If you ask most people what ministers and religious communities have to offer people, “believing” comes first to mind. Believing in God and in themselves.
But believing is as social as it is personal. Belonging and believing go together, so much so that sociologists of religion argue over which comes first. Belonging is winning, by the way.
It’s more plausible to believe we are loved and accepted by God when we are loved and accepted by spiritual communities that gather around God’s name. That’s what makes practices of inclusion so healing and those of exclusion so painful. Isolation doesn’t just hamper our social life. It dampens our spiritual life.
Nonetheless, churches, synagogues and mosques all over Dallas are doing exactly what they should in the face of this hyper-contagious virus — keeping a safe distance from and avoiding intimate contact with fellow believers and neighbors. It’s against our sacred nature, but it’s consistent with our sacred duty.
My son-in-law, who is a pastor, said this to his congregation: “Social distancing is like chemotherapy for this pandemic. It’s the toxin to contain the disease. This is not ideal. But these are not ideal times. This is a time we will be giving up something big for something good.”
During the Ebola crisis in 2014, our church was in the middle of the maelstrom. The dear man who died of the terrible virus came to the United States from Liberia to marry his old flame. Louise Troh lost her fiancé, who was also the father of her 19-year-old son. She was, and is, a member of our church.
Ebola is deadly but hard to transmit. The coronavirus is caught as easily as the flu. The coronavirus kills at a rate only slightly higher than the seasonal flu, and it is primarily deadly to those with compromised immune systems.
I say often that fear moves us away from people, while love moves us toward them. That is still true, but in this rare instance, moving toward them lovingly includes moving away from them temporarily.
Then, like now, our city is anxious. Now, like then, our elected officials and health experts have done their jobs with prudence and grace. They have kept us informed and used their powers to protect the virus from spreading, which sometimes means protecting us from ourselves.
Most faith leaders have shown we can believe in God and science at the same time. Truth is truth, wherever it is found.
Thanks to technology, which we often bemoan as a threat to spirituality, we are able to worship and stay in touch virtually. We are missing the hugs, maybe me most of all. But God willing — inshallah, as our Muslim friends say — we will make up for it soon, and our appreciation for social intimacy will be the greater.
Until then, we will love our neighbors creatively, but cautiously.