A Pastoral Letter to the Clergy and People of
the Diocese of Newark
and the Diocese of New Jersey
From The Right Reverend Carlye J. Hughes, Bishop of Newark
and The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, Bishop of New Jersey
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
With our church members and citizens, we grieve the death, destruction and devastation the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking on so many. This is a worldwide catastrophe ravaging countries and people around the globe. It has affected us all. New Jersey has been especially hard hit.
Our first response as church was propelled by love of neighbor to act quickly to be safe. Motivated by the immeasurable love God has given to us, we ceased public worship, suspended in person meetings, and found new ways to minister. This action has impacted every facet of who we are as church. The unexpected and immediate result has been a deepening of faith and an expanded love for each other and our neighbors.
It is this love that makes it impossible to keep our eyes focused on the internal workings of our church community. Yes, we are church in our homes with online worship. As importantly, we are church responding to the new and extraordinary needs of our neighbors. We cannot help but see, know, and love the thousands of essential workers that continue to risk their health and the health of their families to meet the needs of the entire state. As your bishops we are convinced we must pay close attention those bearing extraordinary burdens of this virus by virtue of their race, work, or status.
At the time of this writing, more than 1.2 million persons in the United States have been diagnosed COVID-19 positive. More than 72,000 Americans have died from the disease. The toll is certain to become much higher as there is currently not a vaccine to prevent persons from contracting the disease, nor any proven therapeutic treatment for those who become critically ill, nor adequate testing capacity to support control of the further spread of COVID-19. With the faithful around the world, we lament the high numbers of casualties as well as the economic hardship, endemic fear and anxiety so many are experiencing in the face of this pandemic. We cry out for God’s merciful intervention and healing love. We also laud those heroes on the frontlines battling this disease and providing essential services to so many. In risking their safety and well-being for the sake of others they exemplify the highest values of human and Christian love.
We appreciate the strong leadership of Governor Phil Murphy on behalf of all citizens in New Jersey. He has shown deep concern for New Jersey’s workers. We urge him to go further. Recognizing the perils and risks New Jersey’s essential workers are taking on behalf of all of us every day in order for society to continue to function, we join with those calling on the Governor to sign an Executive Order providing Pandemic Protections for Essential Workers.
It is inarguable that much of the damage and destruction of the Novel Coronavirus is the result of a capricious force of nature beyond human control and culpability. However, it must also be recognized and acknowledged that, as with previous national and health disasters, there is indisputable evidence that this disaster has exacted greater human costs and a higher death rate on Black and Brown persons in the United States than on the predominant White culture.
In New Jersey, as of May 6, 2020, there are more than 131,000 persons who are sick from COVID-19. More than 8,500 have died from the disease. Current data, which is incomplete, indicates that approximately 20% of COVID-19 deaths in the State of New Jersey have been among Black persons even though Black persons make up only 15% of the state’s population. In fact, Black residents of New Jersey are more at risk from dying from COVID-19 than any other racial group. Tragically, this pattern of highly disproportionate Black and Brown deaths is prevalent in other parts of the country as well including in New York, Louisiana, Michigan and other states, in several cases exceeding the high disparity rate in New Jersey.
This predictable pattern is the tragic result of deeply entrenched systemic and structural injustices, especially the injustice of systemic racism, that have plagued this nation since its inception. On-going, long term, often deliberate policies in our nation and in the State of New Jersey targeting persons of color have resulted in huge racial inequalities and disparities across major areas: education, housing, economic opportunity, net wealth and income. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the effects of all of these. We commend Governor Murphy for signing a law requiring the documentation of all racial data for all COVID-19 cases in New Jersey. In order to address the problem, we need to know the full extent of the disparities.
Dr. Lisa A. Cooper, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Director of the Johns Hopkins School for Health Equity has observed:
“Existing racial disparities in the rates of chronic medical conditions increase the risk among ethnic minorities for serious complications of the novel coronavirus and resulting higher death rates. Additionally, the observed disparities in how the disease affects racial/ethnic minority populations highlight inequities in socio-economic status, living conditions, and access to care in the U.S. Because many racial and ethnic minority persons live in poverty, they are experiencing this pandemic in a different way. For example, they may rely on public transit if they cannot afford a car, need to shop more frequently for basic necessities since they cannot afford to stockpile goods, and do not have health insurance or access to regular medical care. Social distancing may not be a convenient or realistic option for many, because they may live in small, multi-family apartments or homes. Ethnic minorities are also more likely to be exposed to infection while working, due to their overrepresentation in essential jobs in transportation, government, health care, and food supply services, and in low wage or temporary jobs that may not allow telework or provide paid sick leave” (See Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine “Racial Data Transparency”).
