If you listen to the news often the stories will ring out with a few catch phrases: “unprecedented times”, “abundance of caution”, “unforeseen circumstances” and so many more. Reading it can be an overwhelming moment where it seems like nothing is stable with the earth constantly shifting under our feet. Instead of standing on solid ground the sands of incessant swirling and falling cause us to stumble.
As the world slowly opens, we take the most tentative of baby steps, lacking certainty that our path forward is secure. How will the next few weeks, months, and even years look as we desperately search for something to hold on to?
Even in the best of times finding the right movement and direction forward is challenging. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet calls for us to make a way through the wilderness,
“This is the voice of a man who calls out:
Prepare in the desert the way for the Lord. Make the road in the dry lands straight for God. Every valley should be raised up. Every mountain and hill should be made flat. The rough ground should be made level. The rugged ground should be made smooth. Then the glory of the Lord will be shown. All people together will see it. The Lord itself said these things” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
Isaiah describes a way for the glory of God to enter the world, a cardinal point towards the justice and love of the Lord. Working to bring about the grace of God to our siblings throughout the world is how the road is made straight, the rough ground made smooth. Ushering in the kingdom of God into our lives, communities, and even on a country and global scale. There is no vision or action too small to be deemed unimportant in the bringing of God’s redeeming grace. And there is no dream or hope too big that cannot be fought for when we have God's love and compassion as our goal. Especially during a pandemic when extraordinarily little can be relied upon, knowing that the path of love will always be the right road to take is important to remember. Important to live out.
Concrete action to build the bonds of community have not disappeared because of the virus. Here in the West Visayas Jurisdiction of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP) church and community leaders have been demonstrating critical care to provide food assistance to families. Two separate food assistance programs have occurred so far during the quarantine and lockdown in this region of the Philippines (not to mention other amazing ways of showing Gods glory have occurred throughout the country). Bags of food assistance have been packed by volunteers, clergy, and community members. Each bag of assistance consists of 5 kg of rice, cans of sardines, noodles, and other necessities. In the Philippines especially in Cebu, the largest city in the West Visayas region, the Enhanced Community Quarantine leaves very few people able to get around, access food or jobs, etc. The strict measures may be a necessary step to help curb the rise of COVID-19 cases but leaves many of the most vulnerable in dire situations. The UCCP recognizes this and has chosen to respond.
Right now during a pandemic the creation of God’s path looks different and yet it addresses the same problems. The wonderful work of the UCCP in the West Visayas shows that compassion still prevails during a crisis. The truth is that the struggle for human rights and equality continues despite a pandemic (and in many cases because of it). The International Coalition of Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) and other organizations have responded creatively to the global health crisis by organizing Zoom and social media events – a new platform to connect communities to continue to pressure their leaders and bring about awareness. This serves as an adaptive approach to the work towards justice that does not end with a lockdown. It highlights that behind this global pandemic structures of violence remain.
In the United States structural violence against communities of color indeed shows that while a virus does not discriminate our policies do and our black siblings are dying at a higher degree than anyone else. In the Philippines we see disguised martial law and abuse of power in the time when we need to be relying on each other. Bullets and bombs seem more of the solution to President Duterte and the current regime than health and science. A speaker at one of the recent online events made an astute observation that during Duterte’s first address to the country when the virus was first gripping the world he was surrounded not by medical professionals but by police, generals, and military – sending a clear sign how this pandemic is to be handled in the Philippines. The president is exploiting the situation to further cement an already troubling position – a position established by his war on drugs, fight against indigenous peoples and increasing militarization.
All of this may feel just too much. And with good reason. The ground really does feel rugged and unstable. The peaks ahead of us can seem too steep to even know where to begin. Our grief and anxiety takes us to low valleys that are hard to climb back out of. However, we can find comfort in the words of Isaiah found a few short chapters after the verse above. Isaiah reflects on our relationship with God as the Israelite people wandered through the desert. They too were entering unprecedented times and exercised an abundance of caution. Like with us, the winds of sand whipped up doubt and fear while they moved forward. But Isaiah reminds us, “They did not become thirsty when God led them through the deserts. God made water flow from a rock for them. God split the rock and water flowed out.” (Isaiah 48:21). We are going through the desert of uncertainty as our response to this health crisis continues and different countries open up. God will be there with us in the active trailblazing of justice - creating the path for peace and justice. Making a way for our vision of a global connection through love and humanity.
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.