At this time a year ago, the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. In a matter of days, places of worship canceled in-person events and closed their doors. Pastors, chaplains, and people of faith faced enormous challenges while scrambling to move their work online where possible.
How could religious communities stay connected while protecting the most vulnerable? How could individuals express their faith while living in isolation?
For an entire year, people of faith throughout the world have grappled with these questions in addition to the pandemic’s losses and griefs, the many crises for those on the margins, our developing understanding of the virus, and waves of death and disease, as well as hope that the vaccines will make 2021 a more promising year. Throughout it all, religious leaders have sought ways to support the larger community while providing for the needs of members of their congregations.
For the next several weeks at Bearings Online, we will share some of these pandemic stories from alumni of the Collegeville Institute’s programs, both in the United States and abroad. The first essay in this Covid year series comes from Jen Crow, a pastor in Minneapolis. She was a member of the Collegeville Institute’s 2015-17 Twin Cities Fellows program, which equips church leaders to be civic leaders and public theologians.
For me, the ethical guidelines of my profession are a sacred text, and while they never say it straight out, it seems clear to me that as a minister, at a minimum I am never supposed to invite members of my church into my bedroom. This is what was on my mind in March of 2020 as I strung an ethernet cable and a series of extension cords across my freshly made bed.
After hastily watching a series of videos about how to look good on Zoom, I positioned myself in the best possible light of the six lamps I’d precariously perched behind my eye-level camera, trying to limit the view of not just my nose hair but also of what people might see of this space, my bedroom, my most intimate of sanctuaries. I placed my laptop on the edge of the bed, and after a countdown from our audio visual technician, who was hunkered down halfway across the city, I took a deep breath and joked with the congregation, playfully announcing: “Live from my bedroom, it’s Sunday morning.”
Like most other churches in the country, we had just shuttered the doors of the church for the first time in a hundred years and we were all adapting to this new thing of Sunday services on Zoom. Earlier that month, I had gone to visit a member of our church who was dying. It was the days before masks and personal protection equipment (PPE), and I sat with her, stroking her forehead and holding her hand as she coughed and settled and coughed and settled. Later, we learned that it wasn’t her newly transplanted lungs that were troubling her, it was Covid-19, and within weeks she was gone. On this particular Sunday in March, before masks were easy to gather, before testing was available, before we knew much about how the virus was transmitted, I was holed up at home, isolating to the best of my ability away from my family, leading church from my bedroom.
Live from my bedroom, it’s Sunday morning.
Five minutes into the service, I nervously dropped my manuscript, watching my carefully planned pages scatter to the floor. Something in me knew to let them go, and I let loose, preaching more spontaneously than usual about how we might bring each other and our ancestors close, feeling our love and connection, even when we couldn’t be together physically. I turned to the altar I kept on my dresser. The dresser is my mother’s, the tray on top of it, my grandmother’s. There are figurines of weeping and laughing Buddhas; a swirling wood sculpture of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus wrapped in each other’s arms; a collage of quotes about hope from the days after our house fire; and a small rainbow Mickey Mouse. Tucked into the mirror are a few old photos – my grandmother sitting with me as I blew out the candles on the cake on my sixth birthday, my mom and I leaning against my muscle car from my late teens, my wife and I looking 20 years younger in our first-ever church portrait.
I let loose, preaching more spontaneously than usual about how we might bring each other and our ancestors close, feeling our love and connection, even when we couldn’t be together physically.
That morning, I invited the church into my most intimate of sanctuaries. I showed them my altar. I asked them to gather their pictures, their tchotchkes, the things that help them remember their connections. I told them to make themselves ready for the strange days ahead, days when we’d need to live from our faith more than ever, when we’d be called to sacrifice for the common good, days when our one-ness with each other, our inescapable interconnection, would move from metaphor into practice.
One year into the pandemic, I don’t lead church from my bedroom anymore. I’m in the basement now, preaching barefoot wearing a nice, not-too-busy blouse in front of a screen that separates our newly built home office into two spaces—one public and one private. We’ve gotten used to the fact that Sunday mornings happen beyond the bounds of the church building, that worship finds its way to us in our homes or through our headphones wherever we are. We begin each service by lighting candles where we are, settling our bodies and breathing together, connecting across time and space. Even though I’m often the only one visible, it seems like all of us are more present, more authentic, more real. The chat in our Zoom services is full of vulnerability. For some of us, it turns out it’s easier to share our heartaches when we don’t have to look at one another.
The chat in our Zoom services is full of vulnerability.
This increased vulnerability goes both ways. I no longer bring a fully-written manuscript to our services. I don’t put on a clerical robe, or even dress pants most of the time. The goal is connection now, not perfection. I no longer armor up emotionally before I step out in front of the congregation. Instead, I find myself focusing my gaze on the camera that is just a few feet from my face. I take a deep breath and I imagine my people, many of whom I’ve never met in that old way of face to face—and I do my best to rain love on them—sending it all the way from where I am to wherever they are, from Minneapolis to Madagascar. My people are no longer right in front of me, but somehow they are closer than ever. There is an intimacy to this distance. I hope we can keep it, even when we are together in person again.