It’s strange, for me, to know that we are living through a time that will be memorialized in history—likely highlighted not only because of a death toll or for its scientific lessons, but for the tremendous impact that our collective experience will have had on us as 21st century humans.
It’s strange in part because, even though this pandemic is global and unprecedented and monumental (and all the superlatives!), I am still, one moment at a time, living my life. And it’s tempting, and most comfortable, for me to focus only on that—on my experience of wearing a mask and doing the grocery shopping and managing a well-resourced and relatively healthy household during this time.
On some days for any of us—and most days for some of us—that hyper-personal focus is all that’s possible. And it’s enough.
But for those of us who have additional bandwidth to be reflective about the larger communal experience, I hope we’re paying attention to some of the lessons that are being offered. Lessons about kindness and generosity and sacrificing one’s own comfort for the good of the whole. I hope history shows that we learned those lessons.
And I hope we’re being honest with ourselves about some of the harder truths: that many so-called “essential workers” are the lowest-paid workers with the fewest benefits, and with the least amount of agency over their own working conditions; that anxiety is high, and mental health may be very fragile for many of our loved ones; that the “coronavirus is infecting and killing Black Americans at an alarmingly high rate“; that there’s so much we don’t know, and we are all going to need to learn new ways of being; and that there has been a sickening rise in acts of anti-Asian racism.
We Unitarian Universalists are no strangers to conversations about racism, and especially the ubiquity of anti-Black racism in America. In more recent years, our sensitivity to anti-Latinx racism and anti-Muslim sentiment (which sits hand-in-hand with racism) has deepened. Now, sadly, some of us are learning of our own ignorance of the reality and breadth of anti-Asian racism, as our neighbors who are (or look) Asian are being targeted with hate speech and violence and other forms of bigotry because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, UUA President, reminded us at the beginning of March, “Marginalized people are always the most vulnerable during any period of heightened fear and anxiety. Be mindful that your language does not label anyone as disposable. UUs must also speak up against the anti-Asian sentiment that has emerged when people talk about the coronavirus. Language that suggests Asian people are more likely to have the coronavirus is racist.”
The NAACP has denounced this anti-Asian racism; the American Friends Service Committee offers tips about how to stand up to it; our Howard County government is encouraging active de-stigmatization (see image below); and the group Asian Americans Advancing Justice is offering free Bystander Intervention Virtual Trainings, which you are encouraged to attend!
And we—Unitarian Universalists, people of faith—are called to act. Many religious traditions, including ours, teach that we should “love our neighbors”. And we know that love is an action verb. It’s not merely affection, or niceness, or even kindness. Love demands that we act in one another’s best interests. Love demands relationship and understanding. Love demands that we pay attention.
We start by listening to the stories of those who are most directly impacted by any tragedy. Stories like Ed Park’s in this New Yorker essay, stories like Cathy Park Hong’s in this New York Times essay, stories that remind us to avoid victim-blaming and to resist the model minority myth. And stories shared by members of our own congregation, like one member who told me that this line from Hong’s piece resonated deeply with their own experience:
“The everyday racialized experience is not so much being the target of hate more than the anticipation of it. Will I be bullied because I’m Asian? Will he reject me because I’m Asian? Will they ignore me because I’m Asian?”
We who value justice and equity and spiritual deepening know that we will never “arrive” at full insight. There will always be more to learn, room to grow, layers of understanding to explore. I know that I’ve only begun to understand the pain and the fear and the harm that my Asian-American neighbors are enduring.
But I do strive truly to love my neighbors, so I am committed to listening and to better understanding their experience, so that my actions will be more likely to minimize harm rather than reinforce it.
We always have choices about how to respond and act in the face of current circumstances. May history show that we chose love, for all our neighbors.