The Christian response to Coronavirus isn’t “Keep Calm and Jesus On.” It should be “Let’s Love Our Neighbors, Together (Even If From a Distance!)”

by Rev. Christopher De La Cruz

There’s an impulse among Christian circles to respond to the Coronavirus with platitudes like, “We’ll get through it, God is in control.” “Don’t fear or panic, trust in God.” “Have faith and hope that God will provide.” “We just have to pray.”

I do not necessarily disagree. In fact, I resonated with a timely and poingaint tweet from @Becky_Zartman, who writes:

“I keep thinking about how Julian of Norwich was a child of the Black Death, being 8 when it swept through Norwich. She also survived the Peasants Revolt and the Lollard persecutions. 

And yet. 

‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’”

But this tweet is grounded in real experience from a Christian saint that takes into account the gravity of the situation and a deep Blessed Assurance rooted in real suffering.

In contrast, in the face of a global pandemic that could infect thousands of vulnerable populations and overwhelm our nation’s hospitals to deadly proportions and has already caused mass uncertainty and upheaval to our lives, “Keep Calm and Jesus On” Christianity bears no witness to Christ. It rings as hollow as someone in a burning building screaming for help being met with a passersby retorting, “Well, don’t you believe in God? Shouldn’t you be more at peace?”

“It is Well with My Soul” – a hymn written amid unspeakable tragedy, turns into “Everything Will Turn Out Fine, Since It’s Been Fine So Far – For Me Anyway.”

In some senses, I don’t think this “Christian attitude” has much to do with Christian theology at all. A week before the mass sports and entertainment cancellations that have rattled Americans, a grocery store clerk looking at the massive lines of overstocked carts (and, admittedly, my own heap of canned beans and frozen goods) sneered at people he claimed were being driven “hysterical” and said he wasn’t going to “overreact” because even if it got to mass infection and massive lockdowns, things would work out fine and “they would never let it get that bad.” “They” being a vague conglomerate of government institutions or relief workers or somebody that was going to take care of things so it turned out ok.

He gave no indication of Christian belief or even any vague spirituality guiding him. But his sentiment was rooted in the same faith that things will just be okay because they just will, so help me God, or so help me “They.”

“Keep Calm and Jesus On” isn’t a “peace that passes all understanding.” It is a false faith born out of our idolatry of American exceptionalism that posits that nothing that bad, especially not massive death and hospitals running out of life-saving supplies, can happen in America. It is a false faith rooted in reckless positive thinking that, while at its best has some psychological coping merit, at its worst prevents people from actually being in touch with their emotions – including, yes, fear! – and accepting and therefore responding to the actual situation at hand.

And most tragically, it is a false faith that places the emphasis on self-survival and self-comfort and away from the mandate every Christian says they believe in, which is to “love your neighbor.”

What if “trusting in God” truly meant: let’s assess realistically what is happening around us and call it for what it is – probably really, really, really bad – and then say, okay, but what can we do to still love others? This seems much more in line with the Biblical prophetic naysayers like Jeremiah and Isaiah, anyway, doesn’t it?

What if Christians saw actions like social distancing and canceled large gatherings not as inconveniences for our individual personal survival but as collective loving of our neighbors together – even while apart? Part of the problem of modern American Christianity is that we have so bought into the myth of hyperindividualism that we don’t understand working as a collective or serving in solidarity as part of faith, ironic considering the literal collective-solidarity images like the body of Christ with many members or many branches rooted in the one vine of Christ.  Rev. Esau McCaulley’s plea for Christians to “Stay home” (www.nytimes.com/2020/03/14/opinion/coronavirus-church-close.html) makes sense when faith isn’t just about our individual relationships with God but our believing that God truly is working through all things, including you, Christians, acting out of love for all other human beings made in the image of God.

What if it was okay to acknowledge our own fear – and then work off that acceptance to call and comfort those I know who must be feeling fear and lonely themselves?

In other words, Christians need to really, well, believe, but understand what faith really looks like. Yes I do have faith! That’s why I believe that if this virus could affect people quickly, and I have any power to make sure that our doctors and nurses don’t get overloaded and then have to make awful life or death decisions about which patients get to have the limited ventilator (like has already occurred in places like Italy), then my faith is that God can use me and can use others for this, if we work together.

Forget the false hope of our hallow certainty. There is true peace life a river – all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well! – when we decide that despite the despair around us, Jesus followers choose to live out our call to love, even in ways that look differently than we’ve ever done them, and let God’s call to love be our guide in responding to the time we find ourselves in.


