The Religion Community's Role in Managing COVID-19

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Senior Minister for Public Theology and Transformation, Middle Collegiate Church

Executive Director, Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, White House


President, National Association of Evangelicals

KIM:  Thank you. Greetings, I'm Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an organization that connects forty denominations and scores of Christian institutions and ministry. I'm delighted to be part of this conversation on the religion community's role in managing COVID-19. And along with me, as conversation partners, are Reverend Jacqui Lewis, senior minister for public theology and transformation at Middle Church in New York City. She is an author and activist preacher, public theologian, working particularly in the areas of racial justice, but also seeing the church as a place for social transformation. And with us, also is Melissa Rogers, executive director at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A role that she held previously with distinction and now has renewed. Melissa is not only an expert on religion in America, but she is also supremely capable leader to bring together people from various segments of society to address our country's greatest needs and possibilities. So, Jacqui, Melissa, thank you for joining in this conversation.


ROGERS AND LEWIS:  Delighted to be here. Thank you.


KIM:  Well, let's begin with the big picture of how religious communities have managed COVID-19. What are some notable themes, whether they're challenges or responses, whether they're strengths or weaknesses, in the religion community's responses? What are some of these themes that stand out to you from this past year?


ROGERS:  Well, yes, great. And thank you, Walter, it's great to be with you. And great to be with Jacqui, I want to thank you both for the tremendous work that you do on behalf of your own faith communities, and for everyone in the United States and around the world, your compassionate voices mean so much. And I also want to thank the Council on Foreign Relations, and Irina and her wonderful team for teeing up this dialogue. So, some of the themes that come to mind immediately for me, are themes like resilience, ingenuity, and compassion. When this pandemic hit, we had to, and religious communities, had to adapt. And so quickly, we think about in our, if we take ourselves back to the pre-pandemic mindset, it would have been almost unthinkable that religious communities would have had to turn on a dime and celebrate Easter, and Passover, and Ramadan, not in the traditional ways, but online, and outdoors, and in other ways. And that all the service that faith communities do to help people in need, would have to be radically adapted, not only because of the contagiousness of the disease, but also because of the growing number of people who had lost their lives and livelihoods. And  that makes us think, of course, of all the loss of life and how chaplains and ministers like you and Jacqui and so many others, have found ways, new ways, to minister to people, when the old ways  could not happen because of the disease.


So those are themes that hit me, right off the bat. And I'm just so thankful for what the faith community has done to adapt, and to show compassion in new ways.  A couple of other themes that come to my mind are revelation and reckoning. This virus has revealed to us, for example, racial disparities in a way that perhaps some of us had never seen before. It was so clear, I think, that no one could deny it. And that has meant that we have had to have a reckoning. And as a result, equity has come into the center of the conversation, both racial equity and equity for those who  have been underserved or disempowered in a variety of ways. And I think that has been a good turn in the conversation. One of the things I've mentioned is the Equity Task Force that the Biden administration has put in place along with the COVID response team. And I think that leadership and leadership in the faith community in particular in this area has launched a new conversation. And that has been all to the good.


LEWIS:  Thank you, Melissa, for those reflections. I wanted to dovetail into this idea of resilience and maybe even to put resistance in that. I think faith communities across denominations and across Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, I think I've seen my colleagues across the nation really show the ways love, revolutionary love, has no bounds. The way that it is not a tied to brick and mortar, it is not tied to place, but it's tied to heart. So, I had a chance to do media with Rabbi Sharon Brous, for example, in LA, right when the pandemic hit. Of course she was pivoting Passover, we were pivoting Easter, and our annual revolutionary web conference. Just the ways that our lay leaders are so creative, and our staff are so creative, how people turned to Zoom rooms into places of community and art, and justice, and love, that even in the midst of this pandemic—at Middle Church in particular, we were able to host a conference for 650 people last year and 1300 this year, more this year, Melissa and Walter—350 people joined the church during COVID.


So I think there was, again, across the nation across denominations, ways that faith leaders found to tap into creativity, to art, to community organizing, to protesting, to voter reform—look what we did in the elections during COVID. The way that we organized ourselves to learn issues, to share, to share resources, the Poor People's Campaign, Vote Common Good, just some of the allies that we work with. So that, yeah, I think resilience. And when I say resistance, I mean, sort of, resisting also, the fires that were burning, right? We had a tough year, not just with COVID, but the George Floyd murder, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, all of these moments of kind of racial crisis, the rising violence against Asian communities. We also, as faith communities, resisted oppression, resisted violence, and resisted racism, and actually bound ourselves, I think, together in an interfaith and multi-ethnic, multi-gendered movement for justice. And so I'm really proud of that.  And I would say maybe one more thing, not to be polemic, but to say, in some places, faith pretended that the pandemic wasn't real, okay. In some places, faith-based leaders gave their folks a sense that wearing a mask or distancing from one another was against faith, that if God was real and good that we wouldn't have to do that. And I struggled to understand that, I just want to make sure I say that out loud, to understand how responsible we are, for the ways our congregants take in information through the lens of faith leaders who they trust, and how powerful that is, right? And how important it is that we steward that power well.


