Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?” (1 John 3:17 CEB) The scripture keeps nagging my heart as COVID-19 continues to challenge all of us, but especially the most vulnerable in our midst.

Last Friday was May 1. Observed in European cultures since the late 19thcentury as an ancient festival of spring and a public holiday for working class people, May Day is also called International Workers Day where dancing around a maypole and crowning a May Queen is common. The U.S. celebrates a similar Labor Day holiday on the first Monday in September, a time when we honor all who labor on our behalf.

May Day, however, has another meaning. “Mayday” is an international distress call that is sent out when someone is in serious danger, whether on a ship or plane. A radio operator sends out the mayday call three times in a row to indicate that it is a real emergency.

Are May Day and mayday related? Not really. Mayday comes from the imperative form of the French word, m’aidez, which means “to help.” Yet May 1, 2020 reminds us that we are in the midst of a “mayday” pandemic, as workers around the world struggle to contain COVID-19.

On May Day, our Governor Kim Reynolds relaxed restrictions around restaurants, fitness centers, malls, and houses of worship in 77 of Iowa’s 99 counties. But on the same day, May 1, Iowa had a single day record of 739 new COVID-19 cases, including 8 deaths. As of May 1, there have been 7,884 total cases and 170 deaths. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! The curve has not begun to flatten yet in Iowa. I and other Iowa religious leaders issued a statement last week strongly encouraging our congregations to continue to refrain from in-house worship at this time.

Of biggest concern in Iowa is outbreaks of COVID-19 in nursing homes, jails, and meat-packing plants and the disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases among our ethnic population. U.S. Census Bureau Statistics released on April 14 showed that African Americans made up 4% of Iowa’s population but they accounted for 8.7% of Iowa’s known infections. Latinos and Hispanics made up 6% of the state population but represented 16.4% of the confirmed cases. Mexican, Central American, Burmese, and Congolese immigrant workers have also made Iowa their home.

The disparity in infection rates is due to many of our meatpacking and food-processing employees coming from other countries. According to Joe Henry, political director of the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa, “People need to realize Latinos and immigrants are doing the heavy lifting right now. We’re feeding the country, and we’re not being treated with any type of safety that would be provided to health care workers and others.”

Meat-processing plants, which include beef, pork, and poultry, are critical to Iowa’s economy, with Iowa ranking first in pork production in the United States. Thousands of farmers are dependent on the meat-processing plants for their livelihoods, and therein lies the agonizing dilemma of pigs, people, and profits. In order to supply the nation with pork, the meat-packing plants should be operating at full capacity, but with COVID-19, many of the plants are not providing the appropriate level of safety. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

A disproportionate number of employees have been infected with COVID-19 because they work in close quarters, there have not always been partitions between workers, the lines move too fast, and there hasn’t always been enough protective equipment. In addition, the plants have not been regularly sanitized, and there is concern about not enough testing. According to a USA Today investigation, the meatpacking industry has been notorious for poor working conditions, even before the coronavirus pandemic. Federal watchdog reports have found that meat and poultry employees have among the highest illness rates of all manufacturing employees and are less likely to report injuries and illness than any other type of worker. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

In the midst of rising numbers of infections, an executive order was issued last Tuesday to reopen the meat-packing plants. Citing the Defense Production Act, President Trump said that “it is important that processors of beef, pork, and poultry (‘meat and poultry’) in the food supply chain continue operating and fulfilling orders to ensure a continued supply of protein for Americans.” According to the executive order, meat-packing companies are exempt from lawsuits.

In addition, after first indicating that furloughed employees refusing to go back to work in reopened plants because of fear for their safety might lose their unemployment benefits, Governor Reynolds moderated the requirements. Her revised statement said that exempt from losing unemployment benefits would be those who have been infected by COVID-19, have household members who have been infected, are in higher-risk categories of contracting the disease, or have higher-risk household members who have been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine.

United Food and Commercial Workers International Union President Marc Perrone called for workers to have protective equipment, daily testing at the plants, and social distancing to be in place. He said, “While we share the concern over the food supply, today’s executive order to force meatpacking plants to stay open must put the safety of our country’s meatpacking workers first… Simply put, we cannot have a secure food supply without the safety of these workers.” Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Balancing the need to supply food with concerns around worker safety is complex and gut-wrenching. While President Trump’s executive order gives hope to farmers who agonize over the back-up of pigs on their farms, meat-packing workers and their families are still fearful. The Waterloo Tyson Plant, located in Black Hawk County, Iowa, with 2,800 workers, remains closed. Black Hawk County had its first coronavirus case on March 18. Since then there have been more than 1,400 cases in the county, with 90% related to the Tyson plant, (primary or secondary exposure) according to Black Hawk Public County Health Director Nafissa Cisse. Making worker safety a priority will go a long way toward assuring profitability for both farmers and companies.

