I sometimes wonder what a potential future grandchild might ask me about this time we’re living in and how I might answer. Of course, we’re still IN this time and it’s pretty much impossible to say how it’s all going to play out over the next months and years. I hope I have some good stories to tell, as well as the sad and the cautionary. Hope for that is about all I have though, because, right now, I don’t see much that anyone could weave into a happy story.
But there sure could be. We could, one day, be telling stories about how tragic events, here at home and around the world, came together with such a resounding, almighty clash that we just had to finally open our eyes. That we learned the many lessons that our hard and sometimes horrific experiences were teaching us and that we allowed that knowledge to inform, temper, and elevate our natures. That we took all of that, raised our eyes from the muddy ground we were mired in, turned our faces forward and decided to try to build the world that could be and should be. We could be the heroes of those stories we tell our kids. Or, we could just tell a version of this: “It was an awful time. Everything was confusion and chaos. We eventually pulled out of the worst of it. Most of us survived, but things didn’t ever really get back to normal. That’s why things are the way they are now.”
I say “I hope” but I’m not really very hopeful. I’ve been trying for years to get people to understand that, in rural America, including the town where I was born and where I live, things are not okay. I’ve been talking about hollowed-out economies, declining populations, increasingly bad health, decreasing workforce productivity, brain drain, squandered human potential, wasted resources, deteriorating infrastructure, loss of economic and political influence and on and on. It’s not a happy picture and I’m sick of writing and talking about it. I thought that, long before now, enough people would have picked up on something I said and maybe talked about it with a friend or a fellow church member and that a public discussion would have grown from it. I thought that, surely by now, we would be spending more of our time building strategic plans about how to make things better and actually doing things to make it happen. About how we would start building a healthier, happier and prosperous future for ALL our kids. But that conversation has never really gotten started. I sometimes don’t think we’re any closer to changing “the way we’ve always done it” today than we were four years ago.
Then comes the coronavirus. All of the sudden “things are not okay” explodes into “things are going to hell in a handbasket”. Before the coronavirus, we had time to right the ship in rural America, if only we would recognize it was leaking. Now, the stresses that the coronavirus has inflicted on our communities has thrown us into an existential crisis. The pandemic is going to cause damage everywhere, but rural places are going to be hardest hit, because we simply do not have the resources or the economic resilience to weather a storm like this. Here’s an example: Before, housing was a problem in our communities, but we had time to work on it before it became a crisis, as long as we worked together. Now, we no longer have the time because the crisis is here. Unemployment supplements are ending in two weeks, a week earlier than most people expected. The moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs are expiring. A local facility where a number of low-income people and families lived was condemned and shut down yesterday. Individuals and families are on the street, as of now, and that’s only going to get worse. The only homeless shelter we have is only open in the cold-weather months, so they have nowhere to go. All the agencies that typically help with rent and utilities are already stretched to their breaking points and beyond. Landlords who might have some of the few available units are reluctant to rent them because they’re afraid they won’t be able to evict the tenants if they can’t pay their rent. It’s not just a storm—it’s a perfect storm. The need is exploding at the same time that the ability to help is at a low ebb. How are these people going to eat? How are their kids supposed to prepare to go back to school? How can they be expected to care about school when they are hungry, scared and living in a tent by the railroad tracks? What’s going to happen with crime? Desperation and a lack of options don’t bode well. What about healthcare? If you get a cut on the bottom of your foot, you put a little peroxide and a band-aid on it. It’ll heal in a few days. If, of course, you have peroxide and a band-aid. If you don’t, and you don’t even have the ability to keep it clean or to change your socks, it will fester. Eventually, you go to the ED. The cut that could have been managed with five cents worth of peroxide and band-aids now costs $3000, and hopefully you get to keep your foot.
None of this has to happen. It never had to happen. We can still change the path. We can ride out the storm, but we can’t if we just hope for the best or we’ll be swamped for sure. We have to navigate our way clear. The pandemic, along with our social crises, have pointed out, very clearly, the glaring, unsustainable weaknesses in our communities, our nation, and our human society. All we have to do is open our eyes to see them. Before we get back to normal, we damned well better figure out what normal we want to get back to. Personally, I don’t really want to get back to a normal that leaves us this vulnerable and weak. One good thing about what’s happened and what’s still to come is that it is a really good time and place to start building anew. We can and we must. Can’t you see that our communities cannot survive as we were? We were in trouble last December. We’re about to go over a cliff today. We are facing the challenge of a generation. Of several generations. Our world has not seen anything like this since World War II and the Depression. This is also the opportunity of a lifetime. Catastrophe is a catalyst for change.
We have to start right now. I know, I’ve been saying that for years, too, but surely the events of the day have made it more obvious. We have families out on the street, right now. There are things we can do, right now. Every single one of us has a part to play, whatever that may be. Help make sandwiches. Help build a house. Read to a shut-in. Pull some weeds out of the sidewalk. Help a kid learn to read. Help an addict get help. Donate a dollar. Drive someone to the doctor. Sew some masks for people who need them. Everyone can do something. Some people can do everything.
We have so much to do that the task seems impossible. The vision I’ve been trying to share over the years is, indeed, daunting. It’s easy to say, “it’s too much” or “we can’t do things like that here”. The thing is, we have to, or there won’t be a “here” much longer. It’ll just be a sad memory. Right now, though, our task is a little less complex than that grand vision stuff. Right now, we have to marshal every resource we can muster to keep our people fed, sheltered, and healthy with kids ready to learn and grown-ups ready to get back to work. Until we can do that—ensure that those very fundamental, basic needs are met--nothing else matters much. We are about to have a whole lot of people teetering on the edge of holding things together, or not. It’s not just the right thing to do, but it will be SO much cheaper to help them through this than to deal with the consequences if they fall. This isn’t about hand-outs. This is about building community and maximizing resources, the most important of which, particularly in rural places, is people. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, “it’s easier to help a person stay whole than it is to try to mend them once they are broken.”
For details, please go to our website www.archcoalition.org . Join us. We need everyone at the table. One of the first things we need to work on is emergency housing. Our Salvation Army has gotten permission from their district office to reopen the homeless shelter, if we can find the money to operate it. It costs between $10,000 and $15,000 a month to run. Once we raise enough money to open it, we can have it going in just a few days. Local food banks are highly stressed by the need. Please help them, if you can. We are working on ways to more efficiently distribute food and improve nutrition. Contact a local helping organization to find out what you can do. Talk to your churches and civic clubs. Talk to your friends. Donate to the local charity of your choice. Do something. Please. I’m begging.