We Don’t Cancel Church
By the Rev. Angela Herrera
Thursday, March 12, 2020
We’ve known for a few weeks now that Covid-19 was going to impact New Mexico. Around the globe, there are a growing number of bans on travel and on large gatherings. This week, Rev. Bob and I were at a small retreat of UU clergy in Colorado. On Wednesday morning, we finalized a plan to mitigate the risk of illness at church (eliminating interpersonal greetings during worship, sanitizing the building, etc) and to hold an alternative service online for those who opt out of Sunday services. Then Gov. Lujan Grisham announced a state of emergency in New Mexico. In the same press conference, she also asked people to avoid groups including, specifically, churches. Our fellow ministers from Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado were beginning to hear similar messages from their states. Suddenly, there was talk all over the country about “canceling church” in response to the pandemic.
Bob and I stepped away from the group to review our options. Over a small kitchen table, we considered the news as well as guidance coming from the Unitarian Universalist Association. We talked about what happens on Sunday mornings that is sacred and what happens that is important. We considered the role of our church in the wider community—how many people beyond First Unitarian are impacted by what we do together—and what it would be like if illness spread through our congregation and was passed to others. Then we prayed. In our prayer, Bob and I pictured the faces of the congregation. Children, young adults, elders. People of varying strength and health. We spoke members’ names aloud. We listened in silence… for wisdom, for love’s guidance. By the end of the prayer we both knew what we had to do. Church would 100% continue. It would just continue in a different format.
Here’s what is true: We may stop bringing people together in big groups for a while, but we will never cancel church. Our church is not a certain number of people in one place. It is not a building full of pews or chairs. It is not even the words we sing and speak in the curve of the beautiful, hand shaped mural that past generations of our church left for us as their guidance and their embrace. These things are expressions of our church.
Our true church exists in the bond between us. It is in our attention to what is holy, our gratitude for the gifts of our lives, and in our mission to increase goodness and kindness through our ways of being. Church is in a member of the care team rocking a newborn for a few hours so her mama can rest and it is in a minister laying on hands at a bedside, blessing the body and spirit of one who is ailing. It is in our children singing, “My two hands hold the earth,” and it is in marching for the planet in front of the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Church is, to borrow the words of a poet, “the tensile strands of love” that bend and knit together when other seemingly solid structures shift and tilt, and when a new reality must be woven.
Instead of sitting side by side in the sanctuary, this Sunday we’ll sit face to face in a virtual church online. Sitting side by side on Sunday mornings, our eyes are trained toward the front, at the worship leaders. On Zoom, it will be more like gathering in a circle. We will have the opportunity to see each other and the worship leaders all at once. To gaze at each other’s faces and, in doing so, to know each other differently. To experience church differently.
Next week, we’ll begin reaching out to UUs by neighborhood to organize practical and spiritual support for one another.
In the Hebrew scriptures, there is a story in which the character Jacob wrestles all night with a stranger on a river bank. The story does not explicitly say it, but the reader understands that the stranger is the ultimate powers that be, or God. The struggle goes on for hours, until finally the stranger tells Jacob, “Let me go!.” Jacob replies, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Jacob walks away not only blessed, but transformed.
A virus is at the same time very tiny and much larger than us. It is a part of the natural world, of the cycles and seasons of life on this planet. When we” wrestle” with it, what we are tangling with is not just an illness but the conditions for life itself. To be alive is to be part of a world in which there is pleasure and pain, dreams and danger, mighty forests and microbes. In this struggle, let us also demand its blessing. Blessings of resilience, adaptability, love, and community. And may we extend these blessings to others through our manner of being in this world.
Peace be with you.