By Breana van Velzen
Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a cult classic — one that I can quote nearly verbatim. If only my Scriptural memory were as sound. No matter how many times I re-read Adams’s novel, I always pause at:
“It is said that despite its many glaring (and occasionally fatal) inaccuracies, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself has outsold the Encyclopedia Galactica because it is slightly cheaper, and because it has the words ‘DON’T PANIC’ in large, friendly letters on the cover.”
I cannot count the amount of times I wished the Bible had “DON’T PANIC” written in bold letters on the cover. “Be not afraid” when an angel of the Lord appears. Be not afraid when kingdoms come crashing down and families are ripped apart by war. Be not afraid, Mary, when God includes you in the plan for God’s incarnation. There are so many, many reasons to be afraid. How comforting is it to hear that it will be okay, that I do not need to fear? The back and forth of fresh fear or panic and learning not to fear but to look toward the future with determination and hope has become the rhythm of my life and ministry.
I work with people experiencing homelessness almost every day, and within a week of the appointment of Secretary Ben Carson to HUD, the city in which I live experienced a housing resource shortage. Local nonprofits cannot calculate their next year’s budgets and were not sure they would be able to continue services at their current level in the community. There are hundreds of men, women and children in my city who experience homelessness, nearly a hundred of whom sleep every night on the streets. A longtime activist and city leader leaned conspiratorially over a café table after one meeting and said, “Don’t worry. We have been through worse. Is this going to stop you? Me neither.”
He was telling me not to be afraid. That I should be determined. I should look forward in faith and hope.
The Bible calls us in Isaiah 58
“to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Don’t panic. Not only are there shelters for the homeless and food pantries for the hungry, there are communities cropping up all over the U.S. that are ending homelessness through radical means with tiny homes, apartments, intensive case management, and loving, intentional care. There are urban farms, community gardens, backpack programs and new initiatives slowing chipping away at the hunger in the U.S. There is the Rolling Jubilee and churches working to end predatory lending and buying others’ debt, then canceling it. These actions are not charity but justice. They are actions that are righting the wrong and making straight the crooked paths. These are communities saying no to systems of oppression and yes to God.
Don’t panic. When local mosques were threatened and refugees told they were not welcome, my community made a circle of safety for our Muslim neighbors and marched in support of refugees. Businesses are actively supporting refugees. Local churches in my city are training to become sanctuaries and how to best stand in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters. We are called to welcome the stranger.
There are so many examples of our fellow Christians living out the witness of the gospels, often quietly, and often in the wake of “it’ll be okay. Don’t panic.” We should be concerned. We should act. But we should do so with clear intentions, careful thought, and a deep, deep hope. Amen.
Breana van Velzen is an M.Div/MSW student at the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School and the UNC School of Social Work. She is currently a CBFNC Leadership Intern on the CBFNC Divinity Student Task Force and resides in Durham, N.C.
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