I went for a walk–a real one, not a virtual one–with my friend Andrew, the two of us maintaining healthy social distancing and wearing our masks.
It was like being reminded that you exist, that it’s not all a figment of your imagination. To be seen, really seen, is to fully participate in what it is to be human. We aren’t made for isolation. We aren’t made for non-stop “virtual meetings.” And while that doesn’t mean that seeking isolation, retreating temporarily from society, or communicating online can’t be deeply life-giving, it very simply means that coming together, in the flesh, is as important as bread and water.
Andrew is a theology teacher in the City at one of the world’s premier high schools. I’m grateful for his friendship, his wit, for his ability to cut straight to the point in conversation, and for his authenticity. Those are hard things to find, especially in New York and North Jersey. Maybe anywhere.
I grew close to Andrew the same reason you grow close to anyone you come to call a friend: you see yourself in them, or them in you. And though I don’t know he would describe it this way, Andrew–like me–has a bit of a love-hate relationship with the Church, his a Catholic upbringing while mine was Methodist.
Andrew knows I’ve grown deeply sick of most organized religion. And I lamented over how the bishop of the Methodist church in West Tennessee, where my parents live and where I grew up, is planning to “reopen” churches there in late June and has provided reopening guidelines to do so. While the guidelines are much better than what some churches are doing, essentially a free-for-all, I keep picturing these Tennessee congregants, some of whom think this is all a hoax, showing up on a Sunday–no mask, no social distancing, despite the efforts of smarter congregants who know better. I can’t see how a large group of people coming together right now could be anything other than a disaster. Especially when it’s already proven to be a disaster in multiple locations. And in multiple ways.
I told Andrew that the Methodist guidelines Bishop McAlilly sent to the congregation make the case that “Worship is an essential service.” That’s the exact case Trump made in issuing his “edict” earlier this weekend demanding churches reopen. Trump, of course, chose not to go to church today–but instead to golf. For him, the claim “worship is an essential service” is just one more lie he’s telling to score brownie points with a base that is quickly turning into a cult. But for the Methodist bishop, and for far too many Americans, this argument that in-person “church” is an essential service is well-intentioned yet still deadly.
“It’s crazy, if you think about it in the context of history,” Andrew noted pointing to his Catholic roots. The Church is probably the one institution across history and across multiple kingdoms and countries that has endured and survived wars, famine, epidemics, pandemics, genocide, plagues, etc. COVID-19 ain’t the Church’s first rodeo. By now, you’d think there’d be a clear plan of action on how to deal with this sort of scenario. By now, you’d think there’d be clarity around what it means to be life-giving, to ensure to put life first. They only had several hundred years to figure out how to respond.
Instead, the Church ushers in death, just as it did ages ago. It’s interesting to think, Andrew added, that 100 years from now, the Church will issue some apology a la Galileo for the way their behavior helped guarantee so much death.
The past is almost forgivable, when you consider the lack of science available to the Church during Medieval plagues, or the fact that they lacked a way to connect to one another outside of meeting physically.
But for the life of me, I can’t find anything forgivable when today’s religious institutions choose to ignore science so blatantly, so eagerly. Have we really learned nothing, not just in a hundred years but in five hundred, seven hundred? Still, the very institution committed to bringing about “good news,” works so hard to bring its very opposite.
And as wearing a mask becomes politicized, I suspect that cognitive dissonance is at play. The moment you have to admit that you need a mask is the moment you have to admit coronavirus is real and dangerous, and the moment you have to admit coronavirus is real and dangerous is the moment you have to admit the leaders you worship may not be the God they’ve been telling you they are.
Even if worship was an essential service, whatever the hell it is people think they’re worshiping sure isn’t a good God and sure isn’t essential. No, this “God is a mean and stupid God”–a God that will hopefully contract coronavirus and die off. It won’t go that way, because that’s not the timeline we appear to be living in; after all, we’re in the timeline where things only seem to get worse. But when worship becomes the kind of function that risks unnecessary death, that seems to me to be contrary to everything the Christian movement ever stood for.
That’s not to say Christianity didn’t encourage odd types of sacrifice: dying for your friends, carrying your cross for a more just world, sure, but there’s a difference between dying for a clear purpose and dying just so you can sing “I can only imagine” with your parishioners while you’re gathered around hating on the “liberal agenda” and its supposed hoax. There has to be some kind of meaningful gain if you’re going to take such great risks, and there’s no meaningful gain in asking people to come to the physical church when you could do the whole service on Zoom. It’s just reckless.
For the Methodist bishop in West Tennessee, however, it’s not a motivation of hating the liberal agenda or the belief that it’s a hoax. Instead, it’s about maintaining the status quo, ensuring the buildings and grounds are cared and paid for, returning to “normal,” and bucking any criticism from the far right who have held the Methodist church hostage on multiple issues over the years. I can more easily forgive the Trump supporters who don’t know any better. It’s the pastors and leaders who do believe in science but push it to the side who are the real traitors in this moment facing us.
That said, I don’t want to be misread here. Human connection is–as I mentioned–as important as bread and water. I’m empathetic to the reality that this is an awfully lonely time, and I think using masks and taking a walk with a friend at a safe distance can be sacred and fulfilling. When you start adding more than a few people to the mix, though–and you can’t guarantee social distancing or that they’ll wear masks in places where wearing a mask is not required–you increase the risk exponentially.
So, too, some businesses will need to “reopen” for the financial survival of the business, for the very sake of being able to keep food on your table. In some cases, those businesses, like the true essentials of groceries and medical facilities, will need to make use of the buildings and grounds in order to function and fulfill their mission. A worship service is not one of those businesses.
That doesn’t mean churches can’t find ways to be essential. There are great examples out there of some churches fulfilling a community need right now without holding in-person worships. The church I used to work with here in Jersey that helped refugees is one such case–and they’ve made more money moving to an online venue than they ever did holding worship every week in a stuffy sanctuary. And now those funds will help them distribute food to those who are going without it.
So, I’m glad that the bishop’s guidelines make mention of other, creative ways to do worship from gatherings in cars to holding services online or outside or both, but this notion at the core that in-person worship is an essential is outright deadly, specifically because any neutral observer of basic human behavior tells us that despite our good efforts, things can go awry. And with coronavirus, it takes one person not wearing a mask, one person singing, one person refusing to abide by mere suggestions, to guarantee that multiple people die. How can any leader live with themselves knowing, when they say in-person gatherings are essential, that death is a likely if not inevitable outcome?
By all means, take a walk with a friend. Keep your distance and wear a mask and stay outside. You can call that worship with just the two of you serving as a community. But, for the love of God, don’t go back to the sanctuary until there’s a vaccine. If you do, you may find the next time people gather there, it’ll be for your funeral.