KIM:  I've heard words—resilience, resistance, engagement, creativity. And I sense that the work of the NAE  face very similar issues. And, we've been seeking to engage in a few different ways. One is to inform. And so very early on, getting information out there, not only about the nature of this virus, but also about responses and—Jacqui, to your point, getting good information that puts it, not only in medical terms, but also in theological terms—medicine as a gift from God, the kind of creativity that was required to engage with worship service that both of you have mentioned, and in some ways, this has been a remarkable moment of entrepreneurial spirit within churches, spirit-led creativity that I would wish to highlight. But it's been complicated, right? And so, we've not only had to inform, but we've had to collaborate on a variety of issues, not only the medical issues, but the racial justice issues, and certainly as an Asian-American, I sense deeply the recent turns that really are revelation of long standing issues, that perhaps in the Asian-American, Pacific Islander community have been more silently endured.


But there's a moment of reckoning, another word that you all have used, that require not just information, but collaboration, and not just collaboration, but the third thing that, I think, at the NAE that we've been seeking to do is engagement, of actually participating, not just talking and building alliances, and developing this sense of solidarity, but engaging and becoming vaccinations sites at churches, or engaging with advocacy issues that deal with Black and Brown communities that have been disproportionately impacted. So, I sense, along with you, both this creative moment, but also challenging moment. And now I want to dive more specifically in why and how religious communities are particularly important to our national response to COVID. And by COVID, I'm not just meaning the virus, physical virus, but I mean, this whole last year and what has been revealed in our social settings. So why and how are religious communities so particularly important in our national response? Jacqui, let's begin with you.


LEWIS:  Sure. I mean, we're essential workers, right? Religious communities are essential workers. I mean, here is this global, devastating pandemic, that claims hundreds of thousands of lives, I think they're now putting the number at 900,000 here. And I think the role of faith communities is to, is to help our people theologically understand, ethically understand that we're a global community. I think, Walter and Melissa, about the word of “ubuntu,” this philosophy in South Africa. “I am who I am because you are who you are.” A person is a person through other people. The word for humanity in the Zulu language is actually this word, that is more than one, like there's more than one of us, and that we are inextricably connected one to the other. So I think religion, the word religion, you and I know, means to bind together, like to re-tie, right, to bind together, that the world of the world of religions and faith communities is vital, to help us understand that what happens in India affects us in America. What happens in China affects us in America. In particular, I want to say, the traffic and the ethic of revolutionary love—revolutionary love as an ethic to guide our lives. And there's this way in which what COVID showed us all is Black and Brown people die first—are most devastated. In fact, whole generations of Latinx, Hispanic men are actually lost to COVID. The ones who are on the frontlines, the one who are in the bodega jobs, the ones who drive the taxis, the ones who drive the Ubers.

So there's an economic reality that faith communities can help people understand—that our economy, if our economy is going to be God's economy, how do we think about paying people more who work less? How do we—who work in these frontline jobs? How do we think about paid leave for moms and dads? How do we think about a living wage? How do we think about giving, making sure that everybody has healthcare? All those economic issues show themselves to us. Along with, again, the racial issues show themselves to us. We found out that we've not overcome, we've not overcome the way caste and race cause us to oppress one another. And I think those of us who do theology have an urgent responsibility to teach our congregants, to teach our faith leaders, the oneness of God, the many languages God speaks, the value that God has on all human life. The way that we are one people called to one, one hope, one ethic, and I think that we not only have a responsibility, we have an urgent calling, to make sure that these theologies of welcome, these theologies of love and justice become like air we breathe, and not so much caught in creed, and culture.


KIM:  Melissa, your job is to get faith communities engaged. So I imagine you have a lot of why’s and how’s.


ROGERS:  There are some why’s and how’s, yes. One of the things that I think has become even more clear during this period, is that because of the role that faith plays in our country, religious leaders and faith-based organizations are vital to public health. And you don't have to be a person of faith necessarily to see that, and let me just talk through one example. When we were thinking about early on getting facts to people about the virus and the vaccination, and you reference this, Walter, and also Jacqui as well, we knew that working with faith communities was going to be essential. It wasn't a choice. It was something that had to happen in order to effectively meet people across the country and around the world. And some of the reasons for that are just very factual. Houses of worship are pervasive, and they're familiar to many Americans. Religious leaders are among the most trusted figures in our communities, and vast majority of religious leaders are enthusiastic about helping, and one of the great bright spots of this has been that, for the most part, this has brought faith communities together, and saying, we can work on this together, we may differ on some other issues, but we can work together here. And that's been great. This love your neighbor moment has brought us together. We know that people have fears and anxieties, questions that need to be answered. And we know that when they see someone they trust getting the vaccine, talking about the facts here, that that can really change their willingness to get the vaccine. And that matters a lot.


We also know that many faith groups are exceptionally good at reaching underserved communities. And that matters a great deal. We also know that houses of worship are often gap fillers for a lack of culturally-sensitive healthcare. They help people you know with language barriers or with information barriers or other kinds of access barriers, for example, many minority groups and immigrants. And so it's just shot into the public recognition, I think, that faith communities are absolutely central to public health, including to this virus but not limited to this virus. And I think one of the things that has happened is, as we recognize the importance of the connection between faith communities and public health, it helps us perhaps, to think more intentionally and productively moving forward, about how we might strengthen those connections that have been built, because we'll face other challenges in the future and we want to make sure we're ready. So one thing I'm really grateful for is that President Biden has understood this from the very beginning. And he was very clear that we should be working with faith communities of all kinds, and indeed, has himself visited pop-up vaccination clinics at a chapel recently, and has always taken a great interest in this. So it's a great moment, I think, to think about how the government works with faith communities in a way that respects church-state separation, and religious liberty for everyone, and partners on shared goals, and make sure that no one is left behind.


LEWIS:  Well, I've got a couple of what and how’s to share that Melissa prompts me to want to bring to the table, if it's okay. I find myself shy about some of the things that have happened at Middle Church, but the collegiate church, my colleague at Fort Washington Church is an inoculation site now, and that's just amazing. There are four churches, if you will, that share one ministry. But at Middle, we decided to take 10 percent of our budget last year, Melissa, to make it for council. So how can we help people to stay in their houses? How can we help people pay their bills? How can we help people get groceries on the table? When the virus first hit, our deacons took food to families that were getting sick and delivered them on the doorsteps. We made a whole website about resources that were available in the community. Here's what we learned from the CDC. And let's put, so literally a one-stop shop for information. And then my colleague, Amanda, bless her heart, started a cadre of volunteers who stood in line to make vaccine appointments. So the older folks, who, like me, if we're not trying to be on the phone a long time, getting these young people just would keep refreshing their phones, and got inoculations for so many of the vulnerable people in our community, including me. My husband and I got vaccinated because someone stood in line for us. So information—we took selfies of ourselves getting shots. One of our members is a doctor, physician, an immunologist, actually, did a teach-in that we call “The Freedom Lab.” So education, trust that it works because we did it. Here's where you can get it. Here's some groceries. Here's some resources to get you through these tough times. And it made the whole community feel like we were doing wellness.


ROGERS:  Wow. Walter, if you don't mind—Jacqui, thank you so much for saying all that and much more importantly for doing that work and leading it which is just vital to people's life and their livelihoods. And one of the things I just want to mention is that Jacqui's example points out two things. One is just incredible heart that's put into this work and compassion. And secondly, how people of faith and community organizations are often the middlemen and women between government and people who need services. So people of faith and other community groups, they know how to reach government, and they know how to get information about what benefits are available, and what services, and at the same time, they know how to reach people who are struggling. And so that very important role, of that middle person role, is just what explains why these initiatives are so very important. And I think there's so much more we can do in this space by taking some of the best practices that NAE, and Jacqui, and Middle Church have done, and others, that it really makes me excited to think about how we can build on all your really great work.


KIM:  There's a tremendous kind of collaborative spirit that's developed as a result of this challenge. And, of course, there are moments of fragmentation, we are human. And despite the call to shared humanity, there is a streak of obstinance in all humans. But, by and large, I have entered into all sorts of conversations I don't think I would have had otherwise. Tomorrow night, I'll be with, in a collaborative event, a multi-racial approach to this challenge of vaccination. And these are relationships and partnerships, these are collaborations that maybe would not have existed. But the new kinds of friendships that develop from this, hold a promise far beyond this pandemic. They are friendships, they are relationships, that could be leveraged for other sorts of social challenges in the future, that the faith community could be using this as an occasion, not just to solve a problem of this past year, but to engage with problems in the coming years that beset us. And the kinds of work that we've been doing in webinars to get better information out there. In opportunities to say your organization has a strength that ours doesn't.