Rev. Christopher De La Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica in New York City. He also serves on the NEXT Church Strategy Team.

Ten Facilitation Tips for Meeting Online

NEXT Church has been operating virtually for the past 7+ years, so we are super familiar with meeting online! Mostly, we have used Zoom, so we refer to that platform here, but we hope these tips will translate across different platforms. 

  1. Create a clear agenda. As you are creating the agenda, be very clear about what type of activity or response you need from the group (e.g., vote, discussion, FYI). People need more clarity when online than they do in the room. 
  2. Intentionally assign roles. It is harder to multi-task on a screen than in person. For instance, have someone host. Have someone run tech. Have someone take notes. Have someone record attendance or vote-counts. If you do introductions at the top of a meeting, it works best if the host invites people to share. That way everyone doesn’t jump on top of each other. 
  3. Welcome people! Greet people as they come on, just like you would in a room. If you are getting together with people you’ve not met, introduce yourself. Chat until the meeting gets started or let people know if you need to run and refill your coffee while things get moving. If people come in late, welcome them, but don’t rehash everything you’ve already done. And don’t forget to do a bit of extra narration for those on the phone only, who can’t see what’s happening on video.
  4. Some silence is ok. As the facilitator, you’ll be tempted to fill all the space. Don’t. Give a longer beat of silence when you ask a question or start a discussion than you would in the room. It’s also ok to check in about silence. “Does the lack of response mean you all agree? Or you are unsure? Or you didn’t hear me?”
  5. Discussions feel different over video than they do in a room. If the group is small and comfortable with each other, it will probably go fine. If it is a larger group or folks don’t know each other, often, only a few voices will get heard. So, see #5.
  6. Use breakout rooms! It’s like a turn to your neighbor feature. It’s great for relational things, prayer partners, small group discussion, or even committee meetings during a larger meeting. 
  7. It’s harder to read body language online than in the room. If the first few voices agree with an idea, it’s a good idea to ask something like, “does anyone have a different opinion?” It’s also helpful to remind participants that they will need to be responsive. If someone asks a question like, “Are we ready to move on?,” it’s helpful to give a thumbs up or actually say “yes.”
  8. Practice all the good facilitation skills you use in person. Ask the most frequent voices to give some space. Invite less frequent voices to share their thoughts. Intentionally check with the people on the phone who don’t have the advantage of the video to know when and how to break into the conversation.  
  9. Time management is key. 60-90 minutes is MAX over video and shorter is better. Consider adding time frames to your agenda.
  10. People logging in from their own space is a gift. Enjoy it when children pop onto the screen to say hello. Chuckle at the dog who jumps up on a lap. Ask about an interesting book on a shelf or poster on the wall or the orchid growing in the background. It’s a chance to get to know people in a different way. 

 

Ten Tips for Folks New to Online Meetings

NEXT Church has been operating virtually for the past 7+ years, so we are super familiar with meeting online! Mostly, we have used Zoom, so we refer to that platform here, but we hope these tips will translate across different platforms. 

  1. You can do this! If you are unsure, do a test run and check out the Zoom FAQs. 
  2. Set yourself up well. 
    1. Find a place with good wifi/internet connection. If you get a message at any point that your internet is unstable, give it a minute and it will likely resolve. If not, you can try logging back in or calling on the phone.
    2. If you are able, attend on video. It helps everyone feel more connected. 
    3. Have headphones available in case there is some background noise or echoing. (If you are typing during the call, that can usually be heard if you aren’t using headphones.)
    4. Pull up the login information five minutes before so that you aren’t five minutes late.
    5. Grab some water or coffee ahead of time.
  3. Say hello! Treat the start like any other meeting. Say hello and introduce yourself if you are meeting with folks you don’t know. 
  4. Check your name when you join. Click on the three dots in the upper right corner of your picture once online. Click “Rename.”
  5. Choose your view – gallery view (think Brady Bunch grid) or speaker view (current speaker is large). The selection button is found in the upper right corner and will only change your personal viewing screen.

