At its outset, I remember hearing the optimism and determination of local church leaders about the nascent COVID-19 pandemic, clearly hoping the need for precautions would fade in April 2020 and that by Easter, we would be back in worship, resuming what we had to curtail. The Alleluias did rise up on Easter Sunday in 2020, but mostly through the hard work (and trial and error) of churches learning how to mediate liturgy and life through Zoom, Facebook Live, and telephone conferencing. For many around the world, the heaviness of a Good Friday global experience of loss and death was beginning to sink into our consciousness. An Easter later, we were still on the cusp of hope with vaccinations beginning to roll out in the United States, but the controversy over vaccination mandates and the global disparities of vaccine access are still unresolved.
Now that two of every holiday and holy day have come and gone in the U.S. civic and liturgical calendars (and Thanksgiving and Christmas will require undoubtedly some care this year as well), it is likely many in churches (and society in general) are long past the naïveté that pandemics are short-form experiences. Yet our need to hope for better outcomes is not quelled. Each day, we yearn for some hint of “normal life” not that many weeks away. Even today, I still wash my cloth masks and pray for the end of the pandemic, knowing both are necessary habits to live in these times.
The holidays arrive with yet another round of questions about how to gather safely and whether you can survive a festive family meal where politics, religion, and worldviews clash with the added flavor of deep divides over vaccinations. It is tempting to take the most rigorous approach to social distancing and just hide at home (on purpose!) with a cup of tea, a stack of books and the Airport Mode engaged on your phone, lest the pundits or Reddit AMAs spark yet another flurry of comments, trolling, and flames that will raise your eyebrows and your blood pressure.
I work with congregations who are earnestly trying to do what they believe is the best way forward. Some churches are “online only.” Others are trying to work out a delicate balance of in-person worship while also noting the possibility of something allowing illness to creep into the fellowship. I see the fatigue particularly in the faces of my colleagues, trying to keep all the plates spinning and wondering why they did not take that vacation when it was quieter this summer.
What sort of word do we need in times like these? I keep returning to a saying I learned from watching the mid-1990s television show “Babylon 5.” One of the alien races aboard the space station shared a proverb deeply important to their spirituality. It translates into English as “faith manages.”
Within the show’s narrative, “faith manages” was a powerful word as the galaxy seemed constantly at the precipice with the various races barely holding a fragile peace. I have thought about many futuristic stories from my reading and watching science fiction, and this particular maxim “faith manages” might just be the thing that has got me through the pandemic to date. The future can be utopia or dystopia, a bright future, or Armageddon. In the hands of a good storyteller, you need the chaos to help make sense of the optimism that drives many protagonists in stories to transcend the moment, yet also model what it is like to embrace a better sense of identity for self and society alike.
I am certain we will find our way past the COVID-19 pandemic, yet just as I have read of the 1918 influenza pandemic, there will be few opportunities to pinpoint when exactly the switch flipped from “morass” to “happily ever after” (not that the latter ever exists in real-world circumstances). We live more at the precipice that we care to admit, as disease occupies some of our anxieties, whereas the issues of economic, social, and global strife can be sometimes glossed over. The groundswell of racial reckoning that intertwined quickly with our medical crisis reminded us all too well that we were diseased as a society already, long haulers of institutional and systemic racism and the toxicity of other systems that thrive on exclusion and occlusion at the denial and expense of our better angels as imagined by Lincoln during another time of tumult in our history.
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, a passage from the writings of Martin Luther made the rounds, reflecting on a time in the 1520s when the Reformer faced a time of plague where he was encouraged to flee the area. In his characteristic headstrong fashion, Luther had an opinion on that advice, and he wrote a letter in 1527 that found a new appreciation in 2020 when concern for public health and disputes about how to live through such times rose up in society and church alike. In part, Luther writes,
Therefore I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely, as stated above. See, this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
Christians should remember that at the forefront of these fourth-quarter holidays and holy days (Thanksgiving and Christmas, and other seasonal celebrations) is the observance of All Saints Day (November 1). We remember those faithful who went through history’s challenges, if not their own day’s version of pandemics (physical and societal ills alike).
Saints (or those who aspire to be) are the people who embody the biblical narrative’s reminders of all-too-human characters seeking God’s will (or being guided back again and again) and whose lives resonate with the proverb of “faith manages” drawn from fiction, which is firmly rooted in recounting the human experience in all its failings and glory alike.
The saints of our faith also draw our attention away from the headlines and our inner angst toward Christ the Exemplar, whom they dared to follow as faithfully as possible. In these times, when so much unravels, when the tapestry of certainty has frayed beyond repair, it is our calling to keep the faith and move forward, even when we have been wearied greatly.
Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.
Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash