Virus Brings Unlikely Faith Fellows Together

April 23, 2020

Whitney Tilson had come down from his Fifth Avenue apartment to walk the dog when he noticed the trucks. Right there, in Central Park, were stacks of tarps and white tents, all "bearing a name he had never heard of -- Samaritan's Purse." He found out the group was building a field hospital for his fellow New Yorkers and asked if he could help. He hasn't stopped, Yonat Shimron writes, since.

The Tilsons had never heard of Franklin Graham. Whitney says he's never been particularly religious, and his wife, Shimron explains, is Jewish. But in a powerful story of people helping people, none of that matters. For four weeks, the Tilsons and their daughters have been spending hours a day at the field hospital, helping spread mulch, set up barriers, feed the volunteers, and any other job that needs to be done. He's donated shovels, supplies, thousands of dollars of food, coffee, soda, potato chips, and other snacks. "It's an incredibly impressive organization," the retired financial expert tells Yonat. "I have no doubt they are delivering world-class critical care to my fellow New Yorkers stricken with COVID-19. Every single person I've met has been a genuinely nice person and very competent and good at their job."

But not everyone was able to look past their own views to the greater good. When Whitney circulated a request to Central Synagogue, where he and his wife were members, asking for spare boots and socks for the medical team, some people balked. "The values harbored by this group and its founder just completely fly in the face of what Central stands for," one person fumed to an online magazine. But despite the fact that Franklin and Whitney are "polar opposites" politically, he stood his ground. "I'm supporting a hospital that is saving people's lives," Whitney said. "I'm not endorsing [an] ideology..." And then he filled up his car with so much food for the workers that he couldn't see out his rear window.

Franklin was so grateful that he called Whitney and invited the family down to Samaritan's Purse headquarters -- a trip they're eager to make. "He's a great human being," Franklin agreed. "He might disagree with me, and I might disagree with him, but that's not going to stop us from working together to help people."

Near tears on a viral video he taped to Samaritan's Purse, Whitney says, "Everyone's been thanking me," he choked up, "but I want to say, thank you. No one is paying you to help my city in our hour of deep, deep need." New Yorkers, he believes, should be grateful for the group. "Their primary mission in life is not to go out and have hatred toward gays," he said. "They believe what the Bible says, that homosexuality is a sin -- yes. But it is not what drives them. What drives them is, 'How can I do God's work by healing people and saving lives?'"

In Pennsylvania, the virus has brought together even more unlikely partners. Chances are, if you google the words "Catholic Charities" and "Philadelphia," eight of the 10 results will be news stories from their feud over faith-based adoption. For months, the two sides have been duking it out in court over whether the city can force a religious group to stop placing kids in homes because of its views on marriage. The case, which is at the doorstep of the U.S. Supreme Court, has been front-page news on the east coast since last summer.

But now, in a rare show of goodwill, the two sides are working together. In an alliance no one would've thought possible, the city of Philly has teamed up with the archdiocese to make sure every needy family has food and free diapers during the pandemic. So far, more than 100 bags of breakfast supplies and 2,000 diapers have been handed out from one location in the center city. Robert Jones, one of the charities' directors, shakes his head at the messages he's taken on their helpline. "I've had people say, 'I have nothing for my child. I lost my job, and I am so happy I can come and get diapers." In some places, diapers -- like toilet paper -- are nowhere to be found. And they're so expensive, another administrator says, that for a lot of these families, having free diapers mean they have enough money for food.

Whatever grievances the two sides have, Catholic Charities is determined to keep on helping. "We have a longstanding partnership with the city of Philadelphia, and deputy mayor Cynthia Figueroa asked us to assist with this effort, knowing our deep roots in the community." Ultimately, their prayer -- and ours -- is that the city will recognize how much good can be done if work with faith groups, instead of against them. It's their convictions that lead them to open their arms and serve in the first place -- they shouldn't have to give them up just to satisfy some extreme notion of political correctness.

The Christian witness is a powerful thing. In times of hardship and challenge, it can lead people on the opposite sides of a courtroom to the same side in public service. It can draw a family with no evangelical background to work in tent village covered in crosses. The virus brought unimaginable pain, to be sure. But it has also brought opportunity. Seize it. "Let your light shine before others," Matthew 5:16 urges, "so that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."