    Gallery View

    Speaker View

  6. Don’t forget, we can see you and hear you! Mute yourself when you aren’t talking, especially in large groups, to cut down on background noise. You can turn the video/sound off if something awkward happens or you need to move away to take care of something. (Pro tip: Don’t vacuum while you are on a video call. It happened.)
  7. Be responsive. Silences are more awkward online. If a question is asked, jump in or give a thumbs up or put something in the chat box. Also notice if you are talking too much and pull back a little bit. If your (unofficial) role in the group is to keep things moving, you might pull back by saying aloud, “I have a few thoughts but I have spoken a lot; I’m curious what others think.”
  8. If you are calling in on the phone, say, “This is [insert your name here]” before you start talking. That helps orient people to who is saying what.
  9. Use the chat feature to converse with other participants in the meeting. You will find this at the bottom toolbar, among other useful tools, including how to leave the meeting. The chat function is great for:
    1. sharing a document or web address
    2. asking a question or making a comment if you can’t jump into the conversation
    3. cracking a joke
    4. saying hello or goodbye, if you don’t want to interrupt
  10. Receive the gift of seeing people in their own spaces! Ask about an interesting plant or knick knack. Wave to children or housemates who wander in. Enjoy the antics of pets. Marvel at the gift that is technology that allows us to connect this way.

You really can do this! It will get easier as it becomes more familiar.

Resources for Doing Church Digitally: A NEXT Church Response to COVID19

We at NEXT Church are committed to equipping faith leaders and congregations and much of our work is done through a virtual medium. Given this, we’ve prepared several resources that we hope pastors and churches find helpful as they seek to live out community and faith in this time of uncertainty. Find below a sermon and related resources for reflection and worship that you are welcome to share with your own congregation if you are refraining from holding in-person services this Sunday and in the weeks to come. Below that, we’ve also included some general tips for digital community development and worship. In whatever ways your communities gather in the weeks to come, we encourage you to do whatever you can to honor our call to justice and offer support and care for those who are facing anti-Asian racism, as well as immigrant churches and communities who are particularly vulnerable.


Sermon – Kathryn Johnston:

In the closing worship service of the 2018 National Gathering in Baltimore, Rev. Kathryn Johnston invited us to consider the “holy way” of community. This sermon seems appropriate for this moment as we think about community in a time of “social distancing.” Rev. Johnston’s reflections on stereotypes remind us even in a time of pandemic and political divide, not to let stereotypes compromise our engaging another’s humanity. She also reminds us of the ways we can show up to support one another in times of need.


Reflection Questions:

  • Have you ever been side-swiped on the holy way?
  • Have you ever almost missed someone on the holy way because you were on the holier-than-thou way?
  • How have our churches missed people on the holy way because they are on the holier-than-thou way?
  • Kathryn says, “Any time a line is drawn, Jesus is on the other side. Friends, we can’t stay where we are. God calls us to the holy way. It’s a risk. We prefer our comfort zones. We like what we know. The more we dig in the more comfortable our rut becomes. Soon its almost impossible to move us as we have dug ourselves so far in that we are surrounded by protective barriers. A foxhole of the familiar. And we are moving nowhere.”
    What is your foxhole of the familiar? Where are you most comfortable?
  • Kathryn invites us to get out of our ruts and move to unfamiliar places – to go willingly into the wilderness so God can do a new thing because that is the holy way.
    Where might God be calling you? Where might God be calling your gathered community?

Worship Liturgy:

Call to Worship

One: Spirit that lives among us:
All: We see life here in our testimonies, in our tensions, and in this community.
One: Spirit that walks us through death:
All: We are aware of the deaths we experience, the grief we carry, and the pain we bear.
One: Spirit that burns as we rise:
All: We desire to resurrect, to restore, to reconcile; to rise into your call.
One: Spirit that teaches us as we live again:
All: As we worship together, let us live into the new creation that God calls us to be.

Song: Our Life is in You


Confession

Left: We stand in the desert and are consumed with the death that surrounds us
All: Creator let the new life begin
Right: We trust our own abilities and language to breathe newness into desolation
All: Creator let the new life begin
Center: We are parched and thirsty when speaking your truth
All: Creator let the new life begin

Left: We notice people linking arms in the streets
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Right: We feel communal laments of injustice
All: Creator let the new life break forth
Center: We experience the tension of a kindom that is not yours
All: Creator let the new life break forth

Left: We long for unity over oppressive systems
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Right: We yearn for connections that come with vulnerability
All: Creator let the new life blossom
Center: We crave courage to break through our deserts of fear
All: Creator let the new life blossom

Song: Draw Me Closer


Assurance/Peace

The desert is not dead:
Even the sand and dust of our lives
Give testimony to God’s abounding grace and healing,
Revealed in our living, dying, rising, and new life.

God takes all we have
In the desert times of our lives
And leads us into new vistas,
With vision, songs of joy, wellsprings of water.

And now, we invite you desert-wanderers
To live into this proclamation of grace,
By sharing the peace that Christ shares with us,
Stepping out of your contexts and comfort zones.

As you are able, please move to a new place in this room,
Staying there for the rest of the service,
And sharing the peace of Christ along the way.

