At the time of writing, COVID-19 has infected globally more than three million people and killed more than 200,000. Churches, mosques and temples are closed while the worldwide economy has nearly stopped with little sign of improvement. The sick, the elderly, those who survive on a daily wage, the homeless, the unemployed and all who are already on the margins of society are the worst affected by this ongoing pandemic. Even municipal and civil society institutions are struggling to keep their heads above water. It is truly a time of global crisis and uncertainty and it is tempting to surrender to fear and anxiety.
But today’s grim reality is causing something beyond a health care and economic crisis; it is also bringing about a sense of human solidarity and faith. I have experienced this myself.
I remember vividly leaving the house one day and heading toward the supermarket to buy some groceries. As in so many parts of the world, Palestine has combated COVID-19 with a lockdown; no one is to leave their house unless there is an emergency or the need to buy essential goods. Taking the necessary precautions, I entered the nearly empty supermarket closest to where I live. As recommended by the health officials, I disinfected the shopping cart and started to hunt for the items on my list.
As I moved from one aisle to another, I found my eyes distracted. I realized I was looking at the people shopping, not the merchandise on the shelves. Almost all shoppers had empty grocery baskets and shopping carts. We were all wearing masks. The masks hid feelings and expressions; no one could tell if the face behind the mask was showing a frown or a smile. The entire situation was uncomfortable.
Given the economic troubles so many are facing now, I was concerned for the people who might not be able to buy what they needed. At that moment, my mission changed; rather than buying groceries for my family, I focused on finding someone who was in need. How could I go home knowing I was so close to people in desperate need and did not help? Does not Jesus say when you feed a hungry person, it is as if you have fed me personally?
I moved cautiously through the store, as I did not want to offend someone or hurt their feelings by offering my help. But then, as I wandered the aisles, the unexpected happened: Two different customers approached me and offered to give me money to buy groceries. They thought I was the one in need of help! I was left speechless. They repeated their questions, asking if they could help me.
“No, thank you,” I answered, “I was actually planning to ask you the same, when I saw your grocery basket empty.” With that, the conversations ended, and we went our separate ways.
I abandoned my mission of being the Good Samaritan, did my shopping and went to my car. But as I drove back home I reflected on my experience. What did I just encounter? Was it an act of Luke 3:11? “Whoever has two tunics should share with him who has none, and whoever has food should do the same.” Or was it Mark 12:42? “The poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.”
As we are all feeling helpless in the midst of the coronavirus, I cannot help but think about the spirit of generosity I experienced. As the writer of Hebrews 4:16 teaches: “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Our daughter, Ghada, is 3½ years old, and she has plenty of difficult questions. From her early days she was fond of bedtime stories. We have shared with her recently the beautiful stories of Advent and Lent, and the miraculous story of the Resurrection. As a result, she has learned the joy of prayer as a way to communicate with the hero of all the stories, Jesus Christ.
I discovered just how important that is during this pandemic.
Since Palestine has been under total shutdown, Ghada was forced to stay at home. She misses preschool — her friends, the teachers, the games in her classroom. She even misses boring daily routines. As a result, Ghada prays every night to Jesus, who is all powerful and all loving, to put an end to the virus. She asks our Lord to intervene the same way he stopped the storm at sea with his frightened friends.
“Nothing is impossible for Christ,” she reminds me, assuring me with her large, black eyes.
Ghada is so certain her prayers are going to be answered that she wakes up every day at 4 a.m. and shouts, “Wake up, wake up, we will be late to school, you will be late to work!” With eyes that are barely open, we instruct her to go back to bed, because the virus is still out there.
She shouts back and says: “See the TV, check your phone! Jesus stepped in and ended the pandemic!”
We pretend to look at the phone and tell her: “No, Ghada, the virus is still here and we must continue to stay home and pray.”
We know the pandemic nightmare will come to an end one day, and that day we will wake up and the virus will be history. When this day comes, my daughter will feel her prayers have been answered. She reminds me of the words of St. Augustine: “Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.”
It is true: Life as we knew it has come to a stop. But as I have seen for myself, in my neighbors at the store and in my daughter at home, God’s work in each of us has not stopped. The work of spreading love and solidarity and of opening our eyes to the beauty of our faith in Jesus Christ continues unabated.