So at the NAE we collaborated with the Ad Council and faith leaders in Black and Brown communities to produce ads that the NAE—we could not have produced. But the Ad Council, that's their job, that's their expertise, and to be able to use that in the collaborative effort to get information out, but distributed in these trusted places. Both of you talked about the church as being this trusted, localized, trusted place. And these are very powerful issues, because, you know, if we're going to address issues of racial justice, yes, they'll be national conversations, but they're going to be localized efforts that need to move the needle for change, the conversations on the local level. So this has been very heartening for us to broach these opportunities together. Both of you have mentioned vaccination in some way, shape, or form. And now I want to turn our attention to this. Can you give us a quick snapshot of where we are, in this pandemic right now? Your current work, especially in the area of vaccination, whether it's being a vaccination site, or other things that you're seeking to do to address the multifaceted challenges of vaccination. So give us a snapshot of what you're doing right now and where you see we need to be going in the next weeks to come. Melissa, why don't we begin with you to start.


ROGERS:  Okay. Sure. Yeah, well, so this week has been a landmark week, as the President announced more than 60 percent of people eighteen years and older have received at least one dose of the vaccination. Cases have continued to decrease, hospital admissions are down, deaths, thank God, are down, and we're vaccinating between about 1.5 to 2 million people per day. So I think we are winning the war against the virus, but the battle is not done. There is an incredible amount of work ahead of us, particularly this summer. The President has set a goal that 70 percent of the country's adults will have at least one vaccination shot by July 4, and 160 million Americans will be fully vaccinated by July 4. And in that regard, I’d just like to mention, if I could, several things that, and I know I'm preaching to the choir here, but I hope that we can all redouble our efforts this summer and just want to mention a few resources that you can take advantage of, some of which are new. One is, to help people find a location near them where they can be vaccinated. They can also text their zip code to 438829, that's 4388292, to find a vaccination near them. There's an 800 number that they can call. And also, we're having a Digital Day of Action this Friday, May 21. And we'll be sure that everyone who's on the call receives materials about that, that could be as simple as posting your own vaccination story. And  linking to, for example. It could be something like joining the COVID-19 Community Corps that I know so many of you are a part of, where you receive new resources that you can share with your community, because we're finding we really have to go where people are, we have to meet them where they are, wherever that is, and make sure that we're telling personal stories, talking to our friends, our family, and others who may have some hesitancy here to make sure that their questions get answered. And they're assisted in getting vaccinated. So I think we're doing well. There's reasons to be optimistic. But at the same time, I'd ask everybody to redouble their efforts as we move forward during these important coming weeks to make sure that we can return to many of the things that we enjoy so much, including gathering in our houses of worship in person safely.


LEWIS:  That's great, Melissa, thank you so much for all of that information. Maybe I'm going to be anecdotal at this moment to just say both the kind of, “yay, we're doing it,” and the challenge, right. The way we're doing it is, again, just to thank my colleagues at Middle Church, who've been collaborating across the city. Yes, to make sure that we got the information on the website, yes, to make sure that we got inoculations for our most vulnerable people, our young people are going. I was talking to a mom the other day who said I'm sitting here, my boy’s inoculated now, second shot for her sixteen-year-old, and she was brilliant and joyful, and thanking God, that this is available now so that their family can get somewhere back to normal. I was at my church a little while ago today doing fire work, we burned down in December. And one of my security guards has not been inoculated. And so I say as a pastor, my job is I'm saying to everyone, have you got your shot? Have you had your vaccinations? 70 percent of our staff is inoculated now, and I want a 100 percent inoculation by October. So when we open up, our staff can model, “yes, we've done this thing.” Here's the anecdote of the resistance, this security person—sorry to tell on you, friend. “I did not get inoculations. I was a soldier. They gave us immunotherapy when I was in Afghanistan. I don't think I need a shot.” Come on. That doesn't seem really true. Who's putting that information out? Who's still resisting? And I understand this, Black peoples’ bodies have been sites of terror around medicine, around experiments, around eugenics in the time of Reconstruction. All of our listeners don't know that. But it's true. So there can be a kind of, “can we trust this?”


So Dr. Meghan Kirksey, who's our member, who did a class for us, is an African-American mom of three girls, who said, the most reliable witness, Walter and Melissa, is you. We are the most reliable witness. So to the ones who are listening, you read the information, you got the data from the places that Melissa said, you had your inoculation. And then when you turn to your family or your community, and you testify to that you felt better. And yes, that second one was rough, but I did it. We're our best eyewitness, is what I really believe about the power of the inoculations. And the importance of still masking and distancing while everybody gets safe and well. So I'm wanting to encourage religious communities, can I be honest? To not be afraid, to expect that, to articulate that as a norm, to make a reopen protocol, that you, that with physicians and lawyers in your community, that your community owns, so that people can together hold the norm of what it's going to look like to be in community together—we're going to gather this way, we're going to gather this way, we're not going to gather this way, so everybody owns it with the most vulnerable in mind. And I think that that's what's going to get us to President Biden's goals and to all of our goals, of a kind of a well community. Seriously loving each other enough to get shots and stay distant until we do.


