There is so much I want to say to you all this morning. First, a word of thanks to everyone who participated in our online worship experiment yesterday. Thank you for making church happen in a new way! We will continue to experiment with these online avenues for staying connected.
Second, thank you for all of the thoughtful e-mail notes I've received from so many of you over the last few days as we've been facing in to what this pandemic means for our life together as a people of God. I'm not sure I've responded to everyone just yet, but I have read and been heartened by everything you've sent.
Third, I have a difficult update to share: the bishops of the Diocese of New York have officially suspended all in-person worship and in-office work for the next eight weeks. This is particularly hard for us because it includes Holy Week and Easter. Please know that this decision was far from easy, and has been made with the deepest compassion and utmost commitment to the Gospel. Sometimes love looks like empty pews.
In addition to the bishops' directive, the CDC is now advising that no one gather in groups of more than 10 people. Let's lean into all of this the best we can, and make this further stripping down and letting go a conscious and intentional part of our Lenten journey. We are in the desert with Jesus. And yet, with the Psalmist, we may still find that "Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs" (84:5).
As I've said already, and will keep reiterating, these precautions are not being taken out of an over-abundance of fear, but an over-abundance of love and concern for the most vulnerable among us. We are not quarantining in order to "look out for No. 1" but rather to protect "the least of these my brothers and sisters"--those who are most at risk by contracting the virus. And let us not forget that while those over 60 are statistically more vulnerable, this virus is no respecter of age. Just over the state line in Danbury, CT, a young father in his 40s is currently in an induced coma because the virus has so severely ravaged his respiratory system.
When I wrote to you on Friday, there were just over 400 confirmed cases of the virus in New York. As of this morning, there are nearly 1,000. And scientists are telling us that for every confirmed case, we should estimate another 5-10 cases that remain unconfirmed. Testing is still not widely available in our area. After experiencing an odd headache and scratchy throat for a couple of days--minor symptoms sometimes associated with the virus, and reported to me by at least six other local friends--I was told that none of us could be tested, as the test is being reserved for only those with the most severe symptoms. While we all may have experienced some other, unrelated bug, there's really no way to know, as for many people it presents only mildly.
A priest-colleague shared with me that a parishioner was exposed in February to the virus, has tested positive, and still has shown no symptoms. We now know that asymptomatic carriers of the virus can nevertheless transmit it. The following graphic shows the expansion rate of the virus in Italy, side by side with the U.S.:
This is why we are practicing "social spaciousness" (I prefer this term to "social distancing"!)--to prevent the chart on the right from continuing to mirror the one on the left. If you have not listened to
these video clips
from individuals quarantined in Italy yet, I encourage you to do so. They have recorded messages they want to give to themselves 10 days ago, before they were taking the virus so seriously (note: there are some curse words toward the end of the footage). As you're all aware now, what we're attempting to do at this point is "flatten the curve" of the virus' expansion, so as to not overwhelm our medical facilities (and, to be blunt, our morgues).
We are living in incredible circumstances, and they require of us an equally incredible commitment to love--and a continual reminder that sometimes love doesn't look like St. Francis hugging the leper; sometimes love looks like St. Francis staying home so someone else doesn't become the leper. Our hope is that, when we look back in a couple of months, it will appear that we all incredibly overreacted. If it does, that means these tactics will have proved successful.
As this all unfolds, some are warning that the real contagion spreading now is fear. They are not wrong that fear is a poison, especially in times like these. But what I am seeing unleashed in our communities is not so much a wave of fear as a wave of incredible human tenderness. People are communicating, connecting, supporting each other, and reaching out in new ways. Folks are slowing down, reconnecting with the Earth, with their homes and families, and even with the tiredness of their own bodies.
I think that, in many ways, this virus is here as our teacher. The nightmare of capitalism tells us to continually be on the go--to work, produce, stay busy. But the virus is asking us to slow down, unplug, and be. The nightmare of consumer culture tells us that healthcare is a product and a privilege for those who can afford it; the virus is telling us that it must be a right for all people. The nightmare of nationalism tells us to fend for ourselves and look out for our own; the virus is reminding us that we're all in this together, as one planet and one human family.
This pandemic, perhaps counter-intuitively, is revealing many signs of hope. As the virus forces us to cut back on unnecessary travel, air pollution is lessening dramatically in our cities. In China, studies have already revealed that carbon emissions have been cut by 100 million metric tons. This image from NASA visually records the change:
Some of you may have seen a poem circulating ("Lockdown" by Fr. Richard Hendrick, OFM) that contains these words: "They say that in Wuhan after so many years of noise / You can hear the birds again. / They say that after just a few weeks of quiet / The sky is no longer thick with fumes / But blue and grey and clear."
It would seem that, if humanity is unwilling to wake up and meet the challenges of climate disaster, the Earth will do what's necessary to wake us up. Can we see the blessings hidden in the horror? Those blessings in no way diminish the pain or the tragic loss of life. Rather, the lives we have lost demand us to take seriously the lessons this virus is teaching us. They are mostly simple things that Jesus tried to teach us 2,000 years ago: "Love one another as I have loved you"; "You must lose your life in order to find life"; "May they all be one."
And so, continue to hope. Continue to love. Continue to reach out to those in need, in ways that are compassionate and wise. Continue to draw sustenance from springtime as it emerges. Remember, we are still the Church. Church is not canceled. We will continue to find new ways to worship together and support each other. In fact, the explosion of experiments within faith communities around the globe to connect and reach out using new technologies is only one more sign of hope, growth, and sharing of good news.
In the days ahead, please do not hesitate to reach out. Let me know, and let each other know, what you need during these days--even if it's just a conversation on the phone. Let's not let this virus make us less connected; rather, let's become even more connected.
Pray for me, and know that you are in my prayers. I love you all. I leave you with the following words from poet Lynn Ungar:
Ever yours in Christ,