Phone Calls

By Peter Jarrett-Schell

Team UUWL!
May 21 · 4 min read
Ringing phone. Call from unknown number. and hand over it
Ringing phone. Call from unknown number. and hand over it
Phone Call by Peter Jarrett-Schell. 2020.

My phone rings on the table. I don’t recognize the number. This usually means it’s a work call. I take a breath in, and hold it. I just want to be left alone now. I let it ring through to voicemail.

It rings again with the same number. I know, from past experience, folks who call back twice will call back again and again, until they’re heard. I half remember some story Jesus told about a widow and an unjust judge. One of the qualifications for pastoring is a knack for guilt-tripping yourself.

I notice I’ve been holding my breath this whole time. I breathe out, put on my game face, or voice, I guess, and answer.

One of the odd things about being a pastor is having folks look to you as an authority on subjects you are entirely unqualified to discuss.

I know the caller. He’s not a member of the Church; but he is part of our extended circle, a friend of the congregation. I’ll call him Franklin. I like him, not that this particularly matters, at the moment. I mean, I love my wife and son, but I don’t especially want to talk to them right now either. I’m tired.

He coughs on the line. My brow furrows. I ask how he’s doing. He’s just come from the clinic. He was tested, and diagnosed for COVID. My chest sinks a little. I ask if he’s been admitted to the hospital. He hasn’t. He was asked to self-quarantine. And that is the problem.

He’s undocumented, an informal worker, and living in an apartment with four roommates. Some he knows well, others not. He doesn’t want to put his housemates at risk, but he can’t afford to rent anywhere else. He doesn’t want to put his co-workers at risk, but he’s not eligible for unemployment — and he can’t get by without income.

I have this weird sense of deja vu. I took another call last week. The voice was different, the circumstances almost identical: an undocumented casual worker with COVID diagnosis, trying to protect the people in his life, getting blocked at every turn.

I felt heartbreak then. I feel heartbreak now. I couldn’t do much then. I can’t do much now. I offer Frank a donation from our emergency assistance fund. Our members have been really generous through the pandemic, and we’re in a good position to help. He refuses, politely. He doesn’t want to put the Church out. I insist, also politely. This is what the Church is for. He relents. I wire him the money then get him contact information for some organizations I trust in the area: mutual aid groups and immigrant’s assistance networks. I warn him that they’re stretched thin right now. He understands.

He asks what he should do about his living situation. One of the odd things about being a pastor is having folks look to you as an authority on subjects you are entirely unqualified to discuss.

I ask him if he knows any medical professionals. There’s a nurse in his extended social circle. I suggest that he try to set up a three-way call with her and all his roommates, so they can figure out a plan together. When in doubt, I’m always in favor of expert opinions and transparency. He was thinking the same thing.

Another odd thing about being a pastor is that, more often than not, folks already know the right thing to do when they ask your advice. They just need to hear someone else say it.

We pray together. I hang up the phone, feeling even more worn-out than before. I like Frank. He needs solutions. All I’ve got is Band-Aids and calling cards.

But here’s the thing. We are all looking out for ourselves and our own right now. But ourselves, and our own, is all of us. We’re all in this together. The virus has made that clear.

I’m tired. We’re all looking out for ourselves and our own right now. Sometimes that’s all we’ve got the energy for.

If you can work from home, if you’re not undocumented (or a gig-worker, or sex worker, or working informally) if you’ve got a place to stay, and enough to eat; it seems sometimes an impossible stretch to care about folks we’ve never met; folks whose lives are so different from our own.

But here’s the thing. We are all looking out for ourselves and our own right now. But ourselves, and our own, is all of us. We’re all in this together. The virus has made that clear.

We’re doing a good job taking care of a few folks, and a terrible job taking care of most everyone. That puts them at risk. And because the virus doesn’t care much about class, race or immigration status, that puts us all at risk.

The virus considers us all expendable. To whatever extent we accept the lie that some people are disposable, we have accepted that we are all disposable. Either we all matter, or none of us do. And right now, that means our attention needs to be on those most at risk.

So I’ll keep answering that phone. But I’m tired, and I need my government to start doing the same.

Peter Jarrett-Schell lives in Washington DC, where he serves as Pastor to Calvary Episcopal Church and works alongside Sanctuary DMV and the Congregation Action Network. His first book “Seeing My Skin: A Story of Wrestling with Whiteness” was published last year.

Liked this post? Follow us on Medium, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to keep up with our content.

Up, Up with Liberation

Amplifying voices of resistance in the DMV

Sign up for Keep Up, Up with Liberation!

By Up, Up with Liberation

A monthly newsletter catching you up on UUWL content you may have missed! Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Team UUWL!

Written by

Up, Up with Liberation is a digital collective dedicated to liberation through creative expression. Project of @SanctuaryDMV. submissions@upupwithliberation.com

Up, Up with Liberation

Up, Up with Liberation is a digital collective dedicated to liberation through creative expression. Born out of a community of organizers pursuing justice for immigrants and communities of color in the DMV, we are nurturing a culture of resistance through storytelling.

Team UUWL!

Written by

Up, Up with Liberation is a digital collective dedicated to liberation through creative expression. Project of @SanctuaryDMV. submissions@upupwithliberation.com

Up, Up with Liberation

Up, Up with Liberation is a digital collective dedicated to liberation through creative expression. Born out of a community of organizers pursuing justice for immigrants and communities of color in the DMV, we are nurturing a culture of resistance through storytelling.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store