The pandemic rages. Crucial measures – from diligent handwashing to quarantining to social distancing and sheltering in place – are being implemented in the United States and throughout the world. In my case, social distancing is nothing new. Since a kidney transplant four months ago, I have been confined.
With few exceptions, I have not been out of my house – no shopping, no socializing with friends, and, most troubling, no participation in worship, Bible study or other community gatherings at my church.
I have already experienced more than my share of social distancing. Now, the novel coronavirus pandemic brings an isolation that feels a bit like exile and a lot like aloneness. I feel the aloneness every day, because what gives me life is community.
The raw data of this global epidemic changes every day – indeed, every hour. As of March 19, reports indicate that more than 8,300 people in the United States have tested positive for the coronavirus, with confirmed cases in every state, Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories. At least 450 patients with the virus have died in the U.S.
The statistics of pandemic are human and very personal to families and friends of those who have contracted the illness. That includes the family of Grace Fusco in New Jersey.
I learned that Grace squeezed into the same pew at church every Sunday with about a dozen members of her family. At Sunday dinners in her home, even more family gathered. This week, however, the Fusco family became a community of mourning. On Wednesday night Grace died of complications from the coronavirus. Just hours before, the virus took the lives of her son and her daughter.
“How can we continue to experience the comforting gift of community when we must keep social distance?”
Gravely ill and unable to breathe without a ventilator, Grace never knew that her two oldest children had died and now a third. Three of Grace’s children remain hospitalized in critical condition. Twenty other Fusco relatives are quarantined in their homes, praying in solitude, unable to mourn together in the community of their family and unable to mourn their deep, collective loss within the comfort and care of their church family, as had been their custom.
Worship services at my church are cancelled indefinitely. Our custodians prepared the buildings for a long-term hiatus. The staff readied the church for its closed status, checking all the equipment, unplugging whatever needed to be unplugged and securing the locks on every door before they left. It’s still difficult to fathom: My church is closed!
Or so it seems.
It’s not only my church, of course. Thousands of congregations in this country and around the world have suspended worship services. Church members will not worship, or discuss the scripture in small groups. They will not pass the peace, rock babies in the nursery or share communion. They will not pray the Lord’s Prayer in unison, sing the Doxology together, or bear one another’s burdens – at least as a community of believers gathered in a physical space.
I was taken aback by my response to our cancelled worship service and other activities. I experienced an immediate sense of grief and loss at the thought of temporarily broken community. I felt this keenly, even though my sense of community has been broken – or at least disrupted – during more than four months of quarantine. Potent immunosuppressant drugs have done what they are supposed to do, destroying my immune system so that my body won’t attack and reject my new kidney.
Now, with isolation measures implemented all over the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have millions of kindred spirits also living in isolation.
For many of those in voluntary or imposed isolation, it must feel like a loss of community. The broken community I have felt in the months following my transplant is now the experience of millions of people.
Community can be experienced in multiple ways, but a common definition is “a way to not be or feel alone.” Simple, right? I find, though, that defining community is not so simple. It is a way of being for so many people of faith. It is a word that raises deep emotions in the heart. The thought of “community” resonates in the soul as a sweet spiritual kinship that many of us need and cherish.
The critical question for this moment in history is: How can community happen in the midst of a social distancing pandemic?
One answer: We can rise above the anxiety, fear and panic when we remember that we are still part of a community. Worshipping alongside others in churches, synagogues, mosques, meeting houses and other brick-and-mortar structures is just one expression of faith. People of faith know that beyond public worship, there is caring for the sick, befriending the lonely, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, serving the elderly, protecting the children, visiting those who are incarcerated – helping the most vulnerable among us.
I am one of the “most vulnerable” ones because I have no immune system. But what about others among us who are now part of the most vulnerable category? How will this pandemic affect them and for how long? I anticipated that after my transplant I would be isolated from people for a time, but I never considered what four long months of isolation would be like.
Beyond that, I think about how many more months I might be separated from my faith community. Many people currently in isolation are most certainly asking as the Psalmist asked, “How long?”
There are other questions as well: How do we handle widespread fear and panic? How can we raise our voices and reach out our hands to advocate for those most in need of help? How can we continue to experience the comforting gift of community when we must keep social distance?
United Methodist minister Susan Henry-Crowe poses one of the questions all people of faith should be asking:
“This moment of uncertainty tests our bonds as a community. I think of low-wage workers who can’t afford to lose a paycheck or the elderly who are more susceptible to the virus. What does it look like in this moment to stand in solidarity with them?”
