Over the next few weeks, and very possibly months, we will have to get used to a new way of living. So how do we adjust to a Church without public Masses? How can we help the most vulnerable? And might there be opportunities to live better lives than we did before? This week, six writers offer their suggestions for thriving in a lockdown. Here, Eve Tushnet writes on Works of Mercy.
The corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and so on – are insistently physical. It’s right there in the name! How can we perform corporal works of mercy when we’re all supposed to stand six feet away from each other?
Some of the modifications needed to perform works of mercy are fairly simple, albeit sad: ‘‘visiting’’ the sick by phone or computer, or handing out to-go meals to hungry people instead of hosting them for a communal meal. Some are both physical and urgent: the Red Cross has announced a ‘‘severe blood shortage’’ and needs people who can donate blood. But as restrictions on travel and gatherings tighten, we may also need to organise our mercy by different principles.
One of these principles is: serve through networks that we never expected to be communities of charity. Mutual aid allows communities to serve their members. My apartment building has circulated a mutual-aid form, asking us to sign up if we’re willing to check on others, contribute food (or the much-needed, euphemistic ‘‘paper goods’’), or run errands for the elderly and immune-compromised.
I’ve seen mutual-aid networks spring into action in the restaurant industry, among groups for doctrinally-traditional gay Christians, and even on a Harry Potter fan forum. Black Lives Matter DC is offering child care, grocery and hygiene products, and translators for people in Washington’s poorest wards, via a hotline. Mutual-aid networks also allow outsiders with cash to funnel it to locals who know their neighbours’ real needs.
One principle I hope we relearn is that it’s good to ask for help. Online networks often require people to ask for financial help, and that can feel like begging: vulnerable and somehow shameful. If you know your neighbour has just been laid off, you can leave groceries on their porch without them ever having to ask – but if someone you know from arguments about the moral responsibilities of Albus Dumbledore gets laid off, she may have to list her PayPal account.
For Christians all charity is neighbour helping neighbour, the needy helping the needy. We have a responsibility to act mercifully to others in a way which makes them feel like neighbours, not debtors.
We can remember that our contracts are mutual responsibilities. Corporal works of mercy can include waiving payments, and we’ve seen many landlords waiving rent. This is a way of providing shelter to those who aren’t homeless yet, but also aren’t getting paid. And we can work for political change, where pandemic and political choices make works of mercy impossible.
The hardest work of mercy in these times is ‘‘visiting the imprisoned”. Currently all prisons in the United States have banned visits, including from family. We can ‘‘ransom the captive’’ by paying bail, and calling for the release or parole of those unlikely to threaten public safety. Aiding the efforts of prison journalism – in the US, this includes non-profits like the Marshall Project – can help the imprisoned know that people on the outside still care about them.
Isolated people on the outside need to know that too. The most painful new principle to learn, and the one that requires the most creativity, is that physical contact may harm those we seek to help. We’re used to the idea that serving the neediest may put ourselves at risk – but with the coronavirus even asymptomatic people can infect the neediest.
People who are homeless or beg on the streets are taking a huge hit both financially and mentally. If you know people in these situations, consider how you can get in touch safely, and whether you can give more than you would ordinarily. If you have their phone number, use it, and ask about sending cash electronically.
Otherwise, and depending on travel restrictions in your area, consider leaving care packages with personal notes. Take precautions, since you’re visiting someone in a high-risk group (don’t go around infecting people living on the streets!). Wear gloves and mask, wipe down what you give. But let people know you remember them.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker. Her latest book is Punishment: A Love Story