Sunday, March 15, was the first shift I worked at our Catholic Charities ministry to the Brooklyn/Queens community that focused on responding to COVID-19. Up until that day, our parish and community relations program was centered on promoting the 2020 Census and serving the low-income communities with our mobile unit. On that Sunday we were scheduled to do a census and social service promotion in a parish in one of the poorest communities in Brooklyn. By Friday the 13th we were very much aware of the developing effects of COVID-19, and by that afternoon the decision was made to postpone the census event. Over that weekend we began to realize how devastating the pandemic was becoming in the city. The first signs occurred earlier that week when colleges and universities, including St. John’s, where I teach, postponed classes. New York City followed suit when it ordered 50% (and then days later 75%) of the workforce to work from home. That Friday the Archdiocese of New York had cancelled all Masses out of precaution. K-12 schools were cancelled for that week as they prepared to shift to online education as we did within the higher learning institutions. Finally, by Monday the 16th, our own Brooklyn Diocese cancelled all Masses. This continues to be our reality.
By the end of that first week our operations shifted and many of our staff, including myself, were set up in a senior center in Queens getting ready to boost our food distributions and our senior grab-and-go grocery bags. During that week we began to anticipate two major developments of this pandemic: the public health crisis and the ensuing economic hardship. Our public health crisis revolved around access to medical attention and treatment. As the numbers of confirmed cases skyrocketed we became aware of many concerns related to this: the overcrowding medical facilities, the struggle to find testing kits, ventilators and other needed medical equipment, and the unjust impact that this was having on the low-income and ethnic communities. This last concern was perhaps the most troubling. In the city, and especially in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, it became clear that the low-income and ethnic communities faced greater challenges in protecting themselves in the midst of this pandemic. This community did not have the opportunity to maintain employment by working from home. Many of the “essential workers” (which includes me) come from this community, and, while we are equipped with masks and gloves, we still have to risk going out and providing much needed services as the pandemic sweeps through the city. Others, however, do not even have this opportunity; they are the economic victims of the virus that face unemployment or the unfortunate closure of their own small businesses. The low-income and ethnic communities do not have the same level of healthcare access as the higher income communities do, and they also lack the education and access to resources needed to promote their own health and wellness. While the news consistently reported the growing numbers of those who were officially recorded of dying from COVID-19, on our own block we also assisted law enforcement by offering translations to a Chinese woman (with a disturbing cough) whose husband passed away in their home that night with no access to medical care. We are very much aware that many of our low-income and ethnic neighbors have to face the sickness and death of COVID-19 quietly, alone, and uncounted in official numbers.
As a director of our local Catholic Charities I am keenly aware of the economic hardship that is being faced by this same community. We have twenty pantries throughout the two boroughs and our clients have more than doubled in the last two weeks. The numbers have tripled in some of our pantries and our demographics have also changed. Here is where we see the economic victims of the pandemic, and again the victims are found in the low-income and ethnic communities. Outside of these pantries we organized the grab-and-go food bags for our seniors who were homebound, and we began developing pop-up food distributions for our hardest hit communities. Recently we have been in Corona, Queens which has suffered a tremendous loss of employment and business closures. We offer an emergency food distribution for families thinking that perhaps 500 bags of food with fresh vegetables and fruits along with basic staples of rice, beans, bread, and canned goods would be enough for the community. We ended up making 300 hundred more bags on the first day as a line formed (keeping social distancing rules) five blocks from the Church. In the end we had to turn some families away as we promised that we would return again. We now give over a thousand bags of food a week and soon we will also be going to East New York, Brooklyn which has also been hit hard.
The grave social issue in the midst of this is the injustice of our social indifference. All of us are susceptible to the virus and its effects, but when you see that a particular community faces greater obstacles and struggles in comparison to others then one must consider how the social principles of Catholic faith are being violated. The principle of solidarity reminds us that we are all part of one human family. When we combine this with the preferential option for the poor then we are reminded that when the least of our brethren suffers from the injustice of being marginalized from the social response to any disaster then we are morally responsible for committing a social sin. We participate in this when we express indifference to the suffering of others and even go so far as to suggest that it is acceptable to sacrifice our elderly and poor in order to maintain the economic and consumer status of our nation. This is exactly what has been said by some of our legislators and pundits to our collective shame.
Holy Week and Easter were very different for many of us this year. Many folks, including myself, celebrated through the domestic church in our homes. During that time I had the pleasure of watching, and later reading, the Easter message from Pope Francis as he offered a hopeful message that challenged the aforementioned views. What struck me was when he reminded us that “This is not a time for indifference, because the whole world is suffering and needs to be united in facing the pandemic… Let us not lose the opportunity to give further proof of solidarity, also by turning to innovative solutions.” To be in solidarity with others is not to be indifferent to their suffering. Once we accept this principle then the following application is to accompany the marginalized community and to address their suffering as our own. This is the social message that guides us at Catholic Charities as we shift our programs to assist the most affected communities of Brooklyn and Queens.
In a similar way our public policy should be attentive to the needs of those who do not have the much-needed access to medical resources and are economically at risk. During this time we at Catholic Charities have also been advocating for state and federal policies to address the issues that we confront in our ministry. We have also been supporting our CCHD funded organizations that have also been actively involved in supporting the marginalized communities in the midst of this pandemic. These are just some of the innovative solutions we have been employing here at Catholic Charities.
In a more recent reflection by Pope Francis he offered his plan for rising again, which challenges society to “act as one people…to have a real impact,” and for this he calls us to adopt “the necessary antibodies of justice, charity and solidarity.” The principle of solidarity guides the mission of Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and Queens whose tag line is “Changing Lives… Building Communities.” In the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic the Easter words of Pope Francis continue to be a source of inspiration for me and for our mission at Catholic Charities. Our hope is that the broader society will join us in providing the cure.