By Conference Minister Diane Weible
In John 20, we read the familiar story of what happened to the Disciples after Jesus was crucified. They were terrified and locked themselves up in a room, trying to keep out those they believed were seeking to do them harm. And, Jesus entered the room anyway. He brought with him words of peace and calm. He reminded the Disciples that locking themselves away from community was not what would take away the panic and the fear. He gave the Disciples the gift of peace and invited them to embrace that peace and focus on the work before them. When we isolate ourselves out of fear, we cannot offer Jesus’ peace to the places that need it the most.
Last week I experienced a flurry of emails and posts from colleagues and acquaintances regarding COVID-19,the corona virus. Every time a new email came in about the latest letter that was going to be sent to churches, I cringed. It took me a while to figure out why I was cringing. After all, the information that was being sent was important. Safe practices are always important, especially during flu season and, in this case, at a time when the corona virus is spreading. How do we support one another when we ourselves are feeling anxious and concerned without feeding the panic that seems to be everywhere, especially in the news media?
The letters I was seeing that were causing me to cringe were reminding people of the same kinds of safety procedures that we encourage any time, especially during the flu season—stay home if you are sick; wash your hands; use sanitizer; etc… Some of them were explaining how worship would be handled differently regarding things like Communion and Passing of the Peace. All of this is good and important and I was thankful for the pastors who were reminding their parishoners of these important caretaking steps.
My cringing didn’t have anything to do with these reminders. It had to do with some of the letters I was seeing from other places. I wondered if I was not being a “good Conference Minister” by not sending out a similar letter with all the latest CDC warnings and reminders to churches.
So, I made a phone call to a trusted church leader and I finally understood what was going on inside of me. My fear was that the widespread media attention was resulting in an equally widespread “othering” of people, especially Asians. I was worried about contributing to this. I knew that Chinese-owned businesses were struggling because people are afraid to go in and Uber drivers have kicked people out of their cars because they looked Asian and therefore must be sick. I’ve heard people tell of the look of horror on people’s faces when they have talked about just returning from their overseas trip (regardless of where that trip was to).
While the symptoms of the corona virus and the flu are similar, I understand the statistics that this illness has proven more of a threat to people over sixty than even the flu. I am not trying to minimize the seriousness of the virus. I’m just worried about how we treat one another as we move through this season.
What I most want us to consider is a faith response that stands up against “othering” people or isolating ourselves at the very time when we need to be coming together. How can we support our brothers and sisters who are facing the effects of people afraid to be in their presence? How can we make sure that if we see “othering” happen we find the courage to speak up about what we see?
One of the people I talked to was Rev. Kathryn Schreiber, Pastor of Berkeley Chinese Community Church. She told me that their congregation has been practicing safe practices, especially during flu season, for years because of the number of elderly members in their congregation. She said that the corona virus has them evaluating and looking at their practices to make sure they continue to be the most helpful for protecting their members and to ensure that people feel safe coming to worship. And, she said, this also means that they are being reminded of the importance of community now more than ever.
Some of their members are practicing “self-quarantine” out of a sense of over-abundance of caution or just because they all know that when you are sick “carrying on” out of a sense of the church needing you to be there is not only not good for you but could also be dangerous to someone else. As a result, this past Sunday, Kathryn said, the church set aside Communion elements to be taken to those who are staying home and the members at church made a video to share with their home-bound siblings to remind them that they are together in Spirit.
Our churches know how to prevent sickness, especially our churches with senior care programs or who host a preschool in the building. And, our churches understand the importance of community and fighting against “othering.” The corona virus gives our churches an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of the gift of peace that Christ has given us as we seek to love all people and to speak out against “othering” that we may see happening.
One Pastor shared a beautiful thought that people still need love and good food and fellowship. Our communities of faith are the places where we know how to do all of this really well and our communities need us now more then ever. I want to share a statement that was shared with me as I was asking for input for this article. It is the response from our sister and brothers in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that I believe sums up much of what I know I am feeling.
And, of course, the California Department of Health should be bookmarked for the latest information about the virus and safety precautions.
Jesus said, “Peace be with you.” In other words, don’t lock yourself up and shut yourself out from the world. Even if the time comes when you need to separate yourself from others, let’s work that much harder to find important ways to connect. There is much work that needs to be done and as people of faith we are in a great position to share our gifts with the world.