Thursday, March 12, 2020

Being the Church during the COVID-19 Pandemic

You know that scene in "The Sound of Music" where the Von Trapp family sings their farewell at the Salzburg Music Festival? Everyone is emotional at the thought of how WWII is changing everything. People are leaving who should not have to leave. Everyone is uneasy.

Chapel this morning felt like that.

No, we had no armed guards at the exits, but one student after another stopped at the hand sanitizer station and entered the room lathering their hands. Greetings were awkward as we all tried to be friendly without shaking hands or hugging. Our main speaker was piped in on video, rather than risking exposure, since he'd been traveling in affected areas. All these are silent reminders of how in one week, we have all become much more aware. Aware of germs. Aware of the real possibility that meeting together is a luxury we may have to relinquish.

We're in the middle of our Global Connections Conference (GCC) at Prairie College. Our theme this year is NOW. HERE. THIS.

It's hard to imagine a more pressing world concern at this moment than COVID-19. Friends of mine at institutions across the United States are scrambling to move classes online while grieving the loss of embodied community for the rest of the semester. Conferences, classes, services, athletic competitions, concerts, lectures, class trips -- all cancelled for friends south of the border. And while Canadians are good about taking everything in stride and no one in our community is freaking out, there is a growing sense that even out here on the prairies we, too, will be affected. Soon. As I write this, our contingency team is meeting.

Singer/Songwriter Steve Bell at Prairie College's Global Connections Conference 2020

Our morning speaker was singer/songwriter Steve Bell. His stories were balm to anxious souls. His vulnerability made space for our own grief. And he closed with a song based on the words of Teresa of Avila, "Christ has no body here but ours."

Steve told the baffling story of the rapid spread of Christianity in 150 CE. This backwater sect following a crucified leader should not have captured the hearts of the Roman empire, but it did. Why? A plague. Citing the work of sociologist and historian Rodney Stark, Bell told us how early Christians embraced the news that "God so loved the world," and that this news should have sounded ridiculous. In the Roman world, "gods don't love, they are users," he said. In that day, worship was the equivalent of someone in a cage with a hungry lion desperately saying, "Nice kitty!" People didn't worship their gods out of love or in response to love, but in order to placate them. In contrast, Christians really believed that God loves people. And they knew that love is our way to God because God is love (he picked up this sentence from a sermon by David Witticum, who got it from Augustine).

So, in the face of the plague, when everyone else fled, Christians stayed. They knew they must love what God loves. They loved radically, at risk to their own lives. Steve's closing words to us felt like the farewell of the Von Trapp family. There was a palpable sense that today could be our last meeting as a community for quite some time--that everything was about to change. (Note: I have no official word on this. It just seems inevitable, given how many other schools have closed their doors.)

The risk of death appears to be much lower with the Coronavirus than it was with the plague of 150 CE. Still, the risk is real for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. We will know people who die from this. Current estimates hover around a 4-5% death rate. How can we love well in this strange new world?

We may not personally feel at risk, but there are people in our circles who are. Taking precautions protects them, too. It's not a matter of fear, but of love. If you don't like people telling you what you CAN'T do, here's a list of what we CAN do:
  • We can wash our hands more thoroughly and more often. 
  • We can minimize human-to-human contact.
  • We can regularly disinfect door handles, light switches, and hard surfaces, even if it's not in our job description.
  • We can cancel or postpone unnecessary meetings.
  • We can think creatively about how to be the church even when we can't meet in person.
  • We can think creatively about how to teach online.
  • We can refrain from stockpiling resources that everyone needs, such as toilet paper.
  • We can offer to pick up groceries for friends who aren't safe to go out.
  • We can offer to pray over the phone with those feeling anxious.
  • We can text and email to check on people we would normally encourage in person.
  • We can curtail all unnecessary travel and take a hard look at what seems necessary.
  • We can pray for stamina for health care workers and let them have the masks.
  • We can pray for wisdom for civic and community leaders who are making difficult decisions.
  • Above all, we can STAY HOME if we have a fever or cough.
A pastor friend posted on Facebook that all meetings of more than 250 people in the state of Washington were strictly prohibited, including churches, for the time being (Oregon made a similar announcement today, and so did Alberta, just a few moments ago). Someone responded angrily, implying that this is a breech of first amendment rights--the right to congregate. He seemed to feel this was a form of persecution. Please hear me: This is not religious persecution and it's not unbridled fear. Quarantine is a form of love. Experts are telling us this is the best way to stop the spread and protect the vulnerable in our communities, and that we need to act fast to have the highest success rate. So for the love of God and the love of your neighbor, stay home. 

Maybe COVID-19 will re-teach us what we have forgotten--that we are made for embodied community. As wonderful as social media is, it can never replace a handshake or a hug. And as inspiring as online sermons can be, they cannot replicate the taste of bread and wine or deep-throated song in community. This quarantine won't last forever. Hopefully it will be just long enough to help us more deeply appreciate that we were made for each other and that we can't be fully ourselves in isolation. See you on the other side!