This year gives Christians an important opportunity to consider and grapple with what it means to be pro-life—to be a full advocate for the sanctity and dignity of human persons—in a politically fraught, death-filled time.

While fixation on social media and national politics has skewed our focus to what happens in Washington, DC, our pro-life convictions direct us to the local work that must be done and expand our moral imagination beyond partisan boxes.

In his book Resisting Throwaway Culture, professor and author Charles C. Camosy writes that our culture and economy tend to reduce “everything—including people—into mere things whose worth consists only in being bought, sold, or used.” In a throwaway culture, exploitation and oppression often become subconscious and systemic. Abortion is an obvious example of this, and Camosy writes that during the pandemic, we have seen how our elderly have been treated in a similar fashion.

Our opposition to throwaway culture should prompt Christians to vote in a way that backs their principles, to give money in support of causes they care about, and to use platforms like Facebook to raise awareness. But we must also, Camosy suggests, go beyond such things, “get our hands dirty, and move ourselves out of our safe spaces to the peripheries where we can encounter the excluded and the marginalized.”

Fighting throwaway culture is impossible when we are at a distance from each other. We will always be tempted to objectify and discard those we only encounter through screens and pixels. True love, empathy, and service happen in real presence: as we see and appreciate the entirety of the complexity and beauty before us and submit ourselves to real, physical needs. Thus, the diverse cries and needs represented by a full “whole-life” cause will also—necessarily—be specific, serving local cries and needs.

True love, empathy, and service happen in real presence.

As the year comes to an end, we could keep fixating on the latest Twitter controversy or cable news headline. We could push into the partisan politics that threaten to break our churches and communities apart. Or we could engage in the sort of loving local action that refuses to fit the political boxes we’ve been given and instead is willing to transcend the brokenness and bitterness of 2020.

The hungry and homeless

This is sure to be a hard winter for many: COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Many have struggled with unemployment and job insecurity, and food insecurity has increased as a result. Vox reports that approximately 4 million more Americans were in poverty by September 2020 than were at the beginning of the year. Families are feeling the mental health strain imposed by the combination of financial, educational, and societal stresses. How can we affirm and protect the sanctity and dignity of human life in such a season?

Throughout spring and summer, a local food provision ministry in my town saw demand for free meals double. In Idaho, where I grew up, food bank distribution services increased 49 percent this year—enough that the Idaho Foodbank spent over $2 million out of pocket to meet demand. Due to COVID-19, Feed the Children estimates that one in four children is food insecure.

Many state and federal programs that provide emergency funds to food assistance programs are coming to an end, and that could have a marked impact on hungry families. Serving our neighbors this winter could involve volunteering with a soup kitchen, food bank, or service like Meals on Wheels. It might also involve being more attentive to our own neighbors, dropping off a meal or offering to pick up groceries.

Homeless shelters are dealing with increased care needs and limited capacities due to COVID-19 regulations and precautions. The homeless are often very susceptible to the virus and likely to have severe symptoms or complications. Many shelters are worried about needs compounding if a polar vortex or other disastrous weather hits.

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But here, too, the church could play a significant role: In Fairfax County, Virginia, houses of worship have traditionally volunteered to serve as overflow sites for the homeless through a local hypothermia prevention program. Due to the virus’s social distancing needs, more shelter space is needed this year—both to provide safe distance, and to also potentially serve as isolation or quarantine sites for those who’ve been exposed to or tested positive for COVID-19.

In an email, Camosy suggested looking for other efforts specifically aimed at helping the economically vulnerable and the homeless through hard winter months: diaper banks, coat drives, heating bill help, meals, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and more. Many care homes currently need help setting up monitors, televisions, and tablets, Camosy said, so that they can better connect with family and friends. Where visits are impossible, letters or care packages might help serve as a source of encouragement.

At-risk women and COVID moms

Domestic violence has increased already during the pandemic, and so it will be all the more important to consider ways to care for at-risk women and children through the winter—by raising awareness in local communities and churches or volunteering at shelters, for instance.

As Camosy recently noted on Jon Ward’s podcast The Long Game, domestic violence and abuse often play a large role in convincing women to get abortions. Donating to local women’s shelters can help them move needy mothers and children into safe housing and help purchase cleaning and medical supplies. Many of these safe spaces will confront the same challenge regarding cleaning regulations and capacity experienced by other shelters through the winter.

According to CareNet CEO Roland Warren, there’s some evidence that abortion clinics saw less traffic during the pandemic, and pregnancy centers (including CareNet affiliates) served a greater number of clients. The greater demand will call for greater support: Warren noted that while there are about 3,000 pregnancy centers throughout the United States, there are over 400,000 churches. Pregnancy centers are always in need of volunteers, material support (such as strollers, diapers, and clothing donations), and financial support.

The added stresses and isolation created by the pandemic, meanwhile, can have a significant impact on mothers—especially new and expectant mothers. Early studies indicate that postpartum depression and anxiety are up this year, as many women receive less postpartum care and community support.

Prior to the pandemic, most women who gave birth without complications would receive approximately 48 hours of postpartum care in the hospital—but some are being discharged as early as 12 to 24 hours after giving birth. The sorts of support networks that traditionally help with baby care, lactation support, and postpartum depression are far more tenuous and fragmented this year—accessible oftentimes virtually, but not in person. Guidelines around physical distancing can add to mothers’ anxiety and depression.

This is the sort of quiet epidemic that might easily impact those closest to us—friends, church members, next-door neighbors. Addressing it, and thus helping fight for the health and wholeness of both mother and child, could be as simple as dropping off groceries or a hot meal, or calling and texting on a regular basis to provide emotional support. Perhaps offering to watch older children outdoors while a new baby sleeps will give a mother some time for quiet and self-care. Those who have experience as midwives, doulas, or lactation consultants can serve their community members by offering free services or advice to those who may not be able to afford help otherwise.

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The list of potential needs goes on—how are the health care providers, nurses, and doctors in our neighborhoods faring? Could they benefit from a grocery delivery service, some free meals, or a phone call? Blood donations are desperately needed at present, and that need will likely continue for months to come.

A call to local civic action can’t answer important questions regarding abortion policy. But it can bolster the pro-life, whole-life witness.

Shouldering the volunteer ‘burden’

Like the elderly and the unborn, prisoners are part of that vulnerable group of Americans who are often most hurt by our “throwaway culture.” Their demands for dignity and love are often inconvenient to our own comfort, and their mistreatment is deeply baked into our institutions. Incarcerated people are five times more likely than the general public to contract COVID-19. Local prison ministries can offer tangible ideas for supporting and praying for the incarcerated, as well as volunteer opportunities.

These needs are especially important for young Christians to consider. The elderly are often most willing to step up to the plate and volunteer in their local communities—but they are also at the greatest risk of infection and serious illness due to COVID-19.

At one of the most involved local Christian ministries in my community, I would estimate that about three-quarters of the volunteers are elderly. But this year, many of those older Christians have had to be more cautious. Others had to step up to fill their shoes and protect their health. Sure, adults between the ages of 20 and 50 may still have children living at home, full-time jobs, college classes, and other commitments. But surely some of us can relieve the burden of care that often rests on the shoulders of our elders in this season. Someone needs to.

A call to local civic action, love, and empathy can’t answer important questions regarding national abortion policy or health care laws. But it can bolster and grow the pro-life, whole-life witness. It can show non-Christian and Christian alike that we mean what we say—no matter who becomes president, no matter what unexpected crises rock our country.

“There is political power,” Warren noted in an email. “There is cultural power. And then there is Jesus’ power, and no one can take that away from us. The current environment gives Christians an enormous opportunity to show Christ’s love and compassion.”

As Christians, we are called to attentiveness: to a life in which we are members, beholden to and servants of each other. This is not a state of isolation, but one of radical integration. Thus, no matter how much we might like to, we cannot “tune out” amid the fractious discord of this year. The important question, of course, becomes what we will choose to tune into.

The hymnodist Robert Robertson suggests in the lyrics of “Come Thou Fount” that we ought to “tune our hearts” to give God praise. And the words that have rung in my ears this year, as I have thought about what that tuning might require, are these:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? …

If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isa. 58:6–10)

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We live in a perilous time, in a broken world. But the hungry still need food. The elderly and immunocompromised still need support. The imprisoned still need care. Tuning, a musician might tell you, is a form of stretching, as the instrument’s strings are wound tight to the proper tone. It can be painful, or at least uncomfortable. But we were never promised an easy path, nor a “safe” Savior.

Rather, we are called to follow in the footsteps a wounded healer who laid down his life for his enemies to care for the ones who demeaned and mistreated him. This is the glorious gospel, the radical love, that we need at the end of 2020. May God give us the grace and strength to proclaim it.

Gracy Olmstead is a journalist whose writing has appeared in The American Conservative, The Week, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others. Her book Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We’ve Left Behind will be released on March 16, 2021.