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Love in the Time of Corona

Aaron White

April 21, 2020

How are we to love our neighbours when we are told to stay away from them?


For many people - believers or no - in these strange days the answer to the above question is entirely clear: stay home. There are many posts on social media trumpeting the saving power of sitting on the sofa and watching Netflix. And there is an active and even officially encouraged culture of shaming those who do not comply.


There is good reason for the stay home message: this virus is extremely catchy, and deadly, particularly to those who are vulnerable due to other underlying medical issues. Staying home is not just about protecting oneself: it is about stopping the spread to others. Partaking in this almost Lenten practice of self-discipline and self-isolation is, for the most part, a loving thing to do.


And it could be argued that Jacob’s Well, situated in the heart of one of the most vulnerable neighbourhoods in the Western world, should pursue exactly this policy of staying away.


But there is a problem with this approach, or at least with the uncritical (or self-righteous) acceptance of this approach. It works and is appropriate for many settings, especially where people have the option to work and do Church and social connection online. But it may not work in the same ways for other places.


The DTES of Vancouver is vulnerable in large part because many of our neighbours have no safe home to go to; no reliable means of washing their hands every 20 minutes; no ability to be permanently removed from crowded conditions; and no way of keeping themselves fed and supported while also self-isolating.


Half a block from Jacob’s Well is the site of the large Oppenheimer Park tent village, and a smaller version of that park is set up daily outside our front doors. These are not places where social distancing or government-approved hygiene are being practiced, or are likely to be practiced. We have discovered that some of our neighbours have no real gauge on the scope of the pandemic, no solid information on what to do if they start to feel sick, and a deep-set and well-earned distrust of any government restrictions or pronouncements.


Moreover, these are folk who have relied upon various community programs for food, shelter and support for many years now, and most of these programs had to close their doors within a week and seriously curtail their offerings. Public showers are mostly closed. Libraries, where many people access the internet, are shuttered. Drop-ins and cafes and community dinners and church services can no longer operate. Our friends are reeling, uncertain where and when food will be available, far from the centre of decisions being made on their behalf, and caught up in the general panic that is hovering over the neighbourhood, the city and the world. And perhaps worst of all, the people who have been around to listen, to commune with, to play games with, to speak hope and life and faith, are not allowed to gather with them at this time. A vulnerable community feels especially isolated and fragile.


It isn’t anyone’s fault exactly that this is where things are at. City officials and others have been trying to get the word out to everyone, but the task is huge and difficult. Civic and Provincial groups are working hard to provide community health centres, hand-washing stations, hotel rooms for people who need to be isolated, food delivery and safe drug supply. Non-profits are doing what they can while trying to keep everyone safe and to prevent burn out. A coordinated DTES response is taking shape to reach out to those in SRO hotel rooms ( It isn’t quick enough or comprehensive enough, but people are trying. It is just that the complex, multi-layered and interwoven challenges of the DTES, which have developed over years and decades, cannot be overcome in any kind of simple or expedient way. 


Which leads us back to what it means to love our neighbours in these times. Many of our staff and volunteers are privileged enough that we could stay home and wait for this to run its course. And for any who are not feeling well, or who are not comfortable being out of their homes at this time, this is exactly what we are encouraging them to do. It is not wrong. Especially for those who come into the DTES from outside the neighbourhood it might be the most loving response.


But neither is it wrong to continue trying to help, so long as it is done in a responsible way. If all the social agencies and Christian ministries closed shop at once it would be an abandonment, and it could be disastrous.


This is why Jacob’s Well, while it has closed its space to community gatherings, has decided to continue offering food and connection to our friends and neighbours. We are ramping up our ability to deliver groceries to those who are shut in and cannot support themselves at this time. We are handing hot meals out the door while trying to ensure people stay some distance apart and wash their hands before they eat. We are going out in twos and threes to hand out snacks, soap, and pamphlets with health information on the front and a Psalm on the back. We are calling and connecting with our community one by one, as often as we can. And we are praying with people.


We are also seeing great acts of love within the Jacob’s Well community. Members living in the DTES are caring for one another beautifully, checking in on each other, offerings space to rest, feeding sick neighours, cleaning Jacobs’ Well inside and out, and giving calming reassurance to those who are angry on the streets, all while keeping safe distances and ensuring good hygiene. It is humbling and inspiring to witness.


We are one small piece of a much larger attempt to soften the blow of this pandemic in our neighbourhood and city, but we are a significant. Each meal given out, each prayer offered, each moment of connection on the street, each phone call is a humanising moment in the midst of fear and dismay. It is a reminder that people are not alone, that they are seen and loved by us, and by God. We are not being needlessly reckless in this - we are careful to keep hands washed, gloves worn, and six feet distant - but we will continue to be aware of the unique pain being borne by our community at this time.


And we are trusting in the blessing of Psalm 41 over those who seek to care for the poor, something we are praying over all frontline workers and medical personnel. Please pray it with us, and over us:


Blessed are those who have regard for the weak;

    the Lord delivers them in times of trouble.


The Lord protects and preserves them—

    they are counted among the blessed in the land—

    he does not give them over to the desire of their foes.


The Lord sustains them on their sickbed

    and restores them from their bed of illness.

About the Author:

Aaron White serves as the Resident Theologian at Jacob’s Well. He is the National Director of 24-7 Prayer Canada. He has been a pastor, missioner, justice worker and prayer instigator in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver for the past 16 years, where he lives with his wife and four children in a community home. He is the co-author of “Revolution and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Kingdom of God”; co-creator of The Creative Way Down discipleship resource; and author of the upcoming book “Recovering: From Brokenness and Addiction to Blessedness and Community.”

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