The Wisdom of the Great Depression Elders

Current Affairs / Religion

Jesus, our Savior, be known to us in the community in which we live. Help us to trust that our true wealth is found in our relationship to you and to each other. Give us today the bread we need. Help us to trust that tomorrow will have enough for us. Calm our hearts so that we might be your people in a world that needs peace and a blessing. We ask this in your sacred and saving name. Amen.

This is a frightening moment, as we hunker down to stop the spread of this novel corona virus. Our sense that we can predict what is coming next, what our future is likely to be, has been taken away from us. And that is causing mostly similar emotions in all of us – grief and fear.

I find myself wishing that we could just go back to the beginning of last month, to the beginning of the year just to feel the sufficiency and trust of that day, even for a little while. But that’s not possible. And I keep remembering the story in Luke 12 that Jesus tells of the rich man who built a large barn for all his possessions, believing when it was finished that he was set for life. But Jesus tells us that it was not his fate. He had prepared for a future that wasn’t going to be his.

It feels like that to me right now. In the churches I serve and the diocese where I’m the bishop, we dutifully passed budgets based on projections, we worked on recruiting clergy and maintain the property. We made calculated bets about what was coming and what we needed to do to best serve the community and ensure our future. And today, we look at that and grieve. Because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We didn’t project for a pandemic.

In 2008, while I was Dean of the cathedral in Arizona, the economy there collapsed. Because much of the Arizona economy was based in the housing industry, the mortgage and financial crisis hit Phoenix so hard that, while most of the country was in recession, we were in a depression. I had served churches during recessions, but never during a depression. I wasn’t sure that the same playbook would work. So, I started to ask around. I reached out to the elders of the community and asked them what they knew of the Great Depression, and what had worked and what hadn’t worked.

What they told me was that the people who managed the crisis took each day as it came. Rather than planning for a future that they couldn’t now predict, they did what they could to keep going. They saved where they could, spent when they had to, and supported one another as best they could. As the banks in those days were failing, they discovered that the true wealth they had was in deposited in their relationships with each other. Ever seen the Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”? That’s what they learned. The movie isn’t just a story, it’s the found wisdom of the people who lived through the Great Depression.

I don’t know what shutting down the economy for a few months will mean. I don’t know if it will cause a recession, a depression or what. But I know we didn’t predict it. And I don’t think we have a playbook to follow. So, go back to the wisdom of our elders. Count on the community. Do what we can to keep everyone safe and whole. Those who have enough will need to share with those who don’t – even if it means making themselves vulnerable to chance. Remember the story of the rich man and his barn. Our duty is to Jesus and to his body, to the marginalized and the poor. We will need every resource we have in this moment. Let us remember that in so many other times in our story, God has provided what we lacked.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...