March 12, 2020
Dear Pastors and Congregations,
I am writing today related to your response as a Community of Faith to COVID-19 (aka, the Coronavirus.) I am fully aware that you don’t need another piece to read that reminds you to “Wash your hands!” Instead, I want to address the spiritual impact of this crisis.
During the past few weeks, my attitude about Coronavirus has vacillated from interest to annoyance to frustration and even to sadness and depression. I suspect your attitude has vacillated as well. The vacillation is due to many factors:
• The sensationalism in our world today … not just in media but also in politics, advertising and the world in general
• The flood of information that has come our way related to the virus
• The preponderance of misinformation in media of all forms; from social media to advertising and yes, even some preachers who stoke fear or have some miracle products to sell
• The tendencies of our culture toward mass hysteria and fear
• The sense of moving from crisis to crisis
• The need to respond and the recognition that our response will require sacrifice and giving up some of the things we want and/or are used to doing
I suspect I am not alone in this myriad of emotions related to the virus.
This crisis and the many like it remind me of the original responses to AIDS or HIV. It reminds me of how the fear of that virus and the things we didn’t know caused us to alienate and vilify the victims of this virus. Not only where the victims denied contact with their uninfected loved ones, but even the health care community denied them the gift of human touch. To be fair, this was mostly out of ignorance about the disease, but the isolation and separation was dehumanizing to those who were afflicted.
“Social distancing” is the most effective way to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. That will mean some folks will be quarantined (either voluntarily or by mandate) and others will be encouraged to limit their interactions in multiple ways.
As our nation makes progress in a program to deal with the Coronavirus that emphasizes social distancing, I want to caution against allowing this social distancing to lead to dehumanization. I know that comparing the two viruses and our response is unequal. But I also know the importance of human touch, contact and love. One of Jesus’ greatest acts of compassion was to reach out and touch the lepers … not just heal them. While the ability to meet together via technology allows us to conduct worship, committee meetings and even lots of our business, it excludes personal touch. We are going to have to be careful to find ways to provide this; not just for our membership, but for others.
So, please educate yourselves on the things we need to do to help slow the spread of the virus. If you need help with this, visit our website where we are compiling a list of resources that offer a variety of suggestions (abcrm.org/coronavirus).
I encourage you to live into our calling to be an “agent of peace.” It is important that in the church we cull the excessive anxiety created by media and politicians. The church can and should be a community in which we can discuss our fears and share trustworthy information.
Please live stream your services for those who really should not be out, because as you know COVID-19 is particularly hard on the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. But continue to hold services with those who can and will come. Again, if you need ideas related to this, visit our website.
Please practice alternative forms of greeting–fist bumps and elbow taps–but don’t be afraid to hug someone who REALLY needs it (as long as you are both healthy). If not, or if you are not sure, find a way to communicate that same concern and love without the physical touch … to be fully present with them in their hurt, grief or sorrow without taking the chance of infecting them or being infected. Often a small, thoughtful gift or a well-timed text or phone-call can be just as powerful as a physical hug!
Please stay home when you are sick, but don’t forget to visit those who can’t get out even if you have to refrain from the “sit down” and all you can do is drop off a fresh supply of toilet paper! (I would prefer a pie, but it seems like TP might be more valuable today!)
And throughout all of this, please remember to proclaim the message that our God is a God of Hope, Healing and Love, not a god of fear. There are enough evangelists of the god of fear already … we are called to be evangels of Jesus; proclaimers of Good News!
To that end, I pray that each of you, pastors, congregations and friends, will remain healthy throughout this time of crisis. And, if not, that God would grant your body the strength to ward off the virus quickly. But whatever befalls, I trust that you will be filled with God’s Spirit of Grace, Peace and Love throughout.
Steve Van O
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains