Social Distancing and Faith Communities

Faith during the pandemic has been difficult. Since I was young, my father told me not to trust televangelists, but that’s what all the pastors have been for the past nine weeks. Next Sunday, my home Church in Tennessee will do a partial reopening. Before returning to the physical building, I want to reflect on the weeks my mother and I watched sermons in our living room. I will first describe how my mother and I relate to the sermons; second, I will discuss our talks when the sermons end; and third, I will reflect on the most recent sermon where my pastor claimed to have the remedy to the current social unrest.

My mother and I approach the online sermons from two different vantage points. I listen to the pastor as a young man, privileged to not have to work while I study Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas. Greek metaphysics and Catholic theology forms an arrogant lens for me to spectate the Southern Baptist online sermon. I play the role of the person who knows secrets that others cannot understand, least of all the preacher speaking to us from Facebook. My vantage point is proud and vain.

I do my best to perform the role of the person in control. Behind the mask, I am afraid. No amount of metaphysics changes the reality that I cannot gather with other believers, I cannot see my priest walk amongst us to read the Gospels, I cannot eat the body and blood of Christ. Without the physical practices of faith, it is difficult to love an invisible God. Only now in isolation have I started to understand how small my faith is. How easily would I have created golden calves in the wilderness—I cannot yet love the God that prohibits His craven images.

I think a similar fear affects my mother. Instead of watching the screen from false confidence, she affirms every proposition. Whenever the Pastor claims that Christ will fix our present crises, mother nudges me saying: “See?”, “I told you,” or the emphatic “Amen!” If I do not reciprocate, however, my mother will then ask whether I agree or not. Too often my pride keeps me from giving my mother the epistemic support a Church crowd provides. When in person, the Church crowd can serve as an echo chamber of faith building. The pastor will say an incredible proposition; then the laity will offer consent by shouting, “Amen.” The shouting is contagious amongst the leaders in the Church; it reminds the Church that these are the ideas we believe—and hearing those you respect give affirmation to the extraordinary encourages others to do the same. Yet, we are not in a Church on Sundays, and my mother does not have hundreds of others to bolster her belief. A fear becomes visible in my mother; she becomes desperate to not only affirm the screen in front of us but to also foster the same affirmation in the rest of the family.

When the sermons end, we close the computer; my father, brothers, and cousins leave to their Sunday activities; my mother and I stay on the couch to discuss the sermon. One central point my mother returns to is her hope that the pandemic will lead people to God. On this topic, my mother and I have argued a lot. Whenever I come close to winning the argument, my mother calls for father to come in an end the conversation.

When our conversations do continue, however, they lead to the book of Job (a book in the Bible—perhaps the oldest). Despite living a righteous life, Job lost his riches, his health, and his children. At the end of the book, Job questions God. The grey clouds gather, and God warns Job to gird his loins. God then thunders down his response: “Where were you when I formed the [cosmos]” (Job 38.4-30). God never answers Job’s question, and we all have to accept that though there is a divine purpose to the things that happen, we might not ever find it out. Although God may be working through the pandemic or the race riots, we do not know how or why.

This past Sunday, my pastor entitled his sermon: “Jesus Christ—yes World, it’s that simple.” The Pastor delivered the sermon in a pulpit with no one in the pews. Instead of the traditional Baptist Preacher attire of suit and tie, the Pastor’s collar was open. In the first announcements, the pastor reminded the Church both that they still needed to pay their tithe and that they needed to come back to Church when the doors open back up. Inside the Church that morning, and in the race riots outside, the Pastor’s sermon seemed to oversimplify the present chaos of our quarantine.

I am a Christian though, and there is a sense in which I believe the Pastor is speaking the truth. But justice must also be sought for people dying of the pandemic and for people being oppressed for the color of their skin. The most confusing obstacle that attacks my faith, is that people who claim the Faith act against the welfare of others: whether they turn a blind eye towards the physical health of others or are complicit in racism. This is a difficult conversation that my mother and I have not yet solved, nor has the Pastor revealed the answer.

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