When the threat of COVID is behind us and we’re allowed to meet new people again, I know one of the first topics of conversations will be: “What happened to you during the pandemic?” So far, I have heard a range of life experiences, from the challenging to the traumatic, everything from getting laid off from work to having a loved one die from the virus. No one has escaped the impacts of this pandemic. It has been a solidarity-building experience for people everywhere, while also challenging our faith in ourselves and the direction to which God leads us. It has illuminated the greater need for collective responses to threats that transcend any divisions in our society. It has also called us all to service.
As a city councilmember of Burien, WA, about 15 minutes south of Seattle, I have seen how the public health crisis has directly impacted our local government and social service network. Within the city government, we have lost out on expected annual revenue due to the decrease in economic activity, we have had to lay off employees, and we worry that the federal government will not supply us with the additional monies needed to fill the gap. Additionally, the social service networks that provide the majority of the community work within localities have a shortage of volunteers and donations. Usually, the majority of volunteers for these kinds of programs (like St. Vincent de Paul or Salvation Army) are of the vulnerable age for exposure to the virus. No one was prepared for this kind of impact.
Marginalized communities are being hit the hardest, having trouble paying rent, not knowing where their next bag of groceries will come from, and worrying about getting COVID while at work. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 11.1% of the American population was food insecure prior to COVID, which is close to 38 million people. Feeding America projects that the number could rise to 54 million, or 1 in 6 Americans, by the end of 2020. We know these problems will continue throughout the period of the pandemic.
I struggled at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, feeling powerless to make change in my community at a time when I knew people needed support the most. How are Catholics able to serve the margins during a pandemic? Where can Catholics find outlets to support and encounter neighbors in need? Scripture calls us to provide this support and encounter in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” As Catholics, as millennials, and as community-minded individuals, it is our Christ-inspired duty to serve. I grow more and more irritable with every news story of millennials seeking the beach or going to parties instead of working toward eradicating the social and economic inequalities exacerbated by COVID.
My personal saving grace from the feeling of powerlessness came in the form of a volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps VISTA, delivering meals to families and youth who are food insecure. Every day, I took meals directly to the door of families so that their kids could eat breakfast and lunch and so they had access to fresh groceries. Every delivery I made, I knew I was working to feed the hungry who are made in the image and likeness of God. Whenever there were days where I didn’t want to leave the house, it didn’t matter. Someone else’s hunger outweighed my disinterest in leaving my own comfort. As a Catholic called intto the service of my community, there is never an excuse to not help others who are less fortunate.
Catholic Social Teaching is not only a driving force for me as an elected official, but it challenges me to serve others in every element of my life. It calls us to live out our values in the world, on the streets, in the lives of others; to live in radical solidarity with them. You can’t live in solidarity with others if you’re choosing to not wear masks and ignoring social distancing guidelines. You can’t respect life and creation if you don’t work to ensure its protection. And you can’t heed the call to service if you don’t listen to what God is asking you to do through prayer and reflection. This service during COVID can renew a relationship with God through the charitable fruit of the Holy Spirit. That spiritual connection creates a sense of purpose for us in our community, making new connections with those less fortunate.
Responding to the impacts of COVID reminded me of Christ’s goodness by working alongside partners at public housing authorities and nonprofits serving communities, but more importantly, through the people I served. I struggled with the feeling of being unhelpful, locked in my apartment for months. But through this response experience, I’m encouraging you to take actions that further your faith in Christ, further your faith in your community, and reestablish a hope in humanity—that we will get through this if we all act collectively with charity to be kind, overflowing with love to support our neighbors. At a time when many of us feel isolated and powerless, we should navigate our way through this imperfect time with the God-given abilities we have to make a difference.
Kevin Schilling is a millennial city councilmember of Burien, WA.