Coronavirus shapes a new role for houses of worship and faith communities

Congregations must rise up and fill in the gaps of preparedness and support for those in society most adversely impacted by the new reality of social distancing measures.

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A few days ago, I found myself in conversation with a great friend and mentor who pastors a vibrant Catholic congregation in Chicago. “We are Catholic, and we believe in transubstantiation: the elements are the Body and Blood of Christ.” Given this, he shared a compelling question: if we are afraid of coming to church and receiving the Holy Communion, do we believe in the power of Christ’s blood, or have we been living a lie for the past 2,000 years?” While I am a Baptist and don’t have to answer that question in quite the same sense as I have a different understanding of the Communion experience, the issue remains as to what congregations and faith communities should be doing at a time like this.

The impact of the coronavirus has hit in a way many of us cannot recall ever experiencing. Major music and film festivals are canceling or postponed, professional sports leagues have suspended their seasons, universities and colleges are taking extended breaks and closing, mosques, synagogues, and churches are all cancelling services, and parents, like myself, are now dealing with multiple-week closings for their children in K-12 school systems. We are at a moment in history in which the seventh permutation of a biological pathogen has crashed head-on with our global economic system, and our world is not prepared. 

Five years ago, Bill Gates presented a Ted Talk forecasting how the next global catastrophe would not be a nuclear war, but rather a viral outbreak — “not missiles but microbes.” “If anything kills over 10 million people in the next few decades, it’s most likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than a war.” Two years ago, he spoke again in a larger venue pressing world leaders for the need to have early detection systems, plans for simulation and coordinated planning, and systems of distribution of information and treatments. We are witnessing the consequences of this unpreparedness right now with the coronavirus.

Very little globally has been invested in systems to stop global epidemics; one can argue that we have no systems at all. We live in a world where people are more likely to repeat diatribes from social media and politicians over expert knowledge. Will people actually listen to science? We do not have teams of epidemiologists in every country studying the distribution, patterns, and impact of the disease. When information is obtained, sharing of that data is delayed and frequently inaccurate. The necessary tens to hundreds of thousands of people on standby to engage these threats medically, to administer treatment, and to fill the supply chain to serve the global context do not exist in a world focused on lean systems.}

Despite the weaknesses in our global systems and lack of preparedness, this is precisely the time in which our religious congregations, holy communities, and faith-based organizations can rise up and fill in the gap.

As the world turns to a moment where we are being legally constrained from gathering in crowds of 50 (and potentially even lower numbers), it is vital for those of us who draw strength from faith to call attention to and seek remedies for the impact of these policies.  

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As schools close their doors and institute e-learning programs that have never been tested before, we must be willing to intercede on behalf of children and families who depend on the school system as their primary meal services for the day. We must ensure that all children have viable access to internet services and the hardware necessary to actually engage in virtual learning environments. And we must ensure that children are not merely left behind because they and their parents lack familiarity with navigating a new electronic system.

And we have to take seriously the reality that scores of parents and guardians of our nation’s children do not have the necessary benefits to take off or do not have occupations in which they can work remotely and cannot bring their children to work with them. What then happens to the children who have no choice but to remain at home alone without supervision?

As public facilities like libraries, social spaces, and restaurants shut down and are restricted to only delivery-based services, people of faith must recognize that the employees in those spaces are now impacted severely by their ability to bring home income. As someone whose spouse works in such a place, I am personally affected and now must recognize the potential shortcoming of income for my family. And there are so many more families across our nation who will wrestle even more than me in this regard.

For the millions of Americans dependent on daily medications, congregational leaders must be prepared to think and respond to the needs of those in our care. Leaders must be thoughtful and creative in developing proactive strategies for those most vulnerable to receive medication and assistance.

Now is the time for clergy and religious leaders to help people understand that trusting in science and medicine does not violate one’s measure of faith. In the words of Rev. Traci Blackmon, who presented at the NAACP’s virtual national town hall meeting, now is not the time to trust in social media friends, politicians, or even the president, but rather to utilize trusted expert sources versed in medicine and epidemiology. Now is not the time to give in to deliberate attempts to downplay the severity of the moment and underreport the alarming trends in data exposing the virus’s severity.

And in the midst of all these challenges to engage the external world, a great number of congregations and faith communities simultaneously wrestle with the fundamental concern of survival on the inside. 

In my ministry context, I am the first Black pastor of a 174-year-old church. I’ve been called to serve a church that could no longer provide a full-time pastoral salary to a community that was once affluent and white, but is now poor, black and brown.  Homelessness, job insecurity, and fear of the local residents abounds. Life was already tough in our neighborhood, and the coronavirus made it worse. 

Just today, in collaboration with my pastoral staff, I initiated the decision to cancel our in-person gatherings on Saturdays and Sundays amid the concern of further contamination and upon finding out members of our less than 50-person congregation were sick. All of our staff are not in support of this decision and considering our monetary gifts last week were $200, there is grave concern over how we will be able to weather this storm.   

In all the ways our world is impacted by the coronavirus, the most challenging question for churches to answer is how will we survive? It’s not just the economy, businesses, or the stock market that risk disruption but the fate of the church itself. This moment is a radical wake-up call that’s pressing us to rethink everything from how we do ministry, to how we utilize technology, to how we engage the community, to even how we receive gifts and offerings. If we are not willing to radically ride this wave, we will get tossed and demolished in the tide. It is truly a live or die situation

In tandem with my decision to cease gatherings on Sunday, our church is also at this time birthing a radical new Christian experience on Saturday evenings, re-imagining new forms of worship and ministry, and engaging people who don’t attend church on Sundays. We are using this moment as a catalyst for rebirth and survival. We may not know the final outcome but we are believing for the best as we do the hard work of struggling through the challenges.

As our nation winds down to the brink of inactivity, it is of paramount concern to remember that even if the doors of our holy places must close, the congregation’s heart must still continue to beat! Our sanctuaries, mosques, synagogues, and sacred gathering spaces, are more than just the bricks and mortar that compose them. They are fundamentally sources of spiritual healing and hope, remedies to despair, provisions for emotional and psychological well-being, and places where people find their ultimate sources of meaning and worth in life. Sustaining well-being and wholeness are still concerns in spite of our inability to gather together.

In this historical moment we are challenged to envision new ways to worship and gather beyond the walls of our holy places, challenged to creatively think beyond the boxes we often compile corporate religious experience into, and challenged to ensure that while we are scattered, we are not lost from one another. Coronavirus may very well be the first virus to have impacted the globe in the manner it has, but it will not be the last. And our people and places of faith must be ever vigilant in responding for the present and future.