KIM:  Jacqui, early on, you talked about revolutionary love, and this kind of ethic of love that ought to drive us in terms of this vaccination. It's not simply about personal protection. But it's an engagement of protection for the community at large and a reengagement. Speaking as not only president of the NEA, but as a local pastor, reengagement of all that church represents. The breaking of bread together, the studying of the Bible in small groups, the being on mission in our neighborhoods, sending short-term mission teams overseas in different contexts to help out, I mean all the myriads of ways that the church represents an opportunity of service. And this is true of other faith traditions as well. And it's in part why I joined with the COVID Community Corps and recently put out a Trusted Voices video with the Department of Health and Human Services that followed me around as I got my second vaccination shot, and one of the most compelling things about that second vaccination shot for me was to see the people gathered there. I mean, there were National Guardsmen who were doing the registration and welcoming us. There were a whole slew of nurses coming in, some retired and others making the extra effort putting extra hours in, and then the line of people I mean, men, women, old, young, racial diversity, ethnic diversity represented in the line as I was standing, waiting to get my shot. And it really was the sense that we can do this. And we are doing this. And it really does take everyone. And that's a very compelling vision of what America could be. And in its better moments, really is, but we need to continue to persist in this. Now I know that there are a number of questions that are starting to come in and others that wait to be asked. So I want to invite Liz Powell to come back on to help navigate this transition to our Q&A section.


OPERATOR:  We'll take the first live question from Munir A. Shaikh with the Bayan Claremont Islamic Graduate School. Please accept the unmute now prompt.


It appears we are having some technical difficulties.


We will take a written question then from Katherine Marshall of Georgetown University.


“American religious communities, including interreligious bodies, have many transnational links. What concrete steps can and should these communities take to address the global challenges posed by COVID? What are priorities you see in the most meaningful areas for concrete action?”


ROGERS:  Great. And thank you so much, Katherine Marshall, who does such great work on these issues, both in the United States and around the world, and so grateful for her and for all of her contributions. So I wanted to just note, that this week, the President reaffirmed his commitment to leading an international and coordinated vaccination effort, announcing that the United States will donate 80 million U.S. vaccines to  people around the world, and will continue to use our leadership with our G7 partners, the EU, COVAX, and others to coordinate a multilateral effort focusing on ending the pandemic. Now, this effort is multifaceted and will continue, and faith and community groups can play key roles in this effort as well, as Katherine notes. One of the things that we were doing earlier this week is talking with Administrator Samantha Power at USAID about helping to get shots in arms not just in the United States, but around the world, in part by working with faith and community groups. And so I would say that one of the best first steps you could take if you're interested in ramping up your work, or if you want to tell us more about the work you're doing in this area, would be to connect with our Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at USA, and let us know that you're interested, we are beginning to ramp up our strategies in that area, and to make sure that we know what's already going on, and build on those efforts. So I think, I would recommend that as an excellent first step, either telling us what you're doing, or raising your hand, or both things to say, I want to do more to help around the world, because this is absolutely a key mission for us, both in terms of the moral mission, and also the safety mission, the virus knows no borders. And we won't all be safe until we are all safe. So let's make sure that we lean into this. And I'm just really thrilled by the question and the excitement that we've already seen among faith and community partners about getting this job done all around the world.


KIM:  Let me add to that, within the NAE, I've mentioned that there are forty plus denominations and scores of Christian institutions, ministries, nonprofits. Some of our denominations that have a much larger footprint globally than they do within America itself, and there's eager conversation about what does it look like to be a partner to the global community. And then of course, we have Christian ministries like World Relief, World Vision, Compassion International, that work very diligent—Salvation Army, very diligently, globally in terms of providing healthcare, and they're already trusted voices, resources, known entities within communities throughout the world. And they have expertise in exactly this area of medical health, that's also in partnership with religious communities that have an extraordinary level of trust. So in some ways, as I look at the work of the NAE, our connections globally, are not only as significant, but perhaps even more significant, given the specific organizations like World Relief that I've mentioned, that their job is, in fact, in this area of addressing the most vulnerable throughout the world, in a holistic way, both in terms of mind, and body, in terms of spirit, individually, and in community. So there's a rich opportunity. I'm excited to hear about some of these initiatives from the administration, because they're rich opportunities for collaboration, not only nationally, but internationally.


