Faith, Social Work and Community Care during COVID

The world has been turned upside down. There’s a global pandemic and a fierce movement for honouring and protecting of Black Lives after the brutal murder of George Floyd. There has never been a time in Australia when the injustices faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander individuals and communities have been brought into such intense focus. In this time we need solidarity. We particularly need solidarity for Aboriginal deaths in custody. Over the last 10 years we have seen a 88% increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people incarcerated, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people now 13 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. Change the Record breaks down five ways parliamentarians can address incarceration; repeal discriminatory laws, end racist policing and enforce real accountability, stop locking up children, implement the Royal Commission recommendations, protect human rights in prisons with proper independent oversight. One personal way I have acted in light of recent events is partaking in a CSU Letter Writing Event, writing to MPS about Aboriginal Deaths and Custody with help from Common Grace's template which you can find on their website. Having talked to fellow Christians in this time, it feels hard to hold onto hope but these slices of collective action embolden me to persevere and reminds me of the way justice rolls down like waters.

The below little prose, was written on March 30th, very early on in the COVID lockdown. As a follower of Jesus, I believe the kingdom of reconciliation that is being beckoned by God, is one of upside-down values; where non-violence will be championed, and the poor will be first. What does it look like to rest in these values in light of the events of 2020? 

This is a time for slowing 

A forced discarding of what doesn’t serve us anymore

A bringing of new awareness to the things worth sowing 

I feel heightened to the need for rest

And I don’t feel guilty 

I lay down in green pastures envisogning a renewed mentality 

Where life is not measured by our level of exhaustion or the acquisition of stuff 

Where living with less is embraced as a richness beyond our current sumptuous standards 

Our new reality, open to the possibility of community and shared living as articulations of our full humanity 

I am in my final year at Sydney University, studying a double major of Gender Studies and Social Work. When I reflect on the intersections between my chosen vocation and my faith, I ruminate on the character of Jesus. He saw his vocation as aligning himself, in word and deed, in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. He shunned the powers at the time and aligned himself with people who were suffering. I remember early on, when I began to own my faith realising the imperative I felt to pursue justice in its manifold forms. 

Growing up at Seaforth Baptist Church, social justice was the primary way our collective faith was embodied into our community. I have strong memories of being immersed in the beauty of the bush by my father (an environmental scientist.) These moments, imbued by the smell of eucalyptus and the feeling of contentment after a long walk, are instrumental in producing an ethic of care for this awe inspiring earth. Romans 8, invites us to think of the way the whole of creation “groans” inwardly for restorative justice. Bonhoeffer, a massive influence in joining the threads between social justice, the environment and faith, states, “We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, but we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” The radical structural focus highlighted by Bonhoeffer here, shaped the social and political implications for how I began to articulate and think about the outworkings of my faith. 

This journey led me to choose Social Work at university, as it aligned with my understanding of the social gospel and of pursuing social justice.  At the time, I had no idea how transformative and complementary to my faith journey choosing social work would be. The advocacy and community-development focus of social work has a very emancipatory framework that reinforces a collective, holistic response to social problems. My experience of growing up in a loving and affirming, Jesus-focused community enabled me to see the ordinary radical outworkings of this in the different places I found myself.  

A non-violent understanding of Jesus, and the social gospel has informed a large part of my faith. Not siding with the oppressors, but rather seeking to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. I have come to realise that no act is small. Each time we choose compassion over violence  (although perceived as small) weakens a system that constantly devalues our ability to care and choose to love others. Our system relies on us feeling like we have limited choice, so to the modern mind in choosing to go against the grain it seems irrational but it’s radically subversive. The whole society Jesus advocated for was based on partnership, redistribution and community which lies in stark contrast to the current paradigm we function on that relies on inequality, domination and exploitation. Anti-oppressive theory which has an emancipatory focus, as mentioned previously, focuses on breaking down the structural and social nature of inequality, i.e. structural racism which produces the symptom of police brutality. This is where my faith and vocation come into interaction, as I have been asking how can I articulate this vision of radical social transformation in everyday life?  As Christians, we are bearers of good news, not defending the powers and principalities of this time but carving a new way in the everyday, in the way we embody faith in our communities. 

In light of COVID-19, I have been hyper-aware of the way our systems of support are not established to support people in crisis.  We live in a society that implicitly values certain bodies, for example, productive (white) workers who are consumers, and devalue others. Care work for example, is often not paid and done primarily by women. This highlights the way our society is deeply organised around structures of inequality, that values some people and work over others. COVID makes me think of the way in the prophetic books in the Bible placed inordinate value on restorative justice. Jeremiah, 33 verse 6 for example, God states, “I will bring health and healing to it; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security.”

COVID, has brought mass suffering and will in no doubt have effects on our collective sense of wellbeing. I feel fortunate, as during this time, I have been able to rest and reconnect. This has been enabled by my position of privilege, having not lost my income and faced any real uncertainty. My faith and engaging in sabbath economics has been a useful centring practice during this time. My faith has always helped me to feel less pulled by implicit forces and reminds me - “I can do this”.

I think COVID makes it harder to be diminished to solely consumers. There is an opportunity to reorient and examine parts of culture that create affluence, and oppress the poor and marginalised. Maybe this change in the way things were, is the push we need to move away from relying on the global systems we are innately tied to. This hope filled perspective, reflects “the now and not yet” nature of the kingdom of God. We believe as Christians that an evolution has already begun and is gathering pace. We believe that human society can move beyond violence; towards justice, democracy, peace and compassion that puts people and the planet above economic gain. Richard Rohr, contemplates on this time during COVID, “God does use everything, and if God wanted us to experience global solidarity, I can’t think of a better way.” I don’t want to make light of COVID, and how here, in Australia our privilege disguises us from bearing the front of suffering. But we are experiencing collective solidarity, consequently we have an impotence to envision a different lens to view this time from.  

There is often a distinct separation made between the material and spiritual, but what if the material is spiritual? Whatever his faults, one of my favourite theorists is Foucualt, who from the 1970s, began to interrogate the way sexuality was suppressed in society. He posited that gardens were “heterotopian” spaces for good; “the garden in the smallest parcel of the world, and then it is the totality of the world.” Especially, in the last three years, I have explored a faith that locates spirituality in the everyday. Gardening, locates my mind in a simpler world of art and nature. Although they still bring a certain degree of control and resistance, utopia and dystopia, the whole and the part, I am reminded by gardening, that I often seek God in certain places but he is ever present in the mundane. I am constantly reminded by these rituals to realign myself with God even in the uncertain times. 

By Emma Sproul

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  • Carolyn Lee
    commented 2020-07-02 13:36:20 +1000
    Very thoughtful Emma and beautifully put