How can the love of God dwell in us during this time of COVID-19? I am grateful for the outpouring of love and generosity toward all those who have been adversely affected by COVID-19. But if someone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but refuses to help – how can the love of God dwell in a person like that?”

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! How can we embody the love of God in light of deep disappointment and intense grief of graduations that will not take place; people who are furloughed and may not return to work; weddings and funerals that take place without the presence of many who wish to be present; and the novelty of time away that has gone sour?

Who will make phone calls to church friends and neighbors, just to check up? Who will make box lunches to be handed out to those whose resources have run dry and who have no place to turn for help? Who will help those learning how to access their church service by live-streaming? Who will contribute money to food banks? Who will organize car caravans to drive by the homes of people having birthdays and show them some love?

Who will show support for our farmers, who raise animals and grow other foods that are vital for our economy? Who will pray for workers in our meat-packing plants as they face the fear of infection? Who will pray for our health care professionals who place themselves in jeopardy every day by caring for those with COVID?

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! How will the love of God dwell in you this week?

Let Us Keep Praying for Each Other 

Like many states, Iowa has had a rough time with COVID-19. We saw a spike in the last several weeks when hundreds of meatpacking workers in Iowa tested positive for COVID-19. This resulted in some Midwest processing plants significantly slowing production or suspending operations, causing drastically falling prices. Iowa is the number one pork producing state in the U.S. and raises nearly one-third of the nation’s hogs. With 6,200 pig farms and 25 million pigs in confinement, backed-up processing presents a major dilemma.

Across the world, COVID-19 has affected hundreds of countries and millions of people. In the midst of it all, the church stands ready to witness to God’s love. Last week I reached out to United Methodist friends in different parts of the world to learn how COVID-19 is affecting their population and how disciples of Jesus Christ are rising up to help.

I first met Pastor Max Maregmen at the 2012 General Conference in Tampa, and we have become good friends. Max is an elder serving in Davao City in the East Mindanao Annual Conference. Max is an excellent pastor, but, like most clergy in the Philippines, he has very limited resources. Several weeks ago, the Davao City (population 1.633 million) government implemented a total lockdown, which means that families have a food and medicine quarantine pass but can only leave their home three times a week.

On Sundays Max is providing online/livestream worship, but the Internet connection is very poor, and viewing the entire service is not smooth. Financial resources and food are extremely scarce, but Max said, “We just keep doing our part to minister our people, especially in this time of crisis… We thank God because none of our members and workers are infected. We will continue to obey government ordinances… Staying home is a very effective way to control covid-19. Let us keep praying for each other…”

My colleague on the Iowa Annual Conference cabinet, Rev. Dr. Heecheon Jeon, has shared that South Korea responded quickly and effectively to COVID-19, primary due to three factors. First, South Korea issued protective equipment immediately to all hospitals and personnel and set up quarantined sites for rapid testing. Second, everyone in South Korea is provided with free medical insurance, including undocumented immigrants and foreign workers. And third, South Korea has an advanced IT infrastructure to effectively trace those who have been infected and rapidly develop testing kits.

District Superintendent Heecheon writes, “Most of the Korean churches, including the Korean Methodist Church, have been creative to adapt to the pandemic challenge by offering online and drive-in services. During Easter, some of the churches offered in-person services as well virtual services… but they were sitting apart from each other in worship. Many churches could not serve a lunch after the service any longer, so pastors encouraged their parishioners to go out to town restaurants to support them. Because the whole country practiced social distancing … with test, trace and treat, they could avoid the complete lockdown.” Let us keep praying for each other.