LEWIS:  Can I just say a brief thing there really quickly, to say, what happened in this time of COVID is that all of us developed more digital connections than we had before. So your web includes your mother's cousin's auntie, right, who lives in Paris, or your father's best friend who lives in China. So to maybe use, to take advantage of that to  invite the people in your community, to be in touch across the globe, to tell stories, to collect stories, to tell share best resources, and pick a few people that you trust to follow and follow them where they go. So Valarie Kaur is a Sikh activist, author, but who helped us all get in touch with this catastrophic COVID death rates in India. So, To India With Love is a campaign that's up and about now, you can make a donation or you can read and learn. Pick a few people to follow across ethnicity, across religion, and stay in touch with that and help build your own web of connectivity.


KIM:  Thank you. Liz, Let's move to the next question.


OPERATOR:  We will take the next live question from Tom Getman of The Getman Group, former Senate staffer, and World Vision International director. Please accept the unmute now prompt.


GETMAN:  Thanks, friends, you make us all proud. And we're very grateful for your comments today. Could you comment please about the amazing engagement between Black Lives and Asian Lives Matter with international issues? I'm segueing off what you just talked about. It's been so interesting to see their relationship with Palestinian Liberation. Our liberation leaders here and in South Africa have mentioned if even one person or group lacks freedom, we all lack freedom and liberation. That's particularly true, I think, in the COVID crisis. What can we do as faith communities to help? We're going to a different level here to help oppressed people in refugee camps or in really marginalized areas to be freed from this fear and oppression of not being inoculated, like the Palestinians or the Uighurs, or the religious minorities in many places. Thanks very much for your help in this.


KIM:  Jacqui, you want to give us an initial thought, given your work in some of these spaces?


LEWIS:  Thank you, Walter. I was just pondering like, what would one want to say quickly? I mean, I think one of the things, thank you so much for that question. What you're asking about, this leads us to the intersectionality of these issues. We all know that they're connected, we know that we're inextricably connected. We know that race connects to class, connects to healthcare, connects to economic justice, connects to sexuality and gender, connects to region. And we also know, we also have a sense that a common opponent, I'll say it that way, a common opponent for all of us, is racism, and white supremacy, and entitlement. And that is a common opponent to our Asian siblings, who are now, I can't even believe the violence being enacted upon them. I find myself thinking, if an African American person is violating an Asian person, Walter, to be just blunt, I feel like what Kool-Aid has that Black person drunk, right? What have they taken in to make them pass on the oppression? Do you feel what I mean? There's a common opponent. And so what do we do together, we say to ourselves, we're not going to buy the hype that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization. We're going to find a Black Lives Matter chapter to connect to no matter our race. And if not that, white folks can connect to SURJ, who's really gathering anti-racist work with whites. We know that the AAPI community is connecting now deeply to the Black Lives Matter community.


If you look for anti-AAPI hatred group websites and find your way into that relationship, again, the interweb has connected all of us, so I think it's both national and international, but deeply local, and Google is your friend, and we'll get you to a place that feels safe. And maybe what you want to do, loves, is to set up a conversation group among ethnic folks and white folks in your setting. Whether you're a church, or a parachurch, or a synagogue, or a mosque—in your community, what kinds of conversation groups can you set up to read, to learn, to study about the underlying conditions, I'm going to call them the pre-existing conditions, that lead us to this place of violence in this place of deep sickness.


ROGERS:  Walter, I know you as well as Jacqui have done such great work in this space. And I just wondered if you wanted to comment on the question as well.


KIM:  Yeah. There's a very complicated immigration history for Asian Americans. And so even this notion of AAPI as a unitary movement is something of an illusion, because the immigration pattern has been so varied. And unlike African American situation, or the Hispanic Latino situation, there isn't a unifying language. So not only is there not a unifying history, but within the Hispanic community, predominantly speaking Spanish. And with an African American community, most people are not asking, well, where were you originally from? What country? You don't think to ask that. But when you talk about the AAPI community, you're talking about scores and scores of languages, cultures that have some similarity and overlap, but also a number of distinct qualities. And then, what does collaboration and unity look like when the Vietnamese experience is different from the Malay experience, is different from the Chinese or Korean experience, and the languages are different and so forth. And yet their common experiences of race or disempowerment, even among those who might fit the model minority  stereotype, and I point at myself in this way, but here's a moment of solidarity, to Jacqui's point. There are some profoundly shared experiences that point to opportunities of mutual understanding and work. But we need to hear those stories. And they are very difficult conversations because some of those stories include difficult experiences between racial and ethnic minorities, not just between the dominant culture, and racial and ethnic minorities. And that just adds a layer of complexity.


