Last March 12, I emailed my church leadership to suggest that we cancel that Sunday’s potluck given the weird news about COVID-19. Over the course of the next few hours, things got more intense, our council chair talked to her epidemiologist daughter, and by that evening, we’d decided to move entirely online for “at least the next two weeks.”
That was a year ago.
In my initial email to the Coordinating Council, I wrote: “I sense myself becoming a bit anxious about unknown possibilities and want to be sure that we take wise precautions and care for the most vulnerable among us. What do you all think?”
I found that thread by searching “potluck” in my email – easy to spot, since we haven’t had another one, since.
By that point, I was becoming more than a bit anxious. I was freaking the fork OUT. I called my sister, tried to explain the magnitude of what I was feeling and how the world seemed like it was ending. Always the practical one, she asked what there was I could do about it, if the world was actually ending. I started tracking my activities daily, to keep a log of potential exposures. I thought, then, that someone who could confirm that they were fairly isolated might end up being able to serve in ways that other, more compromised people could not. I thought, then, that we would launch war-time efforts to keep everyone safe. I thought, then, that there would be opportunities to join forces and pitch in and work through the crisis. It felt like the beginning of every apocalyptic, dystopian novel I had ever read.
In a lot of ways, I was right. This has been horrific. It has been an apocalypse – a word whose actual meaning is “a revealing, an uncovering.” But I was also very, very wrong: in America, we did not join forces, band together and work in tandem to get through the crisis. Instead, those of us with safe and privileged homes locked ourselves into them and allowed those without that safety to get sick and die.
Of course, this is not entirely true. Thousands and thousands of people have been leaning in, working together, doing good, curative, healing, problem-solving work. My own congregation, bless them, has had our common life deepened in completely unexpected ways over the last twelve months.
Leadership decided early on that we would keep worship online as long as local case counts were above a certain number, and that clear, data-based, early decision has saved us time and time again. We worked to find an online platform that fit our congregation’s needs. We planned monthly outdoor gatherings to make sure we all really did exist from the neck down. Over the summer, we completed our discernment process and joined the Supportive Communities Network, becoming publicly affirming of LGBTQ siblings. Moved by the Black Lives Matter movement, we dug into our own racial identities and the whiteness of our congregation and followed the Spirit’s movement into self-reflection, repentance and joining in God’s justice. We launched THREE licensed ministers from our congregation into ordain-able calls. We grieved, we rejoiced, we welcomed new members, our online worship services led to the highest average attendance in at least 15 years. We called new leadership in 2021 and have more people involved in guiding the ministries of the church than at any time since I’ve been pastor. This week, we’re sending hand-painted greeting cards to local nursing homes, working to implement a fantastic Healing Racism mini-grant project focused on sharing anti-racist kids’ books, practicing visio divina around Lenten art with our neighbors at the local Methodist Church, planting new groundcover on the eroded front lawn, AND applying to join an intensive, two year program to understand how racism has shaped our community and our congregation.
All of this during a global pandemic when we haven’t met for in-person worship in one calendar year.
I spent a lot of the early parts of last year utterly infuriated with all the ways that my colleagues and fellow Christians were simply refusing to alter their worship practices and, in the process, contributing to the spread of the virus and the persistence of the pandemic. I am still unimaginably angry about that, especially as I have watched congregations and church leaders continue to resist change even after their gatherings have sickened or killed people they love. I have tried, for an entire year, to understand the motivations for this behavior. I have mostly failed.
I know that my congregation is tiny and connected to reliable internet service and generally technologically adept. Even the oldest members of our congregation jumped into online gatherings with a super short learning curve. I know that we have agility that other congregations do not. I know that this contributes to our choices.
And I am still baffled at the lack of creativity, the insistence on continuing deadly worship practices, the ways that the church has not only refused to adapt but also been stiff-necked, selfish and ornery about being “forced” to act in the interest of others.
In ecumenical contexts, my congregation is not beyond the pale. The conversations I have with local and national colleagues from other traditions are similar: as things begin to loosen and risk diminishes, how will we return to in-person gathering safely? What do we need to grieve after an entire year of this kind of adjustment? But in my own Church of the Brethren district and denomination, we are among the minority of congregations who have foregone in-person worship all year. Conversations in those contexts are not helpful; they mostly make me wonder how I will continue to work alongside these colleagues and siblings who have made choices that are so vastly different from my own, balanced on a calculus that I do not understand and, on my worst days, I judge as explicitly harmful.
It has been an apocalypse: uncovering so much about who we thought we were and where we thought we belonged. Revelation is good and healthy and can move us toward richer, deeper, more liberated life. And it can also feel like being scrubbed raw, torn apart.