I have served St. John’s, a small church about 72 kilometres west of St. Louis, Mo. off and on as a supply pastor for the past 10 years. It has a very old cemetery whose headstones date back to the early 1800s, many of them in German. Those who settled the community and founded the church were German Protestant pietists who formed one branch of what would later become The United Church of Christ.
They expressed their faith through community and hospitality, faith that came to the fore during the 1849 cholera epidemic that ravaged St. Louis, leaving thousands dead. Pioneers who had travelled the Mississippi River and disembarked at St. Louis to trek west unknowingly contracted cholera and died by the dozens in wagons, horses and pushcarts, many not far from St. John’s. These German pietists reverently gathered the unidentified corpses and dug a mass grave in the cemetery, determined to give these strangers a Christian burial, placing themselves at great risk of contracting the disease. The Germans were determined to send the message to the community that none of us is alone.
Those acts of hospitality and remembrance were repeated nearly 70 years later, during the flu pandemic that swept the world in 1918. Like today, most churches were closed in response to government order, but many Protestant churches in the United States and Canada flung open their doors to serve as makeshift hospitals when regular hospitals were beyond capacity.
Stories are told of pastors and parishioners who insisted on communicating an important message to the sick and the dying: you are not pariahs, you are not lepers. You are of us. You are of the body of Christ, messages that I attempt to communicate through my primary ministry as a hospital chaplain. Those congregations sent a message to the surrounding communities that swam in terror and panic: here is sanctuary. Here is hospitality. Here is the sacred space where the thin places between health and sickness, between sickness and death are revered. You are not alone.
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And here we are again, over a hundred years later, but now asked to practice social distancing and sheltering-in-place during the COVID-19 pandemic, hardly a satisfying response to crisis for those of us who embody the gospel through action. Even in my work as a chaplain, I am required to stay home and offer pastoral care over the phone to patients and staff who request it.
Interestingly, if we consulted our ancestors, they might tell us that we are communicating their message of “none of us is alone” just as powerfully as they did—we simply transmit it differently. They might be impressed with our use of social media to promulgate caremongering and communities of support, especially for the most vulnerable among us. They might marvel at how my hospital offers iPads to COVID-19 patients so they can connect with their families online through FaceTime and Zoom. Our ancestors would be thrilled with the many ways that community is available to us through technology, all the while suggesting that, as we reach outward to others, we also reach inward to cultivate our interior resources of strength and wisdom much as they did.
At St. John’s, we attempt both during the beginning of our online Sunday service with a pause for check in, asking how people are coping, how they are managing and how we as a community can support them in the moment. The founders of our church would approve. They may insist that, like them, our circumstances force us to not only ask what we can do, but also ask who we can be. Like them, we can be oases of calm and hospitality in a time of anxiety. As we reach outward and inward, like them, we can embody the assurance found in A New Creed: we are not alone.
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