How do you create community during the time of social distancing? I have been in the Philippines for a little over two weeks and during this time the global situation and reaction to the coronavirus COVID-19 has dramatically changed. And the Philippines is no different. We are all navigating the new landscape of what a pandemic looks like for our daily lives. Our routines have been altered, businesses we frequent are closed for the foreseeable future, and folks are hunkering down at home. Spending unprecedented amount of time with lucky dogs, their families, new babies, and Netflix. This new landscape for me also comes with a literal new landscape as well. I’ve only been in Cebu for 4 days (the city and island I will be based out of for the duration of my time here). This is the crucial time to build those initial relationships, establish community, and develop rapport. My own supervisor is not here due to the travel and movement restrictions. Currently we are on “community quarantine” which limits domestic travel in and out, reduces or closes businesses, and creates police checkpoints throughout the city. All of this in the very necessary and important step of creating “social distance”.
The challenge during this time isn’t just that the local eatery down the road might be closed or going stir crazy during your 100th episode of television. There is an underlying anxiety to all of this. So much is unknown. No one wants to get sick or get others sick. People don’t know if a normal will return or what a new normal might look like. Anxiety. Unknown. Fear. Uncertainty. These are the factors that underly the interactions I have when meeting people for the first time. I can sense the uneasiness as we both have other things on our mind besides creating this moment of connection. It is a strange experience. Especially when the work I’ve been called to join here in the West Visayas is the work of Justice, Peace, and Human Rights (JPHR). When movement is restricted how do you meet your neighbor? When there is a strain our community, how do we respond when social distancing is the practice? And it isn’t just about me meeting new people in a brand-new experience for me. How do we maintain and uphold our communities? Everyone in our communities.
This is the point I am trying to make. Our communities are under duress especially those on the margin. During a time of handwashing while singing happy birthday twice are we remembering that there also is an amazingly powerful and provocative story about feet washing. Do we remember to be a servant to all when it is so much easier to remember what is just in front of us? This story is provocative and counter-cultural because Jesus the miracle worker/Son of God/leader/prophet/king/messiah (yeah THAT guy) went out of his way to wash the feet of his friends and followers in the role of a servant. A servant.
Throughout his ministry Jesus demonstrated that the world he lived in needed to be turned upside down and shaken topsy-turvy. He demonstrated this revolution in the most intimate, gentle way. He took water, removed the sandals from the feet of his closest companions, and washed the dust and grime off their feet. In one of the greatest acts of subverting the social norms Jesus embraced his mission of serving a neighbor and friend. In John we can read of this foot washing and after he finishes, he says,
“Do you understand what I have just done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord.’ And this is right, because that is what I am. I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. So you should wash each other’s feet. I did this as an example for you. So you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth. A servant is not greater than his master. A messenger is not greater than the one who sent him” (John 13: 12-16)
This is as straightforward as it comes in the gospels. Jesus spells it out for us. We are to follow the example of washing feet. Getting down to the nitty gritty dirty work of being a servant to those in need. It is hard to interpret this in any other way. What does this look like during this time?
Our feet washing of today are the concrete actions required to walk alongside the communities in most need. Many of you are already participating in this wonderful act of service. Educators offering resources and tips on how to teach from. Demonstrating that we are stronger together by offering to go out and shop for those who unable to leave their homes. Sharing messages of hope and love. Scrolling through social media right now is a confusing concoction of emotions. I am inspired by the outpouring of love by many, while also seeing how things are worsening for so many people, groups, and countries. While preparing to snuggle in at home this is a perfect time (and you will have the time) to research the local food and housing agencies within your community. Wall Street and the economy may be rocky but social services still need our help. I’m proud of ‘Family Promise of Greater Helena’ (homeless network for families and children in Helena, MT). Their very first opening lines for why they are continuing during the coronavirus reads, “First of all, Jesus calls us to love our neighbor, especially those who are most vulnerable, so in response… will continue to serve families.” Family Promise is now creatively addressing the problems within my hometown in order to continue service but keep people safe. Many people are suggesting that instead of going out to eat buy a gift card to help support the business. Perhaps also consider a donation, especially if this is your first experience donating, as a part of spiritual practice. While we may be physically distant this is an opportunity for our society to come closer together. Together in the way we respond to the marginalized. Together how we uphold and respect the sanctity of all life. Not just the life of the young and healthy.
A part of this renewed call for foot washing during the time of handwashing is yes, actually please really do it: wash your hands. Sing happy birthday twice while doing it (or there lots of great alternatives going around- my personal favorite is the chorus of ‘Truth Hurts’ by Lizzo) and stay at home. We won’t be able to rely on social media which we can ignore notifications and there won’t be the lull of the restaurant murmurs to fill in the silence during conversations. But it’s a chance for us to grow closer together while keeping apart. There is an immense amount of privilege if you believe that you can navigate through our current climate with none of this affecting you. Don’t put others into harm’s way because you might be healthy enough to handle it. I find that we struggle with the prospect of being stuck at home. Lent is already a time to prepare our hearts and minds for the Holy Week- incorporate some centering and spiritual practices into these long days at home.
So with all of this social distancing, what is the social life of the Philippines. I will attempt to give an overview of what the national office members of the UCCP working on JPHR taught me. The Philippines still functions in a deeply colonial and imperial state. Its hard to really even call it neo-colonialism. The same families and businesses granted land and power during the Spanish still retain their lands, power and money. With United States imperialism businesses cemented their hold on the economy and politics leaving most of the wealth to a very tiny elite group (sound somewhat familiar?) Farmers are working lands that they do not own and often do not have the right to be on. A semi-feudal system is still in place that keeps the working poor in their place barely subsisting. The United States even after official relinquishing control continue to control the country with economic and military policies. Our military has been active in preventing coups, providing refuge to dictators, dictating markets and loans, and so much more. Much of the population lives in this precarious position living at the whim of a controlling government and super wealthy elite.
Outside of the current virus situation the government exercises complete control and impunity over its citizens. Extrajudicial killings to silence protestors, imprisoning those who work alongside those in need, cutting off resources, and many more tactics to keep the power where it currently is. Maintaining status quo by any means is one of the main functions of the current government. The law means very little when controlling people through fear, intimidation, and violence. A “community quarantine” or lockdown then may be a necessary step to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but within the social context of the Philippines it must be looked at critically lest it be exploited by the government. The police and military are being looked to more readily to deal with the pandemic and not health officials. Data and science must be the prevailing guides. The UCCP released a great statement (which I will link below) about the COVID-19 pandemic. It questions why there are so many at risk in the Philippines. They continue point out that through degradation of our environment/creation through pollution and mining here in the Philippines thousands are more susceptible.
When we think about how lockdowns, quarantines we need to think about the social context. Looking at why people are vulnerable and in potential risk is a necessary part of this process. There are government and economic systems in place that maintain a class division. While it is laudable for the many businesses that have taken necessary measures to protect their employees, we should look at this critically. A CEO may forego their salary for the next few months but why do we live in a society where so many people live paycheck to paycheck? A company may offer services during this challenging time but where are those services when this thing ends? Let us not forget that all of this was possible without a pandemic. Healthcare shouldn't become a necessity only during a global crisis. It should be something accessible to the poor, homeless, drug addicts, families at any moment. Let us not be content to return to a "normal" where there are those who have and those who have not.
During this COVID-19 scare foot washing is so desperately needed, but the work will not end there once things are more in control. Wash your hands. But also wash the feet of your neighbor.
Andrew Larsen serves with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. His appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, and your special gifts.