Sharing the Peace

The Peace of Christ be with you.
And also with you.

Scripture

Voice 1:The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
Voice 2:The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.
V1:Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
V2: “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. God will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. God will come and save you.”
V1:Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
V2:For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
V1: A highway shall be there,
V2:and it shall be called the Holy Way;
V1:the unclean shall not travel on it,
V2:but it shall be for God’s people;
V1:no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
V2:No lion shall be there,
V1:nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
V2: they shall not be found there,
V1:but the redeemed shall walk there.
ALL: And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
V1:and come to Zion with singing;
All: everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
V2: they shall obtain joy and gladness,
All:and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Sermon


Song: Everlasting Life


Communion

Invitation to the Table

Come to this table,
You who have walked through the wilderness and dwelt in the deserted places-
Have you been fed?

Come to this table,
You who have seen the first signs of spring and have been longing for the blossom to break forth-
Have you been fed?

Come to Christ’s table.
Rise and bloom in the wilderness.

Great Prayer of Thanksgiving

May the Creator of the Holy Way be with you.
And also with you.
Do not be afraid, people of God, but lift your hearts to the holy One.
Our hearts will be filled with God’s hope and grace.
Children of God, offer songs of goodness to the One who keeps faith forever.
We offer glad praises to the One who comes with justice.

You carved a holy way
through chaos, Creating God,
rejoicing with Word and Spirit as
The waters of creation
Burst forth to form rivers where there had been only dry land.
Those same waters continue to give us life in all its beauty and biodiversity.
Despite these gracious gifts we continually turned away from you.
Patiently, you sent prophets to us,
who urged us over and again to return.

Holiness is the path you walk, Gracious God,
and, in your mercy, you sent your Child, Jesus,
To bring justice for all people,
To lead us along the path of redemption.
He gives us vision where we cannot see,
Ears to hear what we do not want to hear.
When we are worry, world, and work weary,
he comes to strengthen our feeble knees,
And put to work our weak hands.

Truth be told, there are lots of deserts in our lives,
Places that are dying or already dead.
We know the pain—and so do those around us—
of keeping up the facade;
Spring up in us like blossoms in the desert,
Put us to leaping, give to our voice songs we have not sung in a long time.
Put us back on the holy way that leads to everlasting joy.

Come to us in our silent contemplation
As we prepare our hearts to receive this spiritual food

Silence

Gather your people now,
and lead us along the holy way to the Table
where the Spirit anoints the bread and the cup
and blesses all who have come for this feast.

Words of Institution


Sharing of the Bread and Cup


Prayer


Closing Song: Summons


Some Things to Think about if You are Sharing Stuff Virtually:

  • Share what you can and curate from others! We don’t all need to reinvent the wheel. If your church is livestreaming worship, share it with others. If you already do a bible study online, invite others beyond your congregation to join. If your church is doing something creative with children’s ministry as kids are home from school, share it! 
  • Be thoughtful about sharing to a wider group than you normally do. If you are livestreaming or recording a sermon, recognize that people outside your normal congregation might see it. Welcome them! Encourage them to continue engaging in their local congregation, particularly around offering monies because the economic impact of this is likely going to be severe and most challenging for those already living with less.
  • Trust the leaders in particular communities. People are going to make different choices right now based on individual circumstances. Let’s support each other in those decisions and not shame each other. (Except about washing hands. Everybody wash hands!)
  • Work together in your community. Perhaps the community will be well served by congregations working in tandem so that similar patterns are happening with building closures, worship services, etc across a given community. 
  • Be thoughtful about caring for the most vulnerable in our communities. Taking worship online is a possibility. Serving a meal virtually is not. How can we safely offer resources to the most vulnerable?
  • Consider: What opportunities for creative collaboration might be possible? 
  • Don’t assume that everyone in your congregation uses social media. If you’re livestreaming services, consider whether/how people who don’t have Facebook can see the video.
  • Teach your congregation how to use the technology necessary to participate in virtual community
  • Lead with grace and honesty. Don’t stress over leading a perfect worship service over Zoom. Write a prayer and email it if that’s the capacity you have. Grace abounds!
  • Be mindful of the prevalence of anti-Asian racism as well as the impact of this crisis on immigrant churches and communities who are especially vulnerable. Consider ways you and your congregation can work for justice and support and care for the folks being impacted in these particular ways.

Please also check out the guidelines for livestreaming services included in this piece from the PC(USA).


We’d love feedback about whether the above information is helpful to you and your context and what other ways we can support you in this time. Please let us know!