I’ve been the rector of the episcopal church, Nativity, in Dothan, Alabama for almost eight years. I am married to a hospice nurse, and I have two children, ages seven and nine.
I am a bit of a news junkie, so I knew of the existence and potential threat of COVID-19 since early January, which is when we also started telling my mother, who is over 70 and has asthma, that she needs to take it easy and stay at home. She didn’t actually listen until early March. In my head, I had a mix of both trepidation and rationalizing towards the level of risk to my immediate family. At the same time, I felt a sense of shock and dismay that it wasn’t taken seriously until it was too late to contain the spread.
Since the cancelation of my children’s schools, we have spent a lot of time with the kids helping them with homework. My son is at a school where the students have access to reliable internet and technology, so his classwork is mostly online. My daughter, on the other hand, is in the complete opposite situation where her school can only provide her with paper packets. The work is supposed to last her for two weeks, but she can finish it in a day. She isn’t challenged at all.
My wife has begun admitting patients who have terminal diagnoses, some of whom have also tested positive for the virus. Her re-entry into the home every day is a source of stress and worry. Even though she has some personal protective equipment, she has very little. After work, she takes her shoes off outside, and as soon as she comes in, she showers in the guest room bathroom. COVID-19 has been a complete disruption of our home life, work life, and our kids’ education.
If my wife gets the virus, she is out of work. She probably will still get paid, but maybe she won’t. If I get the virus, I will still get paid, but I am the only priest at our church and I won’t be able to do any of the things I ordinarily do. A lot of my jobs have already evaporated. I can’t go to the hospital or see people who are dying. I’ve had three facetime calls with people who are dying in the ICU and don’t have access to a church. Their families want someone to pray for their loved ones. Ordinarily, I would just go to them, but now I can’t.
The bishop of the diocese has suspended all in-person worship since late March. Most communication, study groups, and administrative meetings are online, including Sunday services. I have to produce a video service ahead of time so that the congregation can still feel connected to this place. They have been really good about staying connected to the mission of the church and in the community— but we lack that anchor of being together on Sundays. The church’s essence is rooted in a community of believers and that community is challenged when it cannot meet together.
The problem with moving online is that many of our older members can’t navigate finding the link to the service. Those are the people who most desperately need that sense of connection and community, and they are the people who are least likely to be able to access it. I know that we are missing some of those people, which is why I have spent time calling parishioners.
It feels like forever, but this is temporary. It is not going to last forever. I believe that there is hope in clarifying purpose and mission. When you can extract all the other things, you realize how insignificant they are in comparison to what is really important. I feel powerfully and deeply connected to this space, but this space itself was never what is most important. What is most important in this church has always been the people. There is hope in the way people have responded and loved one another during these times.
Once we are able to focus, refine, and think about what it is we really do that matters, then we can do better. This realization has been a true blessing.
Written by: Mary Blake Zeron