Daniel Benson writes that as church in the time of pandemic, we must care for each other like family, not just spiritually, but bodily as well.
The emails showed up almost immediately. The phone calls not much later. “Is the church open?” “Are we having services this Sunday? “When can we come to church?” Premier Ford had just announced that places of worship could reopen, and obviously many of my parishioners were eager to return. “What are we waiting for?”
Ah, if only it were so easy. Open the doors and they will come! But, as has been said so often over the past few months, these are “unprecedented times,” and such times require unprecedented planning to welcome back the flock.
People come to church for many reasons. The most obvious one, perhaps, is for spiritual nourishment and religious exercise (we can talk about the whole “spiritual but not religious” thing another time). They also come for help and guidance in leading a good life (again, a topic for further discussion). And many come for the community, fellowship, and sense of belonging that faith communities, at their best, offer. Sometimes this gets labeled as merely being a “social club;” and yes, it sometimes feels like that.
But the loss and isolation many people are feeling with the closure of their churches, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship suggests they’re way more than just social clubs. COVID-19 has robbed a lot of people of something more than just a place to meet and greet friends. After all, Starbucks has better coffee, the Victorian Monkey has better food, and your own sofa is more comfortable than our pews.
Faith communities such as St. Paul’s (and most others, I imagine) think of themselves as extended families. Not because it’s a cozy idea, but because it’s a challenging and even difficult concept. We get to choose our friends – we don’t get to choose our family. You don’t get to disown crazy Aunt Sally or weird Uncle Ernie, and in faithful faith communities, we don’t get to say who belongs and who doesn’t. You come in, you sit down, and you belong. Period. “God don’t make junk,” the saying goes, and our job is to understand and live that by being God’s welcome wagon.
But, when COVID-19 closes our doors, this deep sense of belonging and acceptance is closed as well. Sure, we can do online worship, Zoom book clubs, virtual dinners, and telephone calls, but it’s not the same. Families are nourished when they gather together, often around a table, always with everyone welcomed and cared for.
So, why haven’t we opened the doors yet? Because we, as family, care for one another: not just spiritually, but bodily as well. Therefore, we need to work out a lot of details. What’s the best way to ensure everyone keeps a safe distance (a challenge when your extended family tends to be very huggy)? How do we keep frequently touched surfaces clean? What do we do about singing? Do we need to designate entrances and exits to manage the people flow? If our sanctuary can hold 60 people under the 30 percent rule, what do we say to the 61st person who comes to church on a Sunday? And a dozen more things have to be discussed (and we haven’t even got to the coffee and cookies yet).
Most businesses are trying to figure this all out. We are too, but with an additional layer of complexity: these are not our customers we’re talking about, this is our family. The beloved, the crazy, and the weird ones, all together. Many are vulnerable and frightened, all of them are concerned about their own well-being and that of others. Somehow, we will figure this all out; and, sooner or later, our doors will re-open. In the meantime, it’s only the bricks and mortar of the church building that is closed; the church itself has not been closed for a minute. It continues to live, serve, and thrive because the people – our family – are open to how God is always doing a new thing in the world, even in a world of COVID-19.
—Daniel Benson is minister at St. Paul's United Church in Scarborough, ON.