But there have also been very beautiful moments of solidarity. And I point to a documentary that recently just brought me to tears, Far East Deep South, I would highly recommend it to those of you who are listening, a Chinese immigrant family’s discovery that they actually weren't immigrants, but had a heritage in Mississippi. And that journey of discovery included a journey of discovery of the solidarity between the African American and Chinese American communities in Mississippi. Was a beautiful, compelling, but at times painful, narrative. We need to hear these stories, we need to engage in that if we are to move together. Seems aspirational, but it is, in fact, possible. And, lives gets transformed, communities get transformed, when we engage in these difficult conversations with one another. And we hear our stories, and we move forward together in a way that would not be possible if we were not really attending to each other's stories. That's a bit of a pastor coming out of me this moment, but—


LEWIS:  I think that what you're saying, Walter, causes us to think also about the multiethnic possibilities in our faith communities that sadly still elude us. Eleven o'clock in the morning is still often way more segregated than I think our faith calls to, in that context. And so, Middle's a multi-all-the-things church: multiethnic, multiracial, multiclass, multigendered. But when we are together in that community, the aunties that got violated are not like our grandmothers, they are our grandmothers. Right. But the, and so I think there's an opportunity, Melissa and Walter, right now, for us to think about multicultural, multiethnic systems as antidotes to hate and violence.


KIM:  We have several more questions. So I know that we should be pushing on to address those. Liz?


OPERATOR:  We will take the next written question from Tabassum Haleem, with the Islamic Networks Group, and it's directed to Melissa.


“Thank you for your leadership and continuously providing faith-based institutions new tools to better serve their communities and combating COVID-19. Do you see increased collaboration among interfaith groups? And do you see future opportunities for cooperative initiatives? If so, do you have any specific examples?”


ROGERS:  Great. Thank you so much. And I appreciate the question and your work. Yes, I think the answer is a resounding positive one. There have been so many instances in which we have seen groups of different faiths and beliefs come together to work against this virus, one that I would lift up is the Coalition Faiths for Vaccines, which has a national summit next week on May 26. And that is a well-timed national summit, and the work of this group has really been spectacular, and so inspirational. I've been a part of their meetings many times and they include people of so many different faiths, I couldn't even recite all the different groups, it sort of, I think covers the landscape, of the religious landscape, I should say, of the United States. And they have worked together very intentionally, to make sure that people have the tools and the understanding to plug in and help with this problem. And I think in the course of doing so, efforts like this are not only helping us to become more physically healthy, but to actually heal our nation in other ways too, because they are helping to build bridges across differences, as we've all just talked about, to show solidarity and to find new ways to work together that maybe we would not have found if we hadn't had to face this challenge together.


So I think, that's just one example, I know ING has done a lot of work in this space, including through the “Know Your Neighbor” campaign that they run that's pre-pandemic but has been adapted to the pandemic setting to bring people together to talk and work together on issues of shared concern. So one of the things that I think has been a great fruit of the effort has been a powerful reaffirmation of pluralism and respect across differences and affirmation of the principles of our country that out of many weeks can be won. And so that's been a real shot in the arm if you wouldn't mind me saying so.


OPERATOR:  We will take the next live question from Laura Alexander, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Please accept the unmute now prompt.


Okay, we will take the next written question from Kevin McBride of Raymond Baptist Church. 


“How do we heal the division within the faith communities as we move forward between those who stand against the vaccines and those who have participated?”


KIM:  Well, one of the things that I would begin, just by saying, and then I'd love to hear from both Jacqui and Melissa, but is to acknowledge that there are divisions, I mean, there's no way to address this issue if we don't acknowledge this issue. But I would have to say, let's acknowledge it and try to understand the deeper reasons behind it. And not simply to characterize or attribute motivations before we actually have real conversations and address those concerns. It's very easy to assume that a person's motivation is the worst possible motivation when that person happens to disagree with you. And we tend to give ourselves the latitude of nuance in our position. But we tend to afford simplistic motivations to others. So I think one of the ways that we are going to go about healing this, is that even understanding that two people who say the same thing may have very different reasons for why they say it. But you're only going to get that if you have these difficult conversations. If you dignify the other person with the basic assumption, they probably have nuance to why they're doing it. Emotional, intellectual, spiritual motivations, cultural context. And if we're to heal that division that exists, we're going to need to enter into an understanding. And that just takes work. And we're frankly, all tired. So it's a lot easier to just characterize and move on. But the kind of labor that's required to see the pandemic finish is the kind of labor that's going to be required to move on in healing our nation in all sorts of other ways.


