On July 8, the New York Times published a story entitled, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen. Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.” The article offered a litany of churches that reopened in various ways, some trying to follow social distancing and face covering guidelines, like United Methodist churches in Louisiana. Despite the efforts, people still tested positive for COVID-19. Other churches have been more defiant in the face of rules and restrictions. For one Baptist church in West Virginia that did not require face masks, people started falling ill shortly after in-person worship services resumed in late May. At least fifty-one cases are linked to that church, along with three deaths.
Reading the stories of the defiant, it’s easy to shake one’s head and to offer a wag of the finger, at least in one’s mind. How stupid. How irresponsible.
Allow the stories to settle in for a bit, though, and it doesn’t take long to start feeling the heartbreak. Sure, the decision to ignore the warnings and the information regarding the particularly problematic conditions of indoor church worship (stagnant air, along with people talking and singing loudly, sending off countless invisible respiratory droplets, carrying the virus) can easily be condemned and ridiculed.
But . . .
In the midst of these stories, in those that tried to maintain pandemic protocols as well as those who defied the “new normal,” a significant truth becomes clear: that church is important and meaningful to people. Church is not solely about a theological system of belief or a place to contemplate one’s relationship with God. Church provides community and extended family. Church offers a place—a place where one feels connection, with others, with God, and with oneself. It’s understandable, then, to feel empathy for the poor pastor who feels the need for connection among a church’s parishioners and allows it to happen, whether or not they try to insist on distancing and mask-wearing.
The simple fact is that for many people, being a part of a church is a part of who they are, part of their identity, part of how they interact in the world. The President has declared that churches should be allowed to open, that they are “essential.” Churches are essential, but I have a strong sense that the President doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about here. The President doesn’t seem to have a clue about the sort of connection that church folk find compelling. Instead, he’d rather heap churches into the culture war camp, and let us all engage in morally repugnant combat.
Church leaders ought to resist. Yet, at the same time, we feel and know the deep longing that so many people are experiencing. For those who regularly attend worship, it’s not easy living one’s life, especially in a time of such uncertainty, without that place that provides an anchor in the midst of the storm, a refuge in a time of trouble. Most churches can fairly easily move their worship services online, allowing for distant, contactless gathering. It helps, but it’s not the same.
As a pastor, I’ve watched the routines and habits of church life over a long career. Among the most routine of our habits is the simple touch, or hug. Wander around a sanctuary before or after a worship service, and one of the most pervasive qualities is that of touch. Someone reaches out to hug another, or puts a hand on another hand, or rests a comforting palm upon a shoulder. Before the pandemic, hardly anyone talked about this common characteristic of a congregation. It was just there, completely taken for granted.
And, now it is gone, at least for a while.
While Old South has been able to maintain an online existence through these months, and remains committed to keeping our people safe (the average age of the congregation is in the 70s), I know that the lack of physical presence is difficult and alienating. If I had a bunch of people clamoring for a return to in-person services, I might buckle as other pastors have under the weight of longing.
When we finally find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic, able to gather, to sing, to worship without physical distance and face masks, I suspect it will take a long time before we start taking for granted the element of touch. As much as we might miss certain elements of worship, or the opportunity to sing, we likely miss touch most of all, as a point of personal connection, but also because it’s something that we do as modeled by Jesus himself. For all sorts of reasons, Jesus reached out and touched people. That’s what we did, and, someday, we will again.