President Trump’s Wednesday night speech on the coronavirus in America was sobering. Closing off travel from Europe sends the loudest possible message: This virus is a threat. His speech was encouraging: The country is doing something to help, in fact, a lot; and besides that, Americans have always made it through the hardest crises and come out strong. It was a great and much-needed message to the nation — as far as it went.
But it was lacking. As far as I could tell from listening to it, “the country is helping” means “the federal government is helping.” The president is opening up large new amounts of money to assist individuals through both medical and economic effects of the virus. Money is fine, and for the right part of the problem it’s the right solution. Trump missed a huge bully pulpit opportunity, though, to remind us that some of the most significant help can and should come locally.
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The Christian Church has always led in meeting needs during times of trouble. The most famous of all ancient Roman physicians, Galen, ran to the hills during the plague; Christians stayed behind and nursed many to health. This is our heritage.
I’m not suggesting that local churches try now to do what our medical system is better equipped to do. Actually, in a sense Christianity has already done that work. Our whole medical system has deep Christian roots, as witnessed by the huge number of hospitals with names like “Good Samaritan,” “Presbyterian,” “Mary Immaculate,” “Mercy,” and so forth. Two of the largest medical systems in my local area have secular-sounding names but are run by Seventh-Day Adventists. The same was true in the last two cities I lived in as well.
The Speech Trump Could Have Given
So I’m not suggesting we revert to pre-hospital medical practices. Churches and other local agencies can and should, however, step up to care for every other need that coronavirus will create. That’s where President Trump missed it last night. If only he had added something like this:
The crisis is real, and it will cause real hurt among Americans. We’re strong, though, and we’ve made it strong through every crisis we’ve faced.
I’m leading to supply all the help we can from the federal level. But this is not a federal government crisis, it’s an American crisis.
I’m doing what I can as president to lead our response from the federal level, but America’s real strength is local. Our strength is in the churches, the synagogues, and the mosques. It’s in local government’s leadership. It’s in non-profit care services, too, from the Salvation Army to the Red Cross to many others.
And now more than ever is the time for all of us to step up to help one another. I call on every pastor, priest, rabbi, and Imam to start planning how you can help those whose paychecks are suffering, both in your membership and in the community around you. Your community is counting on you lead spiritually, as only you can do.
I call on every city official and non-profit leader to ask the same question. When schools close and parents don’t know how to work and care for their kids at the same time, this, too, is when you can help. I urge you to think through how you will do that.
I know how great America is. So let’s all take all the leadership it takes on every level, and make all the necessary sacrifice. Together we’ll make it through, and continue to stand strong.
That’s the opportunity Donald Trump missed last night. I so wish he’d said that.
It’s Not Too Late
But it’s not too late for us to take up those opportunities anyway. We can still mobilize locally everywhere the virus hits, or even before it does. We can plan to mobilize even before COVID-19 does. Because loving your neighbor does not mean waiting for Washington to cut a check.
Stream publisher James Robison puts it another way in a video message released this morning. Rev. Robison expressed his desire that “[God’s] family, the believers, the church would put His arms around the world He gave his Son to redeem.”
We are his arms and hands in this crisis. Let’s roll up our sleeves.
Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ and Critical Conversations: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens, and the lead editor of True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism.