OP-ED: This isn't about politics; it's about love
No sooner had the broadcast finished, than our phone started ringing. “Pastor! We are coming back to church? I just heard on the news that churches are going to reopen starting this weekend!”
Our reply was simply, “As far as we know, the church has always been open and always will be essential. The church never closed.”
We could easily point out the rampant fallacies circulating from what we believe to be deliberately inflammatory and misleading rhetoric designed to promote the ever-deepening “us versus them” divide between so-called “left” and “right.”
We could say that the church has been designated as “essential” since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis and was never under technical order to close. We could remind everyone that the church is all of us, the children of God, not the buildings. We could lift up that church officials, health experts, and on-the-ground faith leaders who have been working together for the last more than two months to provide faithful, compassionate and intelligent guidance to congregations around the country.
We could certainly share the utterly heartbreaking stories of congregations that gathered in person only to see infection run rampant, resulting in multiple deaths after a single choir practice, service, or coffee hour. We could even forward you about the beautiful statements written by virtually every major denomination in the country, advising congregations to gather virtually for the care and preservation of all.
But none of that would tell you about Ms. Philomena.
Ms. Philomena will still do an impressive turn with her walker when the music is right, reminding you of what an impressive dancer she was in her youth. Ms. Leah is a true artist with fabric and textiles. There is Mr. Rob, who still climbs the ladders to hang Christmas decorations, and Mr. Bert, who sings a robust baritone in the choir. These are real people; beloved, cherished people. They are friends, lunch buddies, parents, grandparents and volunteers. What they are not is acceptable potential collateral damage.
As most of us know by now, “stay home if you are sick” doesn’t work for a virus that doesn’t show symptoms until after someone may already be infected, or at all for some folks. “Stay home if you are at risk” doesn’t acknowledge that congregations are communities of love and support grounded in ministering to the aged, the young, the sick and suffering, the vulnerable and those in need. “Stay home if you don’t feel safe” doesn’t lift up the impossible burden on the spirits of friends who desperately want to see each other and gather in worship, who trust that their pastors and church councils wouldn’t make something possible that isn’t safe.
We desperately hope that our people know how much they are loved, how much they are missed, how much they are cared for. It is a joy to see their faces in Zoom Bible studies, to read their comments in Facebook live worship, or to hear their voices on check-in calls. It is thrilling to observe what resilient and creative things congregations are doing to continue ministry and outreach in a time when it is desperately needed. That is work in the world that we are not willing to risk out of impatience or impulse.
We believe we have a timeless faith and a God who can work through all things, including the internet. We are patient, and no, we are most definitely not opening the doors of our buildings until the consensus of infectious disease experts and church leaders advise it is safe.
This isn’t about politics, it’s about love. We’ll see you online.
— The Rev. Joel Folkemer serves as lead pastor of Union Lutheran Church on West Market Street in York, Pennsylvania, and The Rev. Carla Christopher Wilson serves as co-chair of the Toward Racial Justice Task Force of Lower Susquehanna Synod which trains and supports congregations across York County.