Until now, I have not heard anyone ask the question: How can we be a community of faith while practicing social distancing? It is a timely and legitimate question that goes directly to our cherished worship practices of hugging, shaking hands or holding hands, putting an arm around someone, sharing a communion cup.
Congregation. Communion. Community. Maybe what people of faith long for more than anything else is being sheltered in the love of a community. Even as we feel the loss of shuttered church doors, we also know that community goes far beyond participating in services of worship.
“In the midst of this frightening pandemic, our ever-present God ‘will do the most God can do,’ as God always does.”
Community is caring for the sick, and in these days, it is about enacting practices that prevent people from getting sick in the first place. Community is childcare assistance and food support for families, and in these days, it’s about finding ways to keep families from being ensnared in cycles of poverty. Community is providing meals to elderly or sick people confined to their homes, and in these days, it is about creating long-term systems of care that meet the needs of the most vulnerable among us.
I became a part of “the most vulnerable” in 2014 when we heard my diagnosis of end-stage kidney disease. Sixty days of hospitalization was followed by a full year of incapacity. During month after month of sickness, loneliness and fear, my former church found ways to bless me with the gift of community.
They set up a system, including a calendar where people signed up to bring food for an entire week of meals. And they did it for a year! But what my beloved community did for me – through dozens of caring individuals – was much more than bringing a nice meal each week with a “get well soon” card or a bouquet of flowers. Their care each day came with the message, “We are here for you for as long as you need us.”
They graced me with the embodied love of Christ. They blessed me with a sense of belonging. And they helped me heal – physically, emotionally and spiritually – by restoring me to community in creative ways.
Community is what my current church does too, even when its doors are temporarily closed. Community is what my church does as members hold tightly to faith through good times and through times of crisis – including a pandemic that has made our Lenten observance even more real and stark, reminding us amid the turbulence how very deeply we crave community.
Community is what my church does. And, just maybe, all the creative ways my church creates community will sustain me through my distressing time of immunosuppression and its forced isolation.
Community is often how we find God. We see God’s face in the face of another person and experience acts of love in community. When faith communities listen to someone pour out their worries, they become God’s ears, listening. When faith communities reach out their hands with a caring touch or offer an embrace, they become God’s hands, soothing. When faith communities take food from their pantries to people in need, they become God’s feet, delivering relief and sustenance. And when faith communities offer compassion to those who sorrow, they become God’s presence, comforting.
“Maybe what people of faith long for more than anything else is being sheltered in the love of a community.”
Today, my church’s facilities are closed, empty. I was feeling very sad about that when I received an unexpected gift via email – a meditation for worship from my church and suggestions on how I might use it. It was a worship guide complete with suggestions for prayer and meditation, clickable links to hymns and our pastor’s recorded meditation. I used it to worship alone.
Or not alone.
While it is true that worship services have been cancelled, perhaps for months, acts of community have not been cancelled. Church members are caring for one another and for others who are suffering because of the coronavirus and its long and far-reaching effects. My church is caring for me as I cope with the isolation, anxiety, spiritual dismay, physical discomfort, fear, peril and uncertainty of life after a kidney transplant. They will do it for however long it takes. Their care will continue to be a healing balm to me.
My health crisis was sudden and unexpected. Kidney failure caught me off-guard, intruding on my life in so many ways, upending my plans and shattering some of my dreams. The crisis so many people are facing in these days has also come unexpectedly through the encroaching and frightening presence of this new virus.
It will serve the Church well to remember and take to heart the ennobling words of the Prophet Isaiah, “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” (Isaiah 58:10, ESV). During the worst times of my kidney disease journey, the times when I really needed light to shine in my darkness, I often remembered the real and true words of my theology professor, Frank Tupper, who died only a few weeks ago. I remember the first time he told us in class that the core of his theology and his life was that “In every specific historical context with its possibilities and limitations, God always does the most God can do.”
The “most God can do” is what God does through the hands of God’s people, through sacred acts of community. This may well be our holy response to the coronavirus, as well as to every physical, emotional and spiritual ill that threatens life.
In the midst of this frightening pandemic, our ever-present God “will do the most God can do,” as God always does. We can count on that, and as a gift of God’s grace, our light will rise in every darkness and our gloom will be as bright as the noonday.
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