Bishop Eduard Khegay is the United Methodist bishop of the Eurasia Episcopal Area, which includes the Central Russia Annual Conference, Eastern Russia and Central Asia Provisional Annual Conference, Northwest Russia Provisional Annual Conference, Southern Russia Provisional Annual Conference, and Ukraine-Moldova Provisional Annual Conference. In a recent article entitled People of Faith; Hope and Love in the Time of CrisisBishop Khegay celebrated the success of a joint Eurasia Area Easter online worship service on April 19. He said, “This was a unique moment in our history when we participated together as a connectional church from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad, from Bishkek to St. Petersburg, from Satka to Kiev, from Uzhgorod to Almaty and many other places in Eurasia. Even in isolation we can feel united and connected.”

In the midst of social distancing Bishop Khegay emphasized how important is to keep reaching out to those who need our help. “When our government decided to announce self-isolation, I was very touched by our pastors’ concern for the homeless and poor: ‘How are they going to be fed if they cannot come to our church for meals?’ …

“John Wesley made it his weekly practice to visit the poor and minister to them… Many churches continue to feed the poor and homeless people by distributing lunch bags to them. Some do it at the church door with keeping the distance and following quarantine safety rules, and others drive around the city and bring lunch bags to where the homeless people are. This is love in action, and I am grateful to God for our people who overcome fear and are filled with the power of love.” Let us keep praying for each other.

Aabiskar Sharma is a friend that Gary met when we were in Nepal two years ago. Aabiskar says that the Nepal government announced a lockdown on March 24. For the first several weeks, all of the necessary shops like food stores and gas stations were permitted to open. Now the government is becoming more strict and shops are open only for three hours in the morning, and after 9 am all of the shops are closed.

Aabiskar is a student in India, but classes have been canceled, and she is currently in Kathmandu on lockdown with her sister and mother-in-law. She says, “The lockdown was a good decision on the part of the government, but many poor people are suffering because they are jobless now. The government is giving food and money to the poor, however, and people are helping each other.” Let us keep praying for each other.

Finally, on March 24, the government of Zimbabwe directed all colleges and universities to switch to online instruction to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Our United Methodist Africa University sent all of its students home except for those who could not afford to return or students whose home countries instituted a lockdown that closed the borders. All remaining students must comply with strict guidelines regarding social distancing, hand sanitizing, and the taking of temperatures at the main gate. Students also no longer share rooms, and staff are using protective equipment.

Zimbabwe, which has a population of 14.5 million, had recorded 29 coronavirus cases and 4 deaths as of April 22, but many fear that the true numbers could be much higher because of the lack of Covid-19 testing capacity.

With a national stay-at-home order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus in Zimbabwe extended to early May, Africa University is moving toward full production of its prototype face mask. The mask performed well in efficacy testing, prompting a visit by officials from Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Industry and Commerce and interest from potential corporate partners.

In addition, last week marked the start of national distribution of U-Safe hand sanitizer manufactured on the Africa University campus with support from Old Mutual Zimbabwe. Led by the staff of the university Department of Public Health and Nursing, a nine-person team is currently scaling up production from 145 to 264 gallons a day. Africa University Vice-Chancellor and Professor Munashe Furusa said, “As we reflect on the happenings of the past few weeks, we are concerned and share with the entire continent and globe a sense of urgency to reinvent our institutions, our mechanisms and our strategies in response to this adversity.”  

Let us keep praying for each other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy, Junk, and Jesus

If you don’t have a sense of humor, the coronavirus life may not be for you. That’s because every day is a new adventure in patience, fortitude, and creativity. It’s been five weeks since the Iowa United Methodist Conference Center closed, and life at home has fallen into a new routine. For the last four years, I’ve yearned for less travel and more time at home. Now that I have it, I’m finding all sorts of projects in between multiple Zoom and Teams meetings every day.

Granted, we’re now beginning to hear talk about a lessening of restrictions and a gradual return to work when there are firm indications of a decline in new cases and assurances of a robust testing program. However, that won’t happen for a while. Schools have now been closed in Iowa for the rest of the school year. And we dare not downplay the seriousness of the Pandemic, including the economic toll on many of our businesses, restaurants, and churches; the number of deaths that increase every day; the risks that our front-line workers experience every day; and mental health issues that arise from depression, isolation, and fear.

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Becca Nims, Director of Youth Ministry at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, to be a “Mystery Guest” at their Wednesday afternoon Zoom Hangout. Because school is not in session, this gives youth a chance to be together virtually during the week.

