Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
Arundhati Roy, April 3, 2020, Financial Times
When I worked for several local United Ways, long before I was a priest, one of my favorite projects was the creation of an annual video, telling the stories of people who had changed their lives with a little help from their friends and neighbