My pastor, the Rev. Paul Rock of Second Presbyterian Church, likes to say that a church "is not a place where but a people who." Which is the sentiment expressed the other day by another pastor on a conference call with Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas.
Although I participated in that noisy call (some people need to learn the skill of muting their phones on such calls), I didn't hear who said this: "We're not closing the church, we're closing the church building." But he got it right.
This COVID-19 pandemic, in fact, has provided another opportunity to learn or relearn that truth.
As this Texas Tribune piece notes, "Religious services are designed to pull people together, to congregate, to commune, to pray. They’re held in sanctuaries — safe spaces. But for all of the good intent, that can be dangerous. Passing the collection plate is safer online than in person, where it goes hand to hand through the pews."
And the reality today is that despite the idea of sanctuaries being a place of refuge or protection, the only safe sanctuaries we have left are our homes -- if we follow the advice of health care experts.
But that doesn't mean we can't be active people of faith, whatever our religious affiliation. We can be in touch with vulnerable and needy people in various ways -- including by phone, e-mail, Facetime, Skype, Zoom and more -- without being in their physical presence. We can pray for the vulnerable. We can financially support charities that are trying to relieve this suffering. We can write cards and letters (remember them?) to people about whom we care. We can attend worship services online or hold study groups online, as the downtown Bible study I help to lead weekly is doing now (last week's small gathering is pictured above). We can greet our own neighbors from a safe distance.
In other words, we still can be the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the gurdwara, the temple, the meet-up.
And where two or three of us are gathered (virtually) together, God has promised to be in our midst. Is that a good deal or what?
That's especially true in this time when the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- celebrate major holidays about the same time, Passover, Easter and Ramadan. There are lots of interesting stories and columns about some of that on the Read the Spirit website operated by my friend David Crumm, former religion reporter for the Detroit Free Press.
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A PLACE FOR ELIJAH?
At virtual Seder meals all over tonight, the tradition of setting a place for the prophet Elijah will continue, but as this RNS column notes, even that will be done in an e-way. The author of the piece also has a proposal for a slightly adjusted way to end the meal: "According to the Haggadah, a seder officially ends with the words, L'Shanah Haba'ah b'Yerushalayim: 'Next year in Jerusalem!' This year, I propose we content ourselves with L'Shanah Haba'ah ishit: 'Next year in person!'"