Image: courtesy of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease; reproduced with permission via creative commons license

I had the flu over Christmas.  I started to wonder if my symptoms were more real than psychosomatic the day of the Pageant dress rehearsal (Magi #1, my middle daughter, had been diagnosed three days before), but persevered through the Sunday morning performance.  I left church and went directly to the pharmacy walk-in clinic.

It felt strange to stay home on Christmas Eve, to hand over the reigns of worship, to not sing carols by candlelight. I wondered to my husband if I might just go sit in the back row of another congregation.  Not unless you’re going to wear a mask.  Think how awful you’d feel if you got one of those older folks sick.

His comments felt like a low-blow, but they were effective. I was already feeling guilty for showing up for the pageant; two of our junior actors have a dad going through chemo.  Fat lot of good my pastoral presence would do him during his treatment if I also sent influenza into his home via a 7 year old innkeeper.

Staying home after being diagnosed meant a loss for me, and more work for my colleagues, but it also signaled a concern for my parishioners’ well-being. It felt terrible (everything about the flu felt terrible) but it was the responsible thing to do.

Last week I got sick again. My husband and primary interlocutor helpfully wondered if I’d come down with the coronavirus, although the clinic doc assured me it was just a gross head cold. That same day, a parishioner asked if we’d be making any sort of public service announcements, or changing any Sunday morning procedures, in light of the news of increasing numbers of cases in the United States. Our preschool director talked to her board about what communication to families might be useful, and worked to strike a tone that balanced compassionate concern and competent preparation.  Her public comment, however, felt far more necessary than mine: we all know preschoolers are germ magnets and extremely effective vectors of disease; we needed to be reminded of just how much bleach their standard operating procedures employ, and the school’s thoughtful responses.  What could I add?

Torn between my own fears of raising some false alarm or aiding and abetting the (not-so-subtle) racism and classism that permeates communities like ours and my fears of not doing enough to encourage good practices, I ultimately offered a few notes via facebook and during the beginning of our worship yesterday.  “Feel free to wave the peace, locate the hand sanitizing stations, etc.” I don’t want to incite panic, nor be dismissive of legitimate concern. Epidemics confirmed by the CDC are not hoaxes, neither are they immune from being lobbed as grenades in political rhetoric.

As a congregation, we have struggled to find our voice about political issues. Some believe “politics” is necessarily partisan and thus must never be discussed. Some have similarly allowed political parties’ co-opting of various issues to set the parameters for our congregational conversation. There are a number of moderates who would just really like everyone to get along and thus would have us steer clear of anything that smacks of division of dissent. Some argue pastorally that when we label things that are wrong or dangerous or untrue as such we make it difficult for people to hear us.

As a pastor, I struggle with my desire to respect differences of opinion with a call to speak the truth; an awareness of some of the limitations of some of my parishioners’ frameworks for understanding certain social and theological issues, and a frustration that I have to articulate ad nauseam how my rejection of, say, ideologues who lie to their people, is not political, but theological.  Is it politicizing a public health crisis to point out that persons in power labelling it a “hoax” or underfunding and staffing institutions previously empowered to protect human life are endangering us all?  Is it too political to suggest that there’s something wrong with a system where most people can’t afford to find out if they have a wildly contagious illness, much less miss work to stay quarantined and recover?

It may be too political, but it’s also pastoral. To speak the truth in times of fear and division is not just about helping me sleep at night. It’s about considering the health and well-being of the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. About the low-wage workers with no time off and those who need to hear that the church cares about them, even when  elected officials think their lives don’t matter.

So, for the first time ever, I embrace those tacky little communion cups and the merely symbolic breaking of the bread, while blessing my people with individual pieces of white bread, that they might be filled with the bread of life not viruses, so that all that is shared between us is love, not pathogens.

Bromleigh McCleneghan is Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families and Acting Head of Staff at Union Church of Hinsdale (UCC), in suburban Chicago. Her most recent book is an edited collection of essays from Chalice Press, co-edited with Karen Ware Jackson, called When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith-Filled Responses for Tough Topics (2019). Her mostly neglected website is here, or you can follow her on twitter or facebook.

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