On Sunday, I did not go to church. For the first time ever, I watched my two co-pastors host an Instagram Live sermon. It was surreal, clutching my phone, listening to them talk about the Sermon on the Mount as they sat six feet away from each other in an empty sanctuary. Little hearts floated up the side of the screen as friends and fellow congregants typed reactions and comments in real time. I took deep breaths for the first time in days. I smiled. I was surprised by how much it felt like church, sitting in my living room and clutching my small piece of technology.
Our community did not want to conduct services in this way, for myriad reasons. But in the end they are choosing to walk into this new path forward (including a steep learning curve of livestreams and appearing on camera and meeting spiritual and relational needs long-distance) because it makes ethical, moral, and spiritual sense. They are modeling to us how to love each other from a distance because in the long run, this will protect our neighbors.
On Twitter that same day, I saw an image from that morning: the back of Pope Francis’ head, his hand waving a prayer of blessing over the large, empty St. Peter's Square. While normally tens of thousands of the faithful flock to hear his wisdom and blessing weekly, Italy was now in its second week of lockdown as the death toll from COVID-19 continued to rise. The Vatican live-streamed his message, but the pope spoke it into an empty space. That image — the head of the Catholic Church conducting his Sunday services to no one and everyone at the same time — stayed with me.
Later that evening, I saw another image: this one from Walt Disney World. The Disney Parks Company, which had shuttered all their other theme parks one by one, was slow to comply with the standards set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As a result, the park was still open on March 15 — and people thronged to engage in one last evening of magic, nostalgia, and bliss. As the park closed for the night, the famous fireworks lighting up the sky, various costumed characters appeared on a balcony, waving at tens of thousands of visitors. It was a different pilgrimage of sorts, and one that speaks to a culture that has lost its sense of responsibility to each other.
If I could write one essay today it would be about these two images (one from Italy, one from Florida, both taken on Sunday) pic.twitter.com/JnFdeAP2sn— D.L. Mayfield (@d_l_mayfield) March 16, 2020
Caryle Weisel, a popular journalist and social media follow on Instagram, has unapologetically embraced the theme park beat. But recent events have forced her and others to embark on a calculated plan of public health announcements. Her Instagram and Twitter accounts — usually full of Mickey Mouse-shaped pretzels or updates on upcoming attractions — now urge people to understand the science of how and why pandemics spread. It is in part because of the images she kept seeing of people flocking to Disney parks as the reality of a global pandemic set in.
“I understand how this is a scary time for all of us, which traditionally sees people turn towards Disney for solace and comfort,” Weisel told me via email. “Still, seeing those images of crowds packed with attendees and employees standing tightly together sends a chill down my spine.”
The problem is not only with the corporations struggling to make choices when profits are on the line. As a culture infused with the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Americans value individualism and have a hard time understanding their role in community health measures. When we are taught to prioritize our individual rights and needs (see the discussions about guns, vaccines, and universal health care), it quickly leads to seeing other people as our enemy instead of a neighbor to protect. And that’s where religious communities must lead.
As I thought about the pictures of Disney World contrasted with the picture of the empty St. Peter's Square, it reminded me of the role that religious communities play in times of distress, for good and for ill. While some Christians in the U.S. have greatly downplayed the threat posed by COVID-19, continuing to hold services and claiming both faith in God and a distrust of the media, there is a rich history within Christianity and the Judaic traditions of creating and maintaining healthy communities.
Dr. Wilda Gafney, in her book Womanist Midrash, suggests that much of the book of Leviticus — what she calls the heart of the Torah — can actually be read as public health policy. This includes commands to wash hands, to engage in ritual bathing, nutritional guidelines, and even quarantine practices. In Leviticus, periods of separation were called for when a person was visibly ill in order to evaluate, diagnose, and monitor its communicability.
While Leviticus might strike those familiar with the text as a strange place to turn to in times of worldwide stress, Gafney and other biblical scholars and theologians point out that all the codes and strict laws are actually pointing the readers toward how to be in relationship, both to God and to the community. Gafney writes: “Leviticus suggests that good health — physical, spiritual, and societal — starts with the individual and spreads to the community; likewise, the ill health of an individual can affect — literally infect — the community.”
The faith community must support each other by suspending gatherings in order to protect the vulnerable. Now, more than ever, we need people of faith to be speaking out about the need to take drastic measures. We need to listen to people, like activist and author Stephanie Tait, who has been banging the drum for weeks now that at-risk people are at the mercy of the whims of the healthy. For Tait, loving your neighbor as yourself means asking Christians to take extreme precautions — before being legally ordered — to ensure we as a society don’t have to make choices about who we do or do not prioritize with health care. In this way Christians can be at the forefront of rejecting extreme individualism and lean into a collectivist worldview where each person is seen as made in the image of God and worth protecting at all costs.
As a Christian, I take comfort these days in the strangest places. Not in pictures of the happiest place on earth, or in a living room surrounded by prayer partners, or in the declarations of faith and prosperity being touted in the megachurches still operating during a pandemic. No, I am finding faith by listening to those asking us to return to our biblical roots: to continue to press in to the rituals that sustain us while upending our lives in order to prioritize the vulnerable. Today that means being grateful for services held over phones, for the chance to connect without causing harm, and listening to the voices who have long been the canaries in our unequal coal mine. As the next long weeks of isolation stretch out, I can rest knowing we are all in this together, and that as a Christian, slowing the spread of suffering and prioritizing the needs of the community over my own is a part of my tradition of faithfulness.