March 17th: In the Face of Coronavirus...
In the face of coronavirus…
… Grace to you and Peace in these hard times, my sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ. We have a lot to talk about, and I want to do it quickly. But let’s start and end with prayers of blessing, hope, and thanksgiving: Our communities of faith have everything we need to continue to care for one another and to give witness to God’s love and power in the time of coronavirus. Let’s be smart — “wise as serpents” as Jesus teaches (Matthew 10:16) — while we continue to love one other, “innocent as doves.” Educate ourselves. And support one another.
… what can Churches do? Events are moving quickly, and new guidance comes down every day. The latest guidance, as I am writing on March 16, says:
The state of Illinois has mandated the cancellation of events of more than 50 people.The White House and the Centers for Disease Control are now advising against gatherings of over 10 people.
This means that we are being advised not to worship together in person. While each church has the right to judge for itself, I pray these recommendations will weigh heavily on you.
Churches must continue our ministry, however, to the best of our ability. The world needs us for such a time as this. People are scared, and will become increasingly isolated. Including the pastors and leaders of our churches. But we are called to this sacred trust. Although many of our activities will need to be modified or delayed, we still have ways to approach our core ministries:
Worship - Technology gives us ways to worship virtually. Sunday I “attended” worship via Facebook Live, where the message was encouraging, the music uplifting, and opportunities were given to share prayer concerns in the comments feed. There are more sophisticated possibilities such as Zoom, as well. While not everyone has online access, many do, and in this way the worshiping heart of the church can continue to beat. There is some helpful guidance in the links below. Meetings and Study Groups - This is where technology is perhaps best able to help us. Zoom offers an affordable and simple way to have virtual meetings for business, Bible study, adult education, or small group sharing. These kinds of ministries may be the easiest to continue throughout the crisis.Pastoral Care - While we are asked to increase “social distance,” there seems to be no guidance YET against one-on-one visitation (though without direct physical contact). Keep abreast of the latest guidances, and take special care with the homebound and vulnerable. There are other ways, too: handwritten cards, notes, and phone calls can be an especially meaningful “low tech” means of maintaining emotional and spiritual contact. Spiritual Afflictions - This may be a time of intense grief, alienation, and above all loneliness. While we haven’t been told not to connect in personal ways in families or small circles, the impulse will be to isolation and fear. We have to keep loving on each other, connecting and reaching out. We have to be more tender with one another, and work harder to imagine what the sufferings of others might be. This is what church communities should be best at — and though we will need to find new ways to stay connected during these weeks, we cannot fail at this. Families with Children - After those who are themselves sick, no one will likely face more hardship than families with young children. With schools canceled for who knows how long, day care, feeding, and continuing the education of children becomes a special challenge. In Chicago, the School District is providing meals and there will be some recreational & enrichment opportunities at select Chicago Park district locations for children (see links below). For those in other locales, check your local Departments of Public Health and School Districts for guidance. Get the word out about these resources to your families, and research others to share. Workers - This may also be a time of extreme hardship for workers. Some will be asked to telecommute from home. Others will simply be furloughed, and many without pay. We have not heard yet how the government will respond to this impending crisis of acute unemployment. Even as we support those among us who are forced to do without for weeks or even months, we must continue to pay attention to their needs and advocate for relief for those hardest hit economically.
… what can the Region do? The region is working to compile resources and teachings to help churches get through this time. At the end of this message are a series of websites that offer guidance to help with some of the things I have mentioned above. Among the other things we are working on are:
Increased communication - We will be circulating eWind on a weekly basis during this time of extra stress, seeking to highlight the latest guidance, share resources and ideas, and some hopeful stories about overcoming. Templates and Worship Resources - Online worship is different from the usual. We will try to share templates that seek to heighten the sense of community and meaningfulness even in online worship. One particular question that seems especially poignant is how do we plan a funeral service, home-going, or memorial in these times? We are working on ways to help think about that. Holy Week and Easter - I am just beginning to think about what it will mean not to worship together during Holy Week, the most spiritually important time of our year. It will be important to imagine ways we can share the proclamation of Christ’s victory over death. The region will be searching out and sharing resources and creative thinking for how we can make Easter meaningful, perhaps even uniquely so. Weekly Offering - Very few churches are equipped to receive offerings except by the offering plate. For many churches, this time might tax financial resources significantly. While some can mail checks, many people don’t even have checkbooks anymore. We hope to figure out a way to help churches collect offerings online in order to continue to support this crisis ministry.Technology tutorials - I have already mentioned two possibilities, Facebook Live stream and Zoom. The denominational platform ministrElife has possibilities too. We hope to identify the best options along with a few “user guide” cheat sheets and some best practices to circulate. Opportunities for advocacy - This crisis may lay bare the significant gaps that exist in our social safety net. Many in our region may go without pay for many weeks, and communities will need significant interventions to minimize suffering, illness, hunger, and homelessness and to provide social stability and systemic health. We will seek to coordinate places we can intervene on behalf of our brothers and sisters and selves. What else? - Please tell us what your church needs, what it does not know how to do, or which answers you cannot find. We will continue to research and provide resources as we can.
… what can Believers do? We have been called to this faith not because it is easy, but because it is the the way God will use us to establish the Heavenly Reign. We are light of the world — and this is a moment to shake off the basket and stand on the lamp stand, so the whole house can be lit. So that they will remember the blessing we were to our communities, signs of a loving God in a time of isolation and uncertainty. So, among other things, believers can:
Pray without ceasing.Reach out - To the degree that you feel safe, continue to connect. Make a call. Write a note. Deliver a casserole or some groceries to the homebound. Don’t let “social distancing” become a barrier to love. Pay attention to our neighbors - Notice those around you, check in on them, and offer comfort. Take care of yourself - Do the things you need to do to stay healthy. And for God’s sake, don’t play the hero: if you have a fever or a cough, or if you feel ill, stay home! Have Hope!
To some, this last point may seem incongruous — how do we have hope in a time of despair? Too often, we confuse hope with a rosy optimism, an irrational belief that everything will be just fine. All the guidance we have received says this will get still worse before it gets better. There is not much justification for a rosy outlook, at least on the short term.
True hope is something different. Not optimism about what might happen, but unshakeable confidence in what will certainly happen: God’s love will continue to be stronger than death, and God will still empower among us the transformation of the world.
Hope is still more, too. Hope is not just the opposite of despair, but its antidote. One of my favorite quotes comes from the author Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark. Not a theologian, she nevertheless captures something deeply spiritual. She writes: “…hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. …hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.” True hope is our best tool against despair. It is the best protection of our churches and people during these scary weeks to come. And it is our best spiritual discipline, as we walk the Lenten path to Easter, for experiencing the resurrection power of God in our lives.
ABCUSA resource page - The latest updates from the denomination plus a number of good resources from other regions and the national agencies. ThinkHR - A denominational Human Recources unit offering perspective for religious employers.The Christian Citizen - A denominational magazine for Public Witness, their special issue on coronavirus has a number of thoughtful pieces, both practical and spiritual. This article linked above contains a number of practical tips and further links to resources.Hacking Christianity - This article gives simple instructions for how to set up online worship quickly.Centers for Disease Control - This site provides the latest national guidance about how to respond to the epidemic. As with all these sites, make sure you hit “refresh” and check the dates on press releases and statements, to make sure you are getting the most recent.Illinois Department of Public Health - The latest guidelines and restrictions from the State, as well as the latest updates about spread of the infection here.Chicago Department of Public Health - The same, for the city of Chicago. There is also an e-mail list you can sign up for.Chicago Public Schools - Updates on school closures as well as resources for support of children and their families.Chicago Parks Department - Updates on facilities, including the sites that will offer enhanced programming for families who don’t have the option of staying home.