“Coronavirus is a socially transmitted disease, and we all have a social contract to stop it.”
In a responsible response to the coronavirus outbreak, church and worship services across the globe are canceled. Traditional Bible study has gone online. Sermons are watched on Zoom, and old videos of singing choirs have popped up in my inbox. Our global engagement with one another right now is social distancing while staying connected, revealing our acts of spiritual communion.
This pandemic doesn’t call for pandemonium, petty divisions, political wrangling, or panic buying. We are all in this together. Our collective concern should be about saving lives and not the momentary upending of our lifestyles.
The global crisis highlights how we are bound in shared humanity. As such, we are to take seriously medical historian and epidemic expert Howard Markel, who advises, “Coronavirus is a socially transmitted disease, and we all have a social contract to stop it. What binds us is a microbe—but it also has the power to separate us. We’re a very small community, whether we acknowledge it or not, and this proves it. The time to act like a community is now.”
The act of an inclusive community is a difficult concept and lived reality to actualize. Markel’s words, that we should act like a community, are heartfelt, particularly with all of the polarization at the local, national, and international level. This us-versus-them mentality infects places—even our churches, which by their very essence and ethos serve the community.
On March 15, I was invited to be the guest preacher at a United Methodist Church. I didn’t take them up on it, though, because of warnings to remain out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintain a safe distance of at least six feet. For months, the senior pastor and I had been finalizing plans for me to join the church in celebrating its upcoming 15th anniversary as a Reconciling Congregation. UMC Reconciling Congregations welcome people of all gender expressions and sexual orientations, and in his invitation, he wrote the following:
“Given the proximity of this year’s observance to the next UMC General Conference vote re: LGBTQ legislation in May 2020, it is important to us to invite a preacher who will encourage us during a tumultuous time in our relationship with our global connection and, to be honest, in our congregation’s own internal connections.”
Just minutes after our call ended, my smartphone flashed the Associated Press headline: “Methodists propose split in gay marriage, clergy impasse.” I let out a long sigh of despair, wondering why we—LGBTQ+ people of faith—love a church that doesn’t love us. So on March 15, I looked forward to delivering a homily about healing our “isms.”
The proposed schism to be voted on in May at the conference in Minneapolis would divide the world’s third-largest denomination in this country. While the current UMC will allow LGBTQ marriages and clergy, the impending split will create a new “traditionalist Methodist” denomination, allowing outright discrimination and denunciation of LGBTQ people in the name of God. According to the proposed so-called protocol of reconciliation and grace through separation, “The best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person.”
In the sermon I didn’t preach, I wanted to convey that it is not enough just to look outside ourselves to see the places where society is broken. It is not enough to talk about institutions, churches, and workplaces that fracture and separate people based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, and not see these prejudices and bigoted acts in ourselves. We cannot heal the world if we have not healed ourselves. So perhaps the most significant task, and the most challenging work we must do first, is to heal ourselves. And this work must be done in relationship with our justice work out in the world. This pandemic we are experiencing shouldn’t divide us as a community, a nation, or a world.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he was struggling to change a nation. King was disheartened to receive criticism from clergy he considered to be his colleagues and on the battlefield toward justice with him. However, King understood the interconnectedness of human life and the intersectionality of oppressions. His worldview of a global community resounds in these words:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be … This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Let us be united in this struggle together to not only heal ourselves of our indifference toward one another but to also heal a world fighting to save its life.
We have never been where we are today as a nation, from natural disasters to terrorist attacks, hate crimes and unmentionable acts of violence, to now a health pandemic.
In honoring the sanctity of all human life, let’s care for ourselves and each other.
Rev. Irene Monroe can be heard on the podcast and standing Boston Public Radio segment ALL REV’D UP on WGBH (89.7 FM). Monroe’s syndicated religion columns appear and the Boston voice for Detour’s African American Heritage Trail. She is a s a Visiting Researcher in the Religion and Conflict Transformation Program at Boston University School of Theology.