“Racism is a public health issue.”

Rev. Ruth Strand, who serves as the spiritual care director of Jericho Road Community Health Center in Buffalo, New York, has seen the reality of this comment in the wake of COVID-19.

Ruth and her husband, Steve, also an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church, moved to Buffalo, New York, in 2014, following years in pastoral ministry in North America as well as missionary work in Central America with Global Partners.

“Part of our hearts and part of what is deeply rooted in us, is a love of connecting with people of other cultures,” Ruth said. And Buffalo is a city of great diversity, as over 50 percent of the population is African-American, Latinx, Asian and African.

Strands’ field of service in Buffalo is centered around Urban Advocacy, a Western New York District effort designed to “build bridges between primarily suburban and rural churches with needs of the city.” They have both also found themselves engaged in ministries that directly serve the needs of those living in the city: Ruth, with her work with Jericho Road Community Health Center, and Steve, who is committed to offering higher education to some who otherwise might not have that opportunity, including recent immigrants and the formerly incarcerated.

“Steve and Ruth pastored a church in the district, but sensed God leading them to a different type of ministry,” said Rev. Joey Jennings, district superintendent of the Western New York District. “Their cross-cultural experience with Global Partners made them perfect to help us expand our ministry in the urban areas of our district. They help to bridge the cultural gap between urban churches with great diversity and our rural suburban churches.”

The Strands’ work has included collaboration with long-standing urban ministries and a new church plant in 2015 to serve those from Africa who were newcomers to Buffalo.

In response to COVID-19, Jericho Road, which is committed to providing “wholistic healthcare for the underserved and marginalized communities in Buffalo and across the world,” has initiated “#nobarriers.”

Jericho Road’s “#nobarriers” has taken COVID-19 testing out of the clinics and into the community, where there is the highest incidence of COVID-19.

Ruth said, “’#nobarriers’ means you don’t have to be a patient of Jericho Road. There’s no cost to you, no appointment necessary. You don’t have to have insurance; you don’t even have to have an ID. We just have to have a way to call you to let you know what your testing results are, but this is a part of the justice commitment of Jericho Road that everyone has a right to quality health care. Everyone needs to have access to that.”

Ruth reported that the COVID-19 testing results in the Buffalo communities they serve speak volumes about the need for access to quality health care among people of color, with a 15-percent positive test rate in the African American community, a 35-percent positive test rate in the Asian community and a 5-percent positive test rate for the white community.

“I think we, as white Christians, can think about stepping up to support and looking for organizations and agencies that pour into and are present in places where people are marginalized — whether it’s a health community or a church, or a school, an after-school program, whatever it might be — to think about sharing our resources there,” Ruth said. “Whether it’s volunteering or financial resources or prayer or whatever we might be able to offer – this is a prime opportunity to show solidarity in listening and in conversation and involving ourselves in those spaces.”

As tensions across the nation continue to rise not only from COVID-19 but following the killing of George Floyd, Ruth and Steve are becoming increasingly aware of the fear and uncertainty mounting in the Buffalo community – many of whom are not only people of color from the United States but also refugees.

“As things have come uncovered through COVID-19 and the most recent murder of George Floyd, and as communities have come together to lament the deaths of so many people due to the pandemic and due to violence against people of color, it has awakened in me, in a way I have never felt before, a call to seek racial justice,” Ruth said. “This is a new thing that God is doing in me to pull back layers of my own understanding of myself and what God is calling me to be as a follower of Jesus at this time as our world is awakening in a new way to the injustices that have been around us for generations.”

For many years, Buffalo was receiving one-third of all the refugees in New York State, with a large influx occurring between 2006-2008, representing refugees from Burma, Bhutan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, South Sudan and others. And though the number of refugees being accepted into Buffalo has since slowed, the fear is still very real in many.

“This fear also extends to the new-comer community, people who’ve come maybe from Africa more recently, who are now fearing, ‘I have been through difficulty and even danger to get to this country. What have I gotten myself into?’” Steve said. “Some of these people have COVID-19. Some are asking the question, ‘What is it going to be like for my children to grow up here?’”

But Ruth and Steve are encouraged by The Wesleyan Church’s statement on racial reconciliation* and its foundation in the abolition movement and where that can propel Wesleyan thought and influence today.

“Since choosing to seek ordination in The Wesleyan Church, I have been compelled by our roots of commitment to the cause of the abolition of slavery and an active care for those who are marginalized,” Ruth said. “So, we have this in our bones; it’s in our roots to be advocates for justice and for love and for compassionate ministry to all people. And I believe this is an opportunity for The Wesleyan Church to rethink, reimagine who we are. As we remember where we come from, now is the time to ask God, ‘Where are you calling us to at this time?’ both individually and collectively as a denomination.

“Racism is not of the kingdom of God, and we as Jesus followers are longing for that kingdom and want to help bring that kingdom in. And I think, until we take a closer look at the racism that may be within us individually and corporately, God’s kingdom cannot come on earth as it is in heaven.”

For more information about Jericho Road, visit its website.

*The Wesleyan Church’s statement on racial reconciliation is currently in the revision process. 

Pictured: early morning at community testing site by Daryl Boss