Who are my people?  Our coronavirus identity

Guest commentary by Glen Bell

In 2016, Tropical Storm Hermine dumped heavy rainfall on southwest Florida.  That afternoon, Iris Adorno was driving through Bradenton.  There she saw it: an alligator swimming across the flooded street just in front of her car.

She captured a short video of the alligator gliding through the water, clearly visible through the wipers.  She alerted neighbors, family and friends of the danger.  “Mi gente! Mi gente!” she exclaimed at the opening of the video.  “My people! My people!  There is danger in the water.”

Her warning frames the coronavirus question: Who are my people?

At the time of writing, 25 million in the United States have been diagnosed with COVID-19.  That number represents over 7.5% of the American population, about one in every 13 people in this country.  Epidemiologists agree that many more of us have actually already been infected.

The number of deaths approaches 500,000.

This virus has revealed the stratification of American society in stark relief — elderly people, Black and brown families and individuals with limited or no access to regular health care are all bearing the brunt of the coronavirus.  Some of us can afford to stay at home, safe and sound.  But not those who stock our supermarkets, clean our businesses and hospitals and work faithfully as first responders or in health care.

Here in Louisville, Kentucky, the public health department has opened Broadbent Arena, a field house at the Kentucky Exposition Center, as a large vaccination site.  They put out a call to the entire community for help.  Anne, my wife, is a registered nurse, and works part time at a pediatric practice.  I am working full time.  We decided to respond.  Anne is now a regular volunteer, and I serve occasionally.  Six thousand people now come through the arena each week.

Those with appointments drive up for a quick clinical screening and then receive the vaccination in their car.  Volunteer nurses and doctors give the injections.  Others of us help check people in or work in the parking lot, keeping an eye on those who have received the shot for 15 minutes before they leave.

My station is in the final lot, as the vaccinated are about to depart.  Just behind me stand two signs in yellow and black.  Post-Injection Observation Area, Stay in Car, Turn Off Engine. In Case of Emergency, Honk Horn & Use Emergency Flashers.  EMTs sit in the corner of the final lot watching and waiting.  Planes fly just overhead around the nearby airport.  It is cold there on the pavement in the late afternoons.

Lots of people come through, driving all kinds of cars.  Some are grinning and eager. Others are preoccupied and curled up within themselves.  Sometimes it is hard to get their attention to move up to the next parking space in line.  Often their eyes are buried in their phone.

Some are in shiny automobiles, and others in cars that look like they may not make it out to the street.  One young teacher came through the arena a few days ago.  Her car was dented and damaged, at least a decade old.  She had her belongings crammed in the front and back seats.  I wondered if she lives in her vehicle.

We prepared for Spanish and Arabic speakers and for differently abled adults.  We kept a close eye out for horns or signs of distress.  My co-workers on the lot (including a chemical engineer, a banker and a retired trainer and teacher) smiled and waved and smiled and waved.  From bundled-up coats, bright yellow safety vests and masked faces, we tried to share some signs of care and encouragement.

Many times the drivers appear relieved.  Often they look tired.

COVID-19 has come at a tough moment here.  This coronavirus year has included the death of Breonna Taylor, killed by Louisville police in her own apartment, the victim of a warrant and late-night raid gone terribly wrong.

In 2019, twice as many white students as Black students were proficient in elementary school reading tests in Kentucky.  Over one-fifth of the inmates in state prisons are now Black — two and a half times the composition of the population.  Household wealth for families of color is dramatically lower than white families.  Louisville is one of the most segregated American cities.  Opportunities in the south and west end are radically different than the rest of the metro.

This COVID-19 moment screams for us to pull back from one another.  We are tempted to retreat.  We are inclined to identify “my people” as a small circle, those who look like us and think like us, those who wear the same jerseys as we do on Team Blue or Team Red.

Great danger lurks in that direction.

God opens and invites us to a much higher purpose.

In “The City of God,” the great Christian thinker Augustine offers a broader alternative definition to “my people.”  He writes, “A people is an assemblage of reasonable beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love … in order to discover the character of any people, we have only to observe what they love.”  Augustine goes on to suggest that any who are bound together by higher interests will be a better people — a people more truly defined as one people.

“My people” becomes those who love God and neighbors wholeheartedly, who look beyond our scars and memories and sleepless nights, who look beyond the boundaries of self-centered desire.

This COVID-19 moment is a chance to grow and heal and come together.  We can become one people, undivided by the wounds of the past and the ways we have overlooked or mistreated our neighbors.  As we grieve, make amends, listen and relate – and this work must come first – we can embrace the opportunity for genuine community.

We can expand our circle.  We can decline the easy invitation to divide or cocoon ourselves, and instead serve the higher interests written on the hearts of each COVID-19 patient, each vaccinated neighbor, each person formed in the image of the Holy One.

In God’s mercy, we can heal together.  We can discover God’s vision for people, a lifegiving vision of truth and restoration and goodness.

GLEN BELL is senior vice president of development at the Presbyterian Foundation. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.