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The Church Addresses the Needs of the Underserved in America

The Church in the 21st Century Center hosted another segment of the Easter Series “Revitalizing Our Church During Covid” on Tuesday. This week’s focus was “Addressing the Needs of Underserved Communities During the Pandemic” with Ximena Sota, Assistant Director of the Latinx Leadership Initiative at the BC School of Social Work, Fr. Paul O’Brien, Pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence, Fr. Octavio Cortez, Pastor of St. Anthony’s in New Bedford, and Dr. Philip Landrigan, Director of Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good at BC. 

The conversation began with addressing Dr. Landrigan’s report in The Lancet, “Public Policy and Health in the Trump Era”, which highlights the exacerbation of existing inequalities in low income communities. The report makes a call to restructure our society to be more just, sustainable, and resilient in the face of another collective crisis like COVID-19. 

Landrigan continued to explain how his experience as an epidemiologist and his previous work at the CDC has offered him a unique perspective in understanding how underlying  structures of inequality have impacted and affected patterns in the spread of COVID-19.  

“No one has been hit harder than minority and marginalized communities in the US and around the world” he asserted. 

He attributed these differences in community spread to a decades long disinvestment in infrastructure like housing and education, specifically in underprivileged communities. The decreasing purchasing power for the lower income brackets in our economy and the accumulation of wealth at the highest have created a perfect storm for human suffering in the wake of this pandemic.

According to their research at the BC Catholic Research Facility, “Rates of disease are three to four times higher [in low income communities].” 

Landrigan then considered this dilemma through a moral and ethical lens; the disproportionate burden the pandemic is bringing on our world's most vulnerable is a result of structural evils that have institutionalized into the framework of our systems. Examples of these include regressive tax policies, lack of investment in public infrastructure, and the economic isolation of minority and low income communities. 

Next to speak was Fr. Octavio Cortez who is the Parish Priest of St. Anthony’s in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He explained the drastic effects that the pandemic has had on his parishioners, parishioners that are by and large Spanish speaking from South American countries like Guatemala and El Salvador. 

Fr. Cortez said, “Families that have never come to the food pantry started to come at the beginning of the pandemic.” 

He explained the domino effect that has impacted his parishioners, many of whom already faced financial difficulties in some capacity. For many, when the schools closed, they were unable to afford daycare and are now juggling working and teaching their children in remote learning. 

“We are opening the Church as much as we can to offer food and shelter but there is still a lot of emotional and spiritual stress in the community,” Fr. Cortez explained. 

The following speaker was Fr. Paul O’Brien of St. Patricks in Lawrence, Massachusetts. To begin, he explained the unique circumstances that Lawrence was already facing pre-pandemic as Massachusetts’ poorest city. 

“In normal times, 30% of Lawrence residents live under the poverty line, two out of three households are single parent families, and 75% of children are at risk of starving,” he asserted. 

Now with the pandemic, he went on to explain the rampant spread of the disease and its connections to the city of Lawrence's economic situation.

“23% of Lawrence residents have tested positive. Which means that 1 in every 4 encounters you have are guaranteed to be with someone positive,” he said. 

“The reality is that most people are living in crowded living environments, many work frontline jobs, many do not have the option to not work, and many work for employers that are not sympathetic to COVID concerns,” he explained. 

Despite the devastating economic impacts, Fr. O’Brien highlighted the strides that the Black Lives Matter protests did for the community connection. The awakening of awareness to social justice issues was very impactful to raising the spirits of the community. 

Throughout the question and session that followed, the main theme was the progress the communities have made in lieu of adapting to the pandemic. For Lawrence, Fr. O’Brien spoke of the Cor Unum Center which serves 250,000 meals annually and has not missed a single day of giving meals in 15 years, not even during COVID. 

Fr. O’Brien noted that the Center doubles as an operation to feed the community while also being a means for youth ministry. The volunteers at the center are almost entirely composed of teenagers. 

The session concluded with some recommendations for moving forward from Landrigan.

He called attention to the countries that have handled the pandemic successfully are countries that have continued to invest in their public health infrastructures, education systems, and have worked to combat economic inequality. He noted that not all of these countries are necessarily rich; Rwanda for example, even with a small budget, has successfully limited the spread due to their robust public health system. 

“We have to build on the hope that we have seen during this pandemic,” he declared.

Landrigan concluded with saying that anything we can do to reduce economic inequality can better prepare our entire society against collective crises. 

The Church in the 21st Century Center will continue to hold these conversations on the Church during the Pandemic throughout the semester.