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Staying engaged in the age of coronavirus

Bible study during social distancing, photo by Mike DuBose, UMNews
Bible study during social distancing, photo by Mike DuBose, UMNews

As I write this, I’m sitting in the kitchen looking out our window with my toddler sitting to my right, watching circle time on YouTube, and my spouse remote officing (is that a word?) at the end of the table. 

These are unfamiliar times in which we find ourselves. Our homes that have been places of rest and comfort are now multipurpose spaces for co-working and educational instruction.

I have only left the house to do groceries, and not every week at that. We have begun week four of this new normal, where the starts and stops of the workweek that were once bookended by the weekend--a natural pause in the rhythms of the week--feel like they all blend together. 

And yet when I step outside, there are some things that feel familiar. The birds eating out of the bird feeder. Text threads with friends across the country. FaceTimes with nieces and nephews. The bees hanging around the plants just outside our doorstep. Even my spiritual communities have continued their cadences, albeit the spaces where we gather look a little different.

As a deaconess in The United Methodist Church--a lay order whose lifetime call is to ministries of love, justice, and service--doing things virtually demands creativity in the ways we follow the mandates Jesus left for his disciples: Alleviate suffering; Eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth; Facilitate the development of full human potential; and Share in building global community through the church universal.

Following the commands of Jesus and making love a verb requires us to do what we have always known to be true: to leave the building. This period of physical distancing has compelled us to fully understand what it means to be present with one another even if we aren’t physically in the same space.

How to we maintain presence?

The conversations I witnessed since the issuance of Safer at Home orders have revolved more around the what, than the why. From worship to educational instruction to congregational and community care, naturally our minds went to: How (what technology) do we do this? Church leaders and faculty and staff find themselves acting as producers and audio/visual technicians. Social media managers and multimedia editors navigate a virtual world some had not considered to be a “real” space where viable relationship, instruction, worship and congregational care occur, let alone are sustained.

Here in Nashville where I live and work, conversations have shifted from the production and technical aspects of our gatherings, to the long-term. How do we sustain relationships and form deeper bonds when we aren’t together? What does the practice of caring for one another look like when we are neck deep in anxiety about work, physical health, the economy, and a myriad of other issues that consume more head and heart space than we can manage?

Practicing what a spiritual community looks like online doesn't have to be a replica of whatever it was we were doing in person. It is important to ask however, What was it that made those interactions meaningful? What was it about the connecting and communing with one another that was life giving? How are we able to be present with one another even if we are not together physically? Who is not present now that we have moved solely to digital interactions?

One thing that has been made clear is that we can be really creative. We have found ways to be present with one another, perhaps even more now than we were before. We have somehow made time and created space for the things we said we could not do. In my household, we now have a breakfast routine--something we hadn’t done together as a family except for on weekends. We take morning and evening walks. Our toddler reminds us to pray at every meal. 

There are cadences we are now developing that serve as important markers throughout the day. They remind us to pause and celebrate. 

At Vanderbilt Divinity School, where I’m appointed as a deaconess, we gather weekly for worship and meditation. These brief connection points, though they were also done in person, have moved online and continue one of the threads that hold the community together and widen the circle. Coffee hour, tea time and office hours take a different shape. We see sides of one another we haven’t seen before: kids making appearances on Zoom calls, pets barking in the background, what we look like without makeup. We bring our whole selves.

We are caring for one another in ways we haven’t before. I find myself sending more notes, packages and texts while creating social hours with friends to catch up. I have become more involved with my local church as we navigate together what digital discipleship looks and feels like.

As I continue to work remotely, I am continually reminded that whatever myth of self-reliance we have been fed is just that--a myth. We cannot do life alone. We were created for community. When we celebrate communion we are reminded of this as we remember and re-member ourselves to God and to one another.

The current public health crisis reminds us of our mortality; of the temporal and delicate lives we live. It also presents an opportunity for people of faith to be people of hope, of love, of justice, and of service. 

COVID-19 exposed vulnerabilities in our systems--vulnerabilities many have had the luxury of ignoring: disparities in access to health care; protection for the frontline workers that stock the shelves, clean the hospitals,  provide medical care; living wage; mass incarceration. We have an opportunity daily to engage our faith, whether it’s practicing spiritual disciplines that ground us and guide our work, or fighting for the right of all God’s people to live a healthy and fulfilling life.

Liberation and justice as virtual work

How does one engage in liberation through a screen? I have a few suggestions.

The first is to ask: Who was already doing the work before the pandemic was declared? 

What groups were already activated in this work of justice, equity, and liberation? Who is demanding medicaid expansion? Who is fighting for a living wage? Who is advocating with and on behalf of undocumented persons?

In other words, who is in solidarity with the most vulnerable, who also have the least access?

Search for terms like “mutual aid” and “grassroots” and you’ll likely find organizations that are community-based and run by those most impacted by the pandemic.

Second: Put your money in action. Financial contributions are not for everyone--especially in the midst of a recession or uncertainty about future employment. But if you have the means, organizations like food banks, meals on wheels, and direct service to those experiencing homelessness are still running and need volunteers and donations in ways they will articulate. See what the need is in your city or in the cities whose marginalized populations are experiencing the disparities brought about by poverty, race, and class.

Third, be neighborly. Are there folks in your community who are considered the most at risk? Check in on them, or see if there are organizations who are helping with grocery delivery. Do you know of folks at church who were already socially disconnected before the pandemic? See about organizing a card-writing campaign to send notes of encouragement and love. Who needs help with rent and basic utilities? Help them find resources. Advocate for eviction moratorium and a rent freeze for economically hard-hit tenants’ having to pay rent.

These are unsettling times. Fortunately, ministries of love, justice, and service can happen in many ways, even when we aren’t in a building.

Stay healthy, stay safe, stay engaged, because even after all this is behind us, the work of justice and bringing about God’s shalom, continues.

Sophia AgtarapSophia Agtarap is a deaconess in The United Methodist Church–a lay order whose call is to engage the world through a full-time vocation in ministries of love, justice, and service. She also serves as the Director of Communications at Vanderbilt Divinity School and loves exploring the inter-connectedness of food and community, and the ways that we can love and serve neighbor through those intersections.

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