LEWIS:  I think that's really beautiful, Walter. And I would say, friends, that building a relationship is difficult work. It's really difficult work. And so, if we want that, if we want to be a part of the healing, I think we need to build relationships. It might be that you decide to, I'm talking, I'm going to say this better. Talking about developing a sense of your own border personality. Put yourself on the border, read news that you don't usually consume, listen to music you don't usually listen to, turn on that other news channel and listen to what other folks are saying there. Broaden your inner border self. W. E. B. Du Bois used to say that Black people have two nests, that were double conscious, or double consciousness of our own consciousness and white consciousness. I think all of us need to be doubly conscious or maybe triply conscious. How can I develop a sensibility to understand a particular friend’s perspective? Let's just start there. I want to know that friend, that Chinese one, that Japanese friend, or that friend from the Dominican Republic who has a different sensibility than the one from Puerto Rico. Dip into the ethnicity of our white friends. They're not white. They think they are white, but they're also Polish, and German, and English, and Dutch. What do those ethnicities bring to the table? What does it mean to be Muslim in America? What is Ramadan? What's the conflict in Palestine-Israel about? Let's be students of the world, students of each other's culture, as a way to build bridges.


ROGERS:  I would so much agree with all of that and I think it's bound up in this is the importance of recognizing that people, everybody is carrying around a certain amount of pain, and perhaps a certain amount of fear. And to remember that sometimes people, they get exhausted, and they get exhausted by information overload, by the stresses in their lives. And  so  faith communities are so good at their best, at  taking a compassionate approach and recognizing dignity in everyone, and the pain that people carry and trying to take an empathetic approach to people's pain and suffering, and to try to have those great conversations that you've all just described.


KIM:  Thank you. I think, looking at the clock now, I realize that we're going to need to draw this to a conclusion. I know there are fantastic questions that are still in the Q&A and hopefully we'll find ways of being able to address those in other contexts. I would like for us, as we draw to a conclusion, for each of you to provide a brief main takeaway from this. What is a final thought, or an encouragement, or exhortation that you would leave with us?


ROGERS:  Great. So I would say that when I reflect on the situation we're in, it reminds me that sometimes, tragically, we can't stop pain and suffering sometimes. And that is such a terrible thing when that happens. But thankfully, that is not the case here. There is this vaccine that is safe, effective, convenient, and free. And so it's this wonderful opportunity for us to be able to stop pain and suffering. And so I know that we all know that, and are committed to that. And I think that what we need to do is recognize that there is a difference that we can make in these coming weeks, for the betterment of our neighbors, and our nation, and our world. And so I would just encourage everyone to ask  what they can do, whether it's posting on social media, joining this Digital Day of Action this Friday, becoming a member of the COVID Community Corps, take, if you haven't already, I would encourage you to take one of those steps. And if you have, take them again, please, and get your neighbors and your friends to do so, because this is a grassroots movement. And the way that we will win is by all of us getting off the sidelines and getting active in this fight, which is all of our fights together. And I feel very optimistic and hopeful. And I just want to thank everybody for their tremendous contributions to this work.


LEWIS:  That's beautiful, Melissa. I think I might add, agreeing with everything you're saying, I might add, we are, what is being revealed about us as human beings right now, in this COVID time, is just how much we can do together. That we got to a vaccine this fast, that we got to an effective vaccine that's working this fast, is amazing, miraculous. All the people who are caring for their neighbors, all the people who are doing love out loud as justice, both in the way the pandemic has affected us but also, I'm going call the second pandemic of racism—those pandemics are being addressed medically, sociologically, theologically, and with love, and you also are a love warrior. So wherever you are, remember that you are the best testimony to your neighbor, to your grandmother, to your son, that this can work. So get your shot, read up what you can on all things vaccine. But also, let's become, let's lean into an anti-racist culture. Because we study, listen for, hear the stories of our neighbors, and see how much we are alike, and how much we can heal together.


KIM:  Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives. Thank you for the questions that have been brought in. Thank you for the earlier presentations. I've really enjoyed this conversation. It's so promising, not only with respect to drawing COVID-19 to a close, but it's very promising for the future challenges that remain. That the kind of information and collaboration, the lessons learned, the relationships built. This notion that as a nation, multifaceted problems require multifaceted responses, and that we need to be in this together is something that bodes well, even as the challenges are profound and real. Thank you, Jacqui. Thank you, Melissa, for this amazing conversation.

Top Stories on CFR

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.


After the rise of Chinese power during the 2010s and failed U.S. policies in the Indo-Pacific, the United States should renew the Pivot to Asia and place the region at the center of its grand strategy.*


Far-right advances in the European Parliament elections have destabilized politics in France, a longstanding pillar of the European Union, and highlighted fault lines in the bloc.