVID-19 makes it very plain how much that has not been the case. One of the things that has been the reality for us is, East Harlem, South Bronx, and other historically poor and marginalized communities were just ravaged by this thing.
96th Street separates East Harlem and the Upper East Side. I have a friend who calls it the modern-day Apartheid. On the south side of the street, the median income is about 120K a year, predominantly white. You cross the street, the median income shifts to 33K a year and is predominantly Black and brown. It is a drastic shift. The Upper East Side had one of the lowest rates of infection and deaths in the city. East Harlem had one of the highest. The Upper East Side had a 40% decrease in residential population during COVID. People got out. Of course, in neighborhoods like East Harlem, people don’t have that option because of resources. So it just ravaged the community. The development of neighborhoods, the way that they are currently situated, had consequence in a crisis. There was a councilwoman that said something like, “We’re in the same storm, but we’re not in the same boat.”
One of the more popular passages within Evangelicalism, especially as it relates to the urbanization of the world, has been Jeremiah 29:7: “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city which you have been called.” That’s been used as a call to Christians to root themselves in cities, and to love and serve and care for the cities. I think that’s an absolutely good and right call to make of people. One of the things that challenges me, especially within Evangelicalism, is how Jeremiah 29 was used as a way to call people into the city to love and serve and care for the city, but then we hit COVID-19, and the crisis caused people to leave. It was almost like — the city stopped giving me what I came to get from it, and now because it’s problematic for me to be here, I need to bounce again.
The best thing that we’ve known to do is to truly take on that Jeremiah 29. How do we seek the peace and prosperity of those who don’t have the option to leave? They are stuck here, and they are struggling to just meet those basic provisional needs for themselves. How do we rally around that in the midst of this crisis? There’s a lot of racial implications. It’s been a very real tension that we’re still trying to process through and are obviously still in the middle of this crisis. It’s been difficult but we shall press on.
I’m aware that Bronx Health Reach did a study awhile back about the two healthcare systems at play in New York City. That there was a healthcare system for the poor and a healthcare system for the rich and it broke down according to race. Black and brown people were largely in the healthcare system for the poor, and white folk were largely in the healthcare system for the rich. And the thing that strikes me is how environmental racism played a role in the COVID crisis in New York City. Because of the housing that you talked about, above 96th Street you have a higher density of people. They are poor, and their neighborhood back in the ’80s was zoned for fast food, not supermarkets. So folks have higher rates of diabetes and heart disease and when people come into the hospital with these comorbidities, they’re much more likely to die. And you can also see it around the country.
The National Town Hall on Evangelical Faith and Politics was convened by Freedom Road LLC in partnership with Evangelicals for Justice, The Voices Project, Global Immersion Project and Evangelicals for Social Action. You can watch the inaugural Town Hall on Facebook. Follow Freedom Road on Facebook and Instagram @FreedomRoadUs.