The pandemic is daunting but the work of many churches has been amazing. At some point in the future, they ought to ask how they will invest all this hard-earned social capital.
Churches are part of what is called the social sector. This sector includes voluntary organizations, not-for-profits, hospitals, churches, and so on. It’s plain as day that this sector has acted in tireless, sacrificial ways during this pandemic. But that’s not always been the case.
Epidemics date from ancient times. They scoured cities, literally eradicating vulnerable populations. But quite often, one part of the social sector—doctors—responded in unbecoming ways. They fled town. This includes the famous Roman physician Galen.
Galen survived the first epidemic during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. He got out of Rome quickly, retiring to a country estate in Asia Minor until the danger receded. This is likely why his description of the epidemic “is uncharacteristically incomplete.” He wasn’t there.
Christians were. They risked death by remaining in cities being routed by epidemics. They cared for the ill and infirm. Rodney Stark says this explains much of the rise of Christianity. Pagans kept a safe distance, merely writing about the epidemic’s horrors. Stark writes that Christians viewed the faith as a prescription for action.
They also created partnerships for action. Epidemics require lots of volunteers, and Christians gladly partnered with people of differing faith. We know Asian Christianity excelled at this, being recognized for collaborating with Buddhists. Church networks were open to all.
That’s less the case today. Churches tend to be closed, or semiclosed networks. Christians gather with other Christians. Churches work with other churches. Stark says this is how a faith slowly fades away. A pandemic is an opportunity for churches to work in open networks.
Some are. The pandemic is causing some to respond like the early Christians in times of plagues. Take action. Collaborate with everyone and anyone willing to take food and goods to the most vulnerable, the hardest hit in this pandemic. I’ve seen this up close and personal.
My wife Kathy is part of a team of people spearheading a drive to get food and goods to those most impacted by the pandemic. I’ve watched her work tireless hours, hunched over a makeshift stand-up desk, making endless calls and creating databases where none exist.
This on top of being a reading technician in a Title 1 school, learning new programs for distance learning (I’ve been doing the same as my work also shifts online). We’re both happy to report there’s evidence of plasticity in our boomer brains!
We need it. The population of the school where Kathy teaches is almost 100 percent Hispanic. This is the working poor. Most lack internet in their homes. Can’t email them. Volunteers have to make hundreds of individual calls, ascertaining specific needs for specific families.
The work is paying off. The first pop-up pantry was three Saturdays ago. About 200 families received a tailor-made supply of goods. Everyone wore masks. Families stayed in cars. We piled goods into car trunks. These trunks are stuffed with cleaning supplies. Landscaping tools.
That’s telling. These are the working poor. They’re small businesses on wheels. But they don’t qualify for Payroll Protection. Can’t get small business loans. They live paycheck to paycheck, building the hard infrastructure of this country—work the rest of us don’t want to do.
Two Saturdays ago, the pop-up pantry’s numbers grew to 287 families. Our church recognized this growing need and made a sacrificial gift. She gave her entire Easter week donations to the pop-up pantry. More than $30,000. That’s selfless. That’s love.
This level of sacrifice is similar to the hard-earned social capital that early Christians earned. Over three centuries, they leveraged it to change the world. At some point in the future, the faith community ought to ask how they will invest all their hard-earned social capital.
Social scientists have a suggestion. That’s next week.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), 86.