Janet Hellner-Burris on March 18, 2020
I just finished editing our church’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. It has taken me awhile to complete it because I keep receiving one email and text after another canceling events and engagements. Our church members’ responses range from extreme denial (“It’s a hoax”) to extreme concern. At this point no one is panicked – yet. But we are taking precautions as a congregation to protect ourselves, our members and those we serve in the community.
Meanwhile as I pray about ministering in an age of pandemic (they did not cover that one in seminary), I find myself disturbed by the phrase “social distancing.” Please understand that I know why social distancing is being recommended by health officials during this pandemic, but still the phrase sends chills down my spine. Isn’t social distancing what we are already practicing? Social distancing from the migrant, the immigrant, the homeless, the HIV infected person and the incarcerated? Social distancing from people of a different race, income, educational background, neighborhood, religion or politics? Social distancing is the norm for our world – and it is killing us. Killing us with a refusal to pour our resources into ending the social and epidemic viruses of racism, hunger, poverty, hate, gun violence and terrorism as well as the destruction of the planet we all depend on for life.
If there is one lesson we can learn from this coronavirus, it is that we are all connected on this planet. Coronavirus does not care about national, state or neighborhood boundaries. It doesn’t care what race or faith you are, or who you voted for in the last presidential election. It infects everyone.
Meanwhile I am left wondering how to practice kindness in an age of social distancing. I know that many people are stressed, so I am trying to pour extra kindness into every social contact through the day – every call, email or text. I am reaching out to those who have compromised immune systems and our precious elderly. I am talking with my colleagues about how to care for the most vulnerable among us, such as the working poor who cannot afford to lose a day, let alone two weeks of pay to a quarantine. I only have glimpses of what it means to practice kindness during this pandemic. What I do know is that kindness is needed more than ever as we find new ways to re-connect in this season of social dis-connecting.
Janet Hellner-Burris is Pastor, Christian Church of Wilkinsburg and Board President, Wilkinsburg Sanctuary Project for Peace