We don’t need to be afraid, Franklin Graham says. In primetime TV ads, he promises to save us from COVID hell. “If you’ve never invited Jesus Christ into your heart, you can pray right now to do that.”
Graham’s televised offer of salvation may be comforting and uncomplicated in the face of a deadly virus. But we need to be saved from what is really killing us — dehumanizing others through systems of inequity and structures of dominance.
Throughout history, evangelists like Graham show up during disasters. They see devastation as an opportunity to spread their gospel and save souls. But, as an ordained clergywoman, I ask, what good do Graham’s prayers do? If I had thousands to spend on a minute of prime time, I’d preach a different kind of salvation, one not just for the religious. Rather than an abstract promise of eternal life, I’d preach a salvation that turns us towards real life and real lives.
I serve as the Dean of the Chapel of a small, liberal arts college in west central Illinois that prides itself on successfully launching first-generation students whom we recruit heavily from Chicago. When COVID-19 hit, we had to send our students home to continue their classes online. Some are living in small Chicago apartments, caring for sick family members, acting as translators when nurses call, taking on extra jobs to support the lost wages of the sick — all while trying to keep up with their classwork.
It’s hard to know how to help these students for whom we care deeply. But their salvation will not come through a simple prayer. They need us to address the social, racial and economic inequities this virus has exposed.
Blacks and Latinos are dying at twice the rate of whites in cities like New York, Detroit and Chicago. According to research by National Public Radio, “The people most at risk tend to live in crowded quarters and take public transit to jobs deemed essential or impossible to do from home.” Our college has its own inequities to fight, but COVID-19 has revealed how our small, residential campus serves as a sanctuary for students to focus on their studies.
These same inequities are exposed at our local Smithfield pork processing plant. In late April, after the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota closed as cases of COVID-19 spiked to 783, our plant in Monmouth, Illinois soon followed. Then President Trump ordered it to reopen, citing the threat of a broken food supply chain. But, the workers were scared to return. Working on the line at a meat processing plant already was one of the most dangerous jobs without adding shoulder-to-shoulder work with virus-positive colleagues.
The employees of our pork plant are predominantly immigrants — French-speaking West Africans and Mexican-born Latinos, people so desperate for jobs they’ll work under conditions privileged people like me couldn’t stand. The weekend before they had to report back, a couple dozen workers showed up in the parking lot with signs demanding that they be screened and tested. Video of the protest traveled quickly on Facebook. Many of my neighbors sympathized with these vulnerable workers. Others commented: “This is Monmouth. Speak English” or “Stop being lazy. Just go back to work.”
Of course, this virus is the great equalizer, spreading from multigenerational family homes to the grocery store where we all shop. With Smithfield satisfying our taste for pork, our small rural county reached the fourth-highest rate of infection in Illinois.
None of us can know spiritual freedom in a culture that pits us against them. None of us can be saved if the impoverished among us are an abstract other. When we dehumanize others, we dehumanize ourselves. The Jesus I know and have invited into my heart can save us, but only if we follow him out of the media and into the marketplace where the widow and the stranger, the prisoner and the poor are begging us to right our social wrongs. Instead of praying for an escape to the next life, we need to invest in this one.