Grace and peace to you all! May this ﬁnd you enjoying good health and abundant hope!
We continue to track the spread and eﬀects of the COVID-19 virus, and we continue to adjust to new and strange realities. We are deﬁnitely in uncharted waters.
We’re not gathering together as a church right now. The COVID-19 virus is an especially tenacious virus and gathering together in public could spread the contagion more quickly. So, it would seem the best thing for the community at the moment is not to be in community.
This COVID-19 virus has had a world-wide eﬀect. Starting somewhere in a Chinese wet market it has spread quickly. That makes sense in China where there are large populations that live in high density housing and where the markets do not have the kinds of sanitation regulations that are common elsewhere. The close proximity of animals and people make it likely that disease can spread from one to the other. Those who study such things have been warning about it for years. That we face a pandemic that began in that overcrowded and under-regulated community should surprise no one. This did come out of nowhere—it came from a set of communal conditions about which we have been warned for a long time. Close communities can share a lot of things—in this case, they shared a virus.
The outbreak highlights another aspect of community—we are truly a global village in this time. A virus that infects someone in China can now be transmitted around the world on the next ﬂight. Indeed, that is what was happening before anyone knew what was going on! In less than 24 hours diseases that may have been particular to one part of the world can be spread simultaneously around the globe. This is a recent development. Not that long ago it would have been unthinkable. Now it is predictable.
We are not ready to give up our global village. We do business in China, Africa, Asia, and everywhere else. Our supply lines depend on factories that are around the world in which many languages are spoken. The raw materials that make the products we need are also sourced from every part of the globe. Our economy has become more interdependent and interconnected than it was even a generation ago. We will not be giving up global travel any time soon, but we have to be aware of the impact that makes on all of us. If goods can be made and shipped around the world overnight, so can things that might not be so good. It’s one of the prices we pay.
Now that the virus is spreading we see a push in some instances to cut oﬀ communities from one another. Travel restrictions have been imposed, although most of those were too late to do any good against a virus that did not develop obvious symptoms for days after exposure. By the time we knew where it came from it was already too late to try to shut the door. Travel bans and restrictions are still taking place as places like Italy and Spain and Germany try to deal with what they already have within their borders.
One aspect of community that the restrictions highlight is our idea that we can somehow isolate ourselves from this ‘foreign virus.’ Viruses do not carry ﬂags and are naturally occurring organisms. We have seen historically what happens when a particular group or ethnicity is viewed as the carriers of a disease. Jews were blamed for the plague; the Irish were blamed for a cholera epidemic in the 1830s; and other groups have had their turn at being the scapegoat for the spread of some disease. Somehow people had the idea that social and political borders were stronger than biology, or else, they were simply prone to want to blame bad fortune on the ‘other.’ No matter the underlying idea, the reality was that discrimination, disinformation, prejudice, and acts of hatred followed. A disease in the community was seen as the fault of ‘outsiders’ no matter who those outsiders were. We should learn from biology and science and make sure that such knowledge informs our politics and social norms.
The critical aspect of community here is that we are all human and all susceptible to the COVID-19 virus. The boundary that matters most is when the virus crosses into a human body where it can ﬁnd the conditions to multiply and produce disease. These circumstance should make us more mindful than ever that we are all in this together. It will take a concerted eﬀort by humans around the globe to stop this pandemic and address the conditions that are created. It is a reminder to us that we share pretty much everything in common—the water we drink, the air we breathe, the knowledge we gain. As diﬃcult as it may be, such crises as the COVID-19 outbreak serve to underscore our common humanity and need for one another. We are all in this together.
But another element that deserves mention is that some of us are more involved and invested than others. Those who serve in the medical ﬁeld are going to face a strong possibility of exposure and also contracting the virus. This is already evident in places like Italy where the virus is wreaking havoc on the health-care system. There are not enough beds to go around; there is a scarcity of needed ICU facilities; there is a shortage of staﬀ; there is going to be constant stress and strain on those oﬀering care to those who are suﬀering. As we face the real possibility of doctors and nurses and staﬀ becoming stretched beyond reasonable limits, the conditions of the patients will grow worse as well. Here is a moment when we recognize that all of us depend on some of us to a greater degree than is typically understood or appreciated. We are interconnected as communities and those who have knowledge, skills, and expertise for these concerns are to be supported and valued. In the days to come this small segment of our population may pay a large price for their service.
I am a pastor and I serve a congregation. As I look ahead I see that COVID-19 will aﬀect the community I serve. We have people who are at greater risk than others. We have folks with respiratory issues; we have people with heart conditions; we have people who are dealing with other underlying health issues that may not be public knowledge. In the weeks and months to come, the odds are that we will lose some of our ﬂock to illness connected with the virus. Pastors and spiritual leaders will have to oﬀer comfort and support and care. They, too, may be exposed in the process. We are dealing with a potentially grim situation. Congregations in which we gather and pray and sing and worship will have to be networks of support and care, and we will have to ﬁnd new and creative ways to do so.
It is a strange thing to think of a congregation that does not congregate. How will the church in the United States deal with a new sort of dispersed mode of operation? Will some meet in small house churches as did the early church? Will the community church rely more on technology to connect? How will this particular pandemic aﬀect the faith and the faithful going forward?
The answers to all of those questions are still developing. We are working with a ﬂuid situation that is subject to change, and to change perhaps drastically.
COVID-19 is reminding us that we are together a global community; we cannot solve this crisis independently or in isolation. It is a reminder that we can make choices and changes in our social structures and systems; indeed, we must make changes. It is a reminder that our “community” contains more people and places and processes than we commonly recognize. It is a reminder that we must practice what is best in us for the good of all of us.
Be safe. Be healthy. Be good to one another.