After introductions, we played a game where we had to submit something funny or unusual about ourselves to Becca, and then everyone had to guess to whom it applied. “I partially amputated my finger.” “I have five shelves of legos in my room.” “I have twenty pairs of shoes.” “I have an obsession with Lil Spooky in On My Blockon Netflix.” “I love to run 5K’s.” “My hair caught on fire as a kid.” Even if for only a brief time, I was able to let go of my role and enjoyed the banter.

Then Becca invited the youth to offer prayer concerns and told me that every time they meet, they share “Joy, Junk, and Jesus.” Where have you experienced joy? What junk or heavy loads are you carrying that you may need to let go of? And how is Jesus at work in your life? “My dad’s cousin died of cancer.” “I saw a family with gloves going around picking up trash in a garbage bag.” “I’m grateful for technology that allows us to be together in Google Hangout.” “Sam has been cancer free for two years.” “Thank you for ‘mom,’ a woman who is supportive of all the youth.”

Being together virtually with the youth was a meaningful way to observe Holy Week, which was, admittedly, a serious time because of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the preparations that our clergy and local churches were making for virtual worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. What I learned from the youth is that they are being well discipled by adults who care deeply about them.

It also prompted me to look at my own life in a different way. I am discovering that our collective enforced “time-out” because of COVID-19 can be a joy and a blessing. Right now, Gary and I connect with our children and grandchildren on Sunday evenings via Zoom. We also use WhatsApp for Family Chats during the week. I find great joy in simply hanging out with our children and grandchildren online.

We are also finding joy in reconnecting with friends we’ve made during the course of our lives. We had a long conversation with a mother and daughter from Oregon with whom we walked for about ten days along the El Camino in Spain last summer. And just a few days ago we reconnected with a woman from Sicily whom we befriended during the trek. In addition, Gary and I find joy in donating to charitable causes, especially food banks, and I am making phone calls to those I am aware of who are experiencing difficulties during this time.

Working from home because of COVID-19 has also given me the opportunity to sort through all my “stuff” and decide what is junk and what I should keep. Last week I began cleaning out a room in the basement that was full of boxes that hadn’t been touched since I moved to Iowa almost three and a half years ago. Because there was little time between my election as a bishop and the move from Michigan to Iowa, I didn’t have time to sort through anything and just threw stuff into boxes.

Do you know what I found as I opened the boxes? I found Joy, Junk, and Jesus! The joy came from reading old letters, finding pictures of our three children when they were young, and rediscovering precious possessions from my childhood that I could never part with. Among the treasures that I uncovered was a “muff” that my grandmother wore a hundred years ago to keep her hands warm and a dress that I made in 7th grade sewing class and that still fits!

I also found part of a journal that I wrote during a class that I took from Henri Nouwen at Yale Divinity School called “Ministry and Spirituality.” What joy to relive my spiritual growth during that time. Although I was admitted to Yale as an organist in the Master of Music program, I continued my studies at Yale Divinity School. Nouwen’s class was a game changer for my spiritual life.

Of course, along with the joy came the difficulty of determining what among my many possessions was junk and needed to be disposed of. This included books and more books that never made it to the bookshelves in my home office and my office in the Conference Center. Sorting through books is kind of like choosing my favorite child. It’s just not possible.

I also disposed of cracked vases, knick knacks, broken picture frames, threadbare blankets, old church newsletters and church conference materials, and torn backpacks. I found my field hockey stick from high school, my very first pair of running shoes, and a precious picture of Bill and Sylvia, an older couple who took care of our children when they were growing up and Gary and I were serving separate churches.

Matthew 6:19-21 came to mind more than once. “Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Most of all, I found Jesus. Sorting through all the boxes of things that are precious to me, I was reminded that nothing is as important as my relationship to Jesus. I found notes of encouragement from people in every church I have served. I found some of my favorite inspirational books that guided my ministry. I found my mother’s Bible that she used growing up, and I read through several dozen journals that I have kept since 1974.

My journey with Jesus has taken me all over the world, to different ministry locations, and into the depths of my spirit. And so, I wonder.

  • What does it mean to be a Christ-follower and part of one human family during COVID-19 when some racial/ethnic groups have a higher death rate than others and the poor/undocumented/uninsured do not always have the same access to health care as others?
  • Will we take advantage of this time at home to do some deep soul-searching about our connection with one another around the globe?
  • How will the new skills that we have learned about virtual communication help our churches to emerge stronger because of a renewed commitment to Christ and to evangelism?

How will joy, junk, and Jesus enrich your life and faith in the coming weeks?