The first change that COVID forced on us was to cancel a monthly potluck. Then, later that day our board chair’s epidemiologist daughter advised that we cancel service altogether, and prepare to meet virtually for at least six weeks. That was in March.
Later that week, I disappointed a mom by changing my visit to her tiny new baby to a FaceTime conversation instead of in-person. I still haven’t met that beautiful human in the flesh.
Over the last nine months, the losses like this have mounted. These losses are not deaths, though those have hovered and crashed through the life of my tiny congregation, as well. These are other, smaller but cumulative griefs.
We’ve cancelled two Love Feast gatherings, now, lost two opportunities to feast on beef and sop and pimento cheese and wash one another’s feet in love and service. We haven’t gathered in our sanctuary at all, and still, nine months on, I get teary-eyed every time I go in the building to check the thermostat or gather the mail.
I am blessed with a congregation who is taking the need for physical distancing even more seriously than I am – and that’s saying something. That week in March, our leadership made the sanity-saving decision that we would not even attempt to gather inside our (tiny!) building again until there were fewer than ten active cases of COVID-19 in Durham County. Today, there are 569 reported active cases and general scientific advice is that the actual number is anywhere between 5-10x that, depending on the accessibility of testing and other variables.
That early decision based on easily-identifiable data has been such a gift. We’ve been gathering for worship on WebEx, welcoming old friends, new members, family and neighbors from across the country and the world. We will set a record in 2020 for the highest worship average attendance in at least 15 years – by a margin of 30-50%.
We’ve tried to host one outdoor event each month so that we can at least set eyes on one another and remember that we exist as a Body, outside a computer screen. Our October pumpkin carving activity might have been one of the biggest crowds I have ever seen on our property. (Don’t worry, we’re talking 40 folks, outside, scattered across a lawn!)
Our congregational prayer group started meeting every week instead of every month. A small group shows up with incredible consistency to Tuesday Night WebEx Fellowship Hour. Our congregation voted to become officially affirming of LGBTQ siblings – online, during the pandemic. We ran a summer-long anti-racist book study that included half congregation members and half neighbors & friends. We have deepened our partnership with our local food hub and sent our neighborhood roots deeper. Our tiny fellowship is *thriving* – and that is a weird, impossible, true thing to say in the year 2020.
There are a million ways to be the church together, and gathering in person for worship inside a sanctuary is only one, rather anemic one. Our tiny congregation has flourished by discovering how agile, creative and committed we actually are to this work of being Christ’s body where we are.
And you know what? It still sucks not to be able to be together, sing our off-key hymns together, eat our ridiculous potluck meals together, sit around a table and crack jokes together, make these important decisions while in the same room…TOGETHER.
The Psalmist cries: how long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever? I think God IS angry at the way we are behaving right now – has been angry at white American Christians for a long, long time. But it is abundantly clear to me that this particular grief, of not being able to gather, together, in body as well as spirit…well, that’s not God unleashing God’s wrath. It is our own damn fault.
In the beginning of this pandemic, there were a bunch of memes about how epidemiology is like the absolute worst group project ever: even if I do all the work and everything right, it doesn’t matter unless the rest of my group puts in their effort, too. Group projects have been the bane of my independent, impatient existence since third grade. Even though my own congregation has pivoted, adjusted, re-imagined and followed all the rules – even striving for that star pupil extra credit – it doesn’t matter, because our sisters and brothers across the country aren’t putting in the work. We’ll keep meeting online and missing being together in body because our fellow CHRISTIANS CAN’T SEEM TO OBEY JESUS’ COMMANDS.
By now, everyone knows that if we, collectively, shut things down for 6 weeks then the pandemic would be controlled. This eternal cycle of resentment and grief would end. America has now had more than six opportunities like that, ignoring every one and with no end in sight.
I miss my congregation. I am so grateful to be here, with them, in this time. And I miss being together, sharing breath and body language. How long, O Lord? Will we be idiots forever?
(this is part of the #unmuteyourself #Advent2020 devotional.)