When COVID-19 first struck, many saw it as a crisis driven by such basic questions as how to get people vaccines, protective gear and food.
But groups such as the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) soon realized there were other aspects to consider: how the pandemic was affecting education, particularly for girls; how restrictions caused economic hardship and destroyed livelihoods; how social tensions and conflicts were rising to new levels.
“It wasn’t obvious immediately to think about the secondary aspects of COVID-19,” said Isaiah Toroitch, head of global advocacy for the LWF, “such as it being related to a humanitarian crisis, a crisis that is dividing the world quite strongly between those informed and not informed, therefore requiring additional action. That is what prompted our research.”
In February the LWF released the report “No One Is Safe Until Everyone Is Safe,” detailing how COVID-19 has impacted the LWF and its 149 member churches, including the ELCA, and how advocacy and policy engagement continue to be affected by the pandemic.
Amy Reumann, pastor and senior director of ELCA Witness in Society, said the report shows how the global church was positioned “to respond to the fullness of what was happening during the pandemic” and that it looks at COVID-19 as not only a humanitarian crisis but also a social and economic disruption and public health crisis that demands advocacy.
“In its accompaniment in communities all throughout the world, [our] advocacy was part of the response that needed to happen, because the church had a story to tell in the populations it served that needed to be included in government response and societal response,” she said.
The U.S. compared to the rest of the world
Certain portions of the LWF report show the disparities between the United States and other countries in terms of their ability to navigate COVID-19. But the report also shows how the United States had struggles similar to those faced by the rest of the world, only with different dynamics.
“Access to health services was a primary concern for communities, especially for marginalized groups,” reads the report.
Like their companion congregations throughout the world, ELCA congregations responded to these concerns by doing work to protect the vulnerable.
The United States was in a better position to disperse vaccines than many other countries, yet part of the church’s COVID-19 response involved advocating and mobilizing to ensure that vaccines were available in all parts of the country and to communities on tribal lands.
Reumann explained that “the global struggles to have vaccines equally available in other countries … cast a light on our own struggle to make things equally available in the U.S. The pandemic highlighted how rural communities and urban communities with diverse cultures and people on tribal lands had different experiences to get the care they needed.”
The report also shed light on the variety of needs facing many members of the global church. “The ELCA and the members of the congregations within the [church], I think it would serve them well to understand the pandemic as one of the many pandemics that exist in the world today,” said Toroitich, who edited the report.
Reumann agreed: “My hope is that [the report] could make the U.S. community more attentive to some of the things that we are not always as concerned about in our country that still exist around the globe and cost many lives.” She pointed in particular to the ELCA’s longtime advocacy fighting HIV and AIDS and malaria.
Similarly, as many Americans with children focused on schooling when COVID-19 disrupted regular studies, the LWF report highlighted the ongoing disparities in education throughout the world.
“Once the restrictions were lifted and children were allowed back into classrooms, the LWF and its partners realized that many girls could not go back to school due to the pandemic having reinforced earlier trends of girls’ rights being curtailed,” reads the report.
Reumann and her team continue to advocate for girls’ access to education throughout the world, particularly with legislation and programs that address gender-based violence against women.
“What we do in worship affects what we do in the world”
One of the LWF report’s recommendations is for member churches “to rebuild a sense of community in their congregations and focus on ‘self-care.’” This rang true to John Weit, a deacon and ELCA executive for worship. “That applies to individual church leaders, to individuals who are worshiping together, to even self-care of a congregation itself, who might need to spend more time in lament in what’s been lost these past years before you can move to healing actions,” he said.
As Weit pointed out, the LWF report focuses on advocacy, but that can look different for different people. By contrast, everyone can pray.
In the ELCA, “we’re always thinking about how what we do in worship affects what we do in the world, or what our call is to be disciples and engage in mission out in the world,” Weit said. “That maybe comes out most often in how we shape our prayers and how our prayer language is cognizant of what is going on outside of worship.”
The report also notes how the church’s online presence grew dramatically during the pandemic.
As many congregations continue both online and in-person worship, they are focusing on “some of the deeper questions about online worship,” Weit said, including “the sacraments about Holy Baptism and Holy Communion and whether that should continue to happen.”
A memorial adopted at the 2022 ELCA Churchwide Assembly called on leadership to have faithful conversations about this topic over the next two years. Weit’s team is helping shepherd those conversations with bishops, teaching theologians and ecumenical partners, and it expects to produce a report for the ELCA Church Council by fall 2024.
One of the things that Christians in the United States can learn from the LWF report is how they connect to Christians across the world, Toroitich said.
“For me, it is necessary for Christians, for Lutherans in the United States, to reflect on what this pandemic reveals to us,” he said. “As Christians, what does it say to us about how do we care for the least, how do we care for others and how do we look beyond ourselves?”
Not everyone may be moved to respond in the same way, but the pandemic has helped people to understand their influence can go a long way, Toroitich said.
“Vulnerability is vulnerability; pain is pain; suffering is suffering; and the message of hope in Christ Jesus is similar, and you can see it when you bring it to the front,” he said. “That is a language that is shared across our communities.”