The rapid spread of coronavirus is confusing and frightening for hundreds of millions of people around the world. While the crisis raises serious medical, ethical and logistical questions, it also leads to additional questions for people of faith, especially as the High Holy day of Easter draws near. Despite church doors being shut, religious leaders are available and offer services.
The persecuted Christians in the early church prayed and shared their faith in the Roman catacombs. African-American slaves found refuge and solemnity in hidden “hush harbors” because it was illegal for them to study the Gospels. Throughout history, people have been reminded that the church is not a building…it is the community.
“We as a church have been forced to innovate and learn during this crisis,” Bishop Grant J. Hagiya wrote to United Methodist Church congregants. “As I have mentioned before, this is the time for us to adapt and create a new way of being. Without this crisis, we would not have been forced to find new ways to connect and be relevant to our own people and the world around us. We must take advantage of this time to change and become different as a church.”
A few weeks ago, West Angeles Church of God in Christ in South Los Angeles canceled its service and instead live-streamed Bishop Charles E. Blake’s message online. Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples across the nation are turning to worship services online, via video streaming on their websites, or on social media pages in response to local government directives to not convene in order to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Pastor Cedrick Bridgeforth, Ed.D. held a zoom conference worship planning team meeting recently to address the communications issues the congregation at Grace United Methodist Church faces during the pandemic.
“So as we deliberate and discuss our options, let us challenge ourselves to think liturgically (what brings our traditions and communities together), theologically (what points toward God and holiness), and technologically (what is a means of bridging our many tech divides present in our congregation),” Bridgeforth wrote.
Easter message of hope
In addition to confronting the technological challenges of spreading the word, religious leaders must confront the questions the virus has promoted in their congregations. Even churchgoers may ask why God allows pandemics, but religious leaders say God neither allows nor causes disease.
Bishop Noel Jones, senior pastor of the City of Refuge church believes that the blame doesn’t fall on God, but on the one God put in charge.
“We did it within the parameters of our free will,” Jones said, noting that the rich, who live affluently, don’t take care of others who are disenfranchised. “The problem with the world is it’s the rich against the poor. People living on top of each other ferments disease.”
“Man wants the wealth of free will , but doesn’t want to live with the consequences,” Jones said.
“Humans’ exercise of free will, power and the need to control is what brings about disparities through out-right disregard for what could be better or best for all.” Bridgeforth said, stressing that his upcoming sermon will address the pandemic.
“The Christian message has been and must always be one that reclaims and reinforces the reality that we are Easter People – people of resurrection,” said Bridgeforth. “We live to live again. We live knowing we shall rise above whatever our current circumstances and narratives. That is the message of hope, regeneration and resurrection that must be proclaimed before, during and after COVID-19 has made its mark on our society and our psyche.”
Some other leaders actually see a bit of silver lining in these uncertain times.
“There are sometimes it feels like the world wasn’t just turned upside down, but it was turned right-side up,” said Pastor Toure Roberts of The Potter’s House in Los Angeles. “People are spending more time with their families. People are texting one another and checking on one another. In the midst of all this craziness, it seems we are getting our priorities straight. I have come to suspect that God is somewhere in it.”
Scripture urges us not to panic
Jones addressed those who panic and believe the apocalypse is upon us.
“Who knows when the end of the end is going to be?” he said. “The end time is quite extensive it seems. Even the apostles believed the coming of the Lord would be in their day. We’ve had wars and rumors and wars. we’ve had tsunamis, we’ve got rich companies poisoning rivers and seas and plastics are all over the ocean…”
Jones added that believers should approach this time from a Christian perspective.
“If my relationship with God is only limited to this world, then I am quite miserable,” he said.
“For a child of God, looking beyond this life is critical for peace in this life” Jones added. “Then you should have some assurance in your insurance.”
There are instances in Scripture that suggest calm in the face of uncertainty. Panic and fear are not from God, according to the Bible, calm and hope are. (2 Timothy 1:7) It is possible to respond to a crisis seriously and deliberately while maintaining an inner sense of faith and collectivism.
St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, spoke often about two forces in our “interior lives”: one that draws us toward God, and the other away from God. The one that draws us away from God “causes gnawing anxiety, saddens and sets up obstacles,” Loyola explained.
There are lots of rumors surrounding the coronavirus. Loyola would caution not to lend credence to lies or rumors, or give into panic or fear.
Scriptures also call believers to resist the temptation to demonize or scapegoat people, though it often happens in times of stress and shortages. COVID-19 is not a “foreign disease, nor is it anyone’s “fault.” The people who become infected are not to blame.
In the New Testament, Jesus was asked “Who sinned… that this man was born blind?” Jesus said no one was to blame (John 9:2).
On Easter Sunday
The United Methodist Now newsletter suggests a few ideas on celebrating at home, including: Making “Christ is Risen!” banners to hang around the house; If fresh flowers – a colorful symbol of new life – are available, bring some in to decorate the spaces where your family gathers; Teach your children the traditional Easter greeting “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and the response “The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!”; Plant seeds (marigold, petunia or grass seeds) in an eggshell carton filled with dirt; sprouting seeds send a clear message to children of the power of new life;Watch the sunrise together on Easter morning (the time of day the Resurrection was discovered).
To continue the celebration throughout the Easter season, Lynn Gilliam, senior editor of “Pockets,” a magazine for children published by The Upper Room, suggested “creating a family worship space – a table, a corner of the family room, wherever the family can gather – if you don’t already have one. Decorate the space for Easter with symbols of new life – flowers, a budding branch, pictures of butterflies or baby animals (invite children to draw these or cut them out from old magazines), etc. In the days following Easter Sunday, gather there each day as a family to pray together and read a short passage of scripture about the events following the Resurrection.”
Easter is a season
Religious leaders say it is vital that persons who are well care for the sick. Coronavirus may be a long pandemic, and some of our relatives, friends and those we most admire may get sick. And while nations around the globe have urged people to take all necessary precautions and not be reckless and risk spreading disease, there is a fundamental duty of Christians to help those in need.
“I was sick, and you came to visit me,” said Jesus in Matthew 25. He lived during a time when people had no access to even the most simple medical care, and visiting the sick was very dangerous. Nor must we close our hearts to the poor (i.e. homeless persons) who have no or limited healthcare. Refugees and migrants as well will likely suffer more than the general population, therefore Scripture advises us to keep our collective hearts open to all those in need. In other words, don’t let your conscience become infected, too.
Easter season activities could include writing notes letting individuals know your family is praying for them to baking cookies for the neighbor next door. The number of people who could use Easter cheer is almost limitless and the joy of Easter is good news for all.