“I’m not interested in becoming a statistic,” the man in his 70s told me on the phone. He was referring to the number of COVID-19-related deaths being reported every day. According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, 392,493 global deaths have been confirmed as of May 15, with at least 85,906 of those being in the United States. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicts that there will be 147.040 cumulative COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. through August.
I’m not interested in him becoming one of those statistics, either, but I’m very interested in us seeing one another as people and resisting the temptation to talk about each other as stats. Talking in numeric terms numbs us to an escalating loss of life. We say, “More people have died from the coronavirus now than the number of Americans who died in Vietnam.” It’s staggering, but the higher the count climbs, the more we are tempted to depreciate the lives behind those numbers. This indifference leads to saying things like, “If a few thousand people have to die so that we can maintain our economy, that’s fair.”
Is it? The Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ, calls it theological malpractice. In a webinar conversation between the Rev. Blackmon and Bishop Yvette Flunder of City of Refuge UCC about “Pastoring in a Pandemic,” the ministers reminded us that the virus is disproportionately affecting the poor and people of color. The American Public Media Research Lab reports that “the latest available COVID-19 mortality rate for black Americans is 2.2 times higher than the rate for Latinos, 2.3. times higher than the rate for Asians, and 2.6 times higher than the rate for whites.” There we go with stats again. Still, the APM Research Lab puts in plainly: “If all Americans had died of COVID-19 at the same rate as white Americans, at least 10,500 black Americans, 1,400 Latino Americans and 300 Asian Americans would still be alive.”
These are the statistics that tempt people in positions of social privilege, like me, to believe that COVID-19 is ordained to cull the community of those who are expendable; because for me to maintain my high position of comfort in society, by this reasoning, some have to be made low. The temptation to sanctify tragedy that keeps us from sanctifying humanity is theological malpractice. Fundamentally, this self-focused exceptionalism hides the faithful question: Who is expendable in the eyes of God?
Who is expendable in the eyes of God? Who among us is viewed as an unimportant number by the Father that Jesus describes as a shepherd who is happy to leave 99 sheep to find one who wandered off, and who “doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:14)? Who is waved off as a nonessential number by Christ, who directs Simon the Pharisee’s attention to a nameless human being that he had dismissed in his mind as an alleged sinner by asking him, “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44). Who is the Creator of heaven and earth, who calls each of us beloved, interested in becoming a statistic?
Like many churches, our congregation has become accustomed to virtual gatherings. We see a each other in a Brady Bunch gallery of faces and navigate unmuting ourselves to talk and muting ourselves to listen. It pales in comparison to the physical closeness of community, but it’s helping us see one another in a refreshing way. Hebrews 4:13 reads that “no creature is hidden” and that we are all “laid bare” before God.
On my screen, I see the faces of people reflecting the goodness of God. A peculiar result of gathering as a church online instead of in person is that social engagement from the informal atmosphere of our homes instead of in the more formal environment of the sanctuary allows us to let our guard down a bit more. We are choosing to not hide from community while maintaining physical distance, and we are laying bare before each other all our joy and our grief, all our highs and our lows, all our humanity. Our open, honest conversations are sacred reminders that we are all essential, and that our sanctified humanity calls us to be the church in ways that remind the world of that urgent truth.
Our denomination has a simple mantra — “Be the Church” — and it gives examples of how we can do that: “Protect the environment. Care for the poor. Forgive often. Reject racism. Fight for the powerless. Share earthly resources and spiritual resources. Embrace diversity. Love God. Enjoy this life.” Those examples persist, but during this global pandemic, they’re adjusted to say, “Stay home. Social distance. Wash your hands. Check on the elderly. Live stream worship. Give electronically. Support each other. Love God. Flatten the curve. Pray daily. So we can all enjoy this life.” Sounds good, but we can also “be the Church” by asking ourselves daily, “Who is expendable in the eyes of God?”
Dear reader, I’m not interested in you becoming a statistic — not on paper, not in speech, not in heart or mind — and neither is the God who loves us both with relentless equity. So, what does this mutual interest ask of us?
The Rev. Dan De Leon is the pastor of Friends Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, College Station.