The evil of mass incarceration, which predates the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and which has been a glaring instance of systemic racism in our culture, is compounded by the disease. New Jersey has among the highest incarceration rates in the nation and also among the highest levels of racial disparity of those incarcerated. Unjust sentencing requirements and unsafe conditions in our nation’s jails and prisons, including those in New Jersey, make incarcerated persons, as well as those who guard them or otherwise work in prisons, “sitting ducks” for the COVID-19 virus. As of May 1, 2020, The New Jersey Department of Corrections confirmed that they had performed COVID-19 tests on 220 inmates in the system. 175 inmates tested positive, 28 negative and 17 test results were pending. NJDOC has reported the deaths of 30 inmates from COVID-19. As of May 1, 2020, 549 New Jersey Department of Corrections employees had tested positive for COVID-19. While the New Jersey Department of Corrections and Rutgers University Correctional Healthcare have entered into a partnership to engage in universal COVID-19 testing of the prison population, we are concerned this action is too little too late.
As the per capita number of incarcerated Black and Brown persons is significantly disproportionate to the number of White persons (despite the fact that, in many instances, Black and Brown persons do not commit crimes at a higher rate), the ravages of COVID-19 in our prisons is again being visited upon them at asymmetric levels. There is broad agreement that Government casualty estimates have underestimated the impact of COVID-19 on the prison population and its support personnel and that more than 23,000 could be added to the number of deaths as a result. New Jersey has approximately 16,000 adults and youth in its prisons. While Governor Murphy did act to allow 700 people to leave County Jails temporarily, he has not acted aggressively to address the risk posed to the majority of the prison population. Again, as of May 1, 2020, only 220 of the 16,000 inmates had been tested for COVID-19. While newly initiated congregate housing for staff will serve to further safeguard Department of Correction staff members, and we fully support this, we remain concerned about the vulnerability of inmates across the system.
We join with those nationwide who advocate that steps impacting the criminal justice system and especially our nation’s prisons, including those in the State of New Jersey, be taken immediately. Among these are:
- Stopping or severely curbing the arrest and incarceration rate of persons for low-level offenses;
- Releasing those in prison who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to age or health conditions and who statistically represent a low risk of recidivism.
This crisis has placed into sharp relief the absolute need for an overhaul of our criminal justice system and the need to refocus our efforts on rehabilitation and not retribution. We urge the people of our two dioceses to contact our Governor and State Officials and urge them to support these life-saving steps. As the American Civil Liberties Union observes:
The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country on earth, with four percent of the world’s total population and 21 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Further, reforming our incarceration and policing system would go a long way toward reducing inequalities and systemic harm faced by communities of color, who were already over-policed and overrepresented in jails and prisons to begin with.
We feel compelled to express our anguish at the treatment of immigrants, during this crisis. Though they often serve as a backstop for our economy, performing labor in low-wage jobs, undocumented persons do not qualify for most of the emergency aid offered to families in need under The CARES Act including stimulus payments and paid leave programs. We agree with Rushad Thomas of The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, that, “As Congress passes legislation providing paid sick leave and family and medical leave, lawmakers should also extend these protections to both undocumented and documented immigrants.”
As with the wider prison population, detention of undocumented persons who face removal poses significant health risks to immigrants. The Trump Administration has been aggressive in targeting the immigrant population. Among other policy decisions, the administration changed the so-called “Public Charge” rule, which allows the government to exclude immigrants it fears will place a “burden” on cash assistance programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). The new rule places previously excluded non-cash programs, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) under the rule. The Migration Policy Institute estimates this could place more than half the non-citizen immigrant population at risk of public charge determination. The previous figure was 3%.
Rushad Thomas has observed:
Undocumented immigrants cannot access most means-tested public benefits, including Medicaid. Additionally, millions of undocumented individuals work in jobs that do not provide health insurance, which means if they get sick they are far less likely to seek treatment. Recently implemented policies, such as the Public Charge rule, also discourage documented immigrants from accessing health, housing, and nutrition benefits that could help lessen the blow of these challenging times. The same is true for undocumented individuals who may have U.S. citizen children who qualify for benefits. The administration recently announced that testing for coronavirus will not count against immigrants under the Public Charge rule. We applaud that announcement. At the same time, we remain concerned that the Public Charge rule will have negative impacts on people’s health and well-being (See “Immigrants and COVID-19”).
We feel strongly that the Public Charge Rule, which the Supreme Court upheld on April 24, 2020, is both draconian and cruel and should not be implemented.
The Administration’s decision to close United States’ borders and block all asylum seekers from entry into the country is brutal and contradicts international law, which prohibits the United States from suspending the right of persons to be protected from forcible return to life-threatening circumstances and conditions which have become increasingly more perilous during the current pandemic. There are humane alternatives.
Most persons seeking asylum in the United States have connections to family or friends in this country. Faith-based organizations such as Episcopal Migration Ministries and other agencies are available and willing to assist asylum seekers by providing different forms of support, among them legal support, permitted them under United States and international law. We concur with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Migration which, in a letter to the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, expressed “concern for the health and welfare of vulnerable migrating populations: most notably detained immigrants and unaccompanied children in the context of COVID-19,” and urged “the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its components to continue to honor obligations under U.S. law to allow vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied children to access protection in the United States while simultaneously following best health practices so that immigrants may not become exposed to COVID-19.” We absolutely oppose any immigration policy that includes family separation. We also believe that only persons with records of violence should be held in detention on immigration charges by Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection. The privatization of the Prison Industrial Complex is immoral, incentivizing, as it does, imprisoning persons for profit. The imprisonment and detention of persons for the commission of crimes should be the sad chore of the state, not the profitable activity of the entrepreneur. In the midst of a pandemic these life and death issues demand of Christians and all people a compassionate, humane response.
Lastly, the President and the Congress have not resolved the DACA crisis. New Jersey is home to more than 16,000 DACA recipients. More than 5,000 of these persons are deemed “essential workers” and are among the nurses, EMTs and other “heroes” performing life-saving work during this COVID-19 crisis. Again, we commend Governor Murphy for his advocacy of New Jersey’s Dreamers and for writing to the Acting-Secretary of Homeland Security to request that DACA applications be automatically renewed during the time of this crisis. Still this is not sufficient.
These Dreamers, brought to the United States as children by their parents, live with a terrifying possibility that they could be forcibly removed from this country. A Supreme Court decision on the Trump Administration’s order to rescind the Obama-era program is imminent. Many are concerned the court will decide in the Administration’s favor. This would leave some 800,000 Dreamers in a perilous state. It is time for us all to insist that the Congress and the President act definitively on their behalf in this matter. Dreamers are members of our churches, they are our neighbors, as are all those we have spoken of in this Pastoral Letter. As such, we are commanded to love them. The 77th General Convention of The Episcopal Church was unequivocal, passing Resolution 2012- D067 which called for “the passing of federal legislation that presents a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth and young adults.” We urge our church’s members to use the Office of Government Relation’s Action Alert process to contact members of Congress and urge the passage of legislation to protect these Dreamers.
The Coronavirus pandemic is a threat to human beings but, as is so often the case with crises, it is an opportunity as well. This pandemic affords us a chance to discover our deeper humanity and invites us to live into Christ’s most urgent command: “Love one another” (John 13:34). Our Office of Government Relations, through Action Alerts on the Episcopal Public Policy Network, provides us with meaningful ways by which we can take action and speak as one with our elected federal leaders about these and other vital justice issues, including COVID-19 related matters.
On April 27, during a daily Coronavirus Press briefing, Governor Murphy shared his plan for life in New Jersey following the pandemic emergency titled “The Road Back: Restoring Economic Health Through Public Health.” The Governor spoke of the need for a new “resiliency” in New Jersey and said, “We have learned valuable lessons that we would be foolish to ignore, insuring New Jersey’s resiliency. That no one will be left unprotected because of racial or socio-economic status must be a part of our response to this outbreak.” We agree fully with the Governor and support this goal. We are also mindful that in the long and painful history of our country, we have failed to do this too many times and that accomplishing this will take great determination and discipline.
The late great Jewish biblical scholar and activist, Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, “A person cannot be religious and be indifferent to other human beings’ plight and suffering.” Our identity as followers of Jesus Christ and the commitments of our baptismal promises make clear that we cannot be indifferent to the plight and suffering of those who have been most victimized by this pandemic and especially those who have been doubly victimized because of our historic legacy of racism and injustice. In the midst of this crisis with all of its suffering and grief we must renew our commitment to love and act for justice and with compassion.
Now is the time for all of us to act. Silence is inevitably heard as tacit approval. Over fifty years ago the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by bad people but the silence over that by the good people.” Our voices are needed by those bearing a greater burden of work, sickness, and death in this health crisis. These are our neighbors too; we cannot remain silent.
In our households, small groups, online coffee hours, prayer groups, and churches we must ask again and again, “How are we to help?” And then we must start taking action. You have our support, we stand ready to join with you, and we believe our collective love of God and neighbor can change the world and ease the burden carried by some in our community.
Please know that we hold you, the beloved people of our two dioceses, in our hearts and prayers.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Bishop of Newark
Bishop of New Jersey
 According to Dr. Ashley Nellis, “Harsh drug laws are clearly an important factor in the persistent racial and ethnic disparities observed in state prisons. For drug crimes disparities are especially severe, due largely to the fact that blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession. This is despite the evidence that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate. From 1995 to 2005, African Americans comprised approximately 13 percent of drug users but 36% of drug arrests and 46% of those convicted for drug offenses.” (Nellis, Ashley, Ph.D. “The Color of justice: Racial and Ethnic Disparity in State Prisons” June 14, 2016 – see “The Sentencing Project” website at sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-and-ethnic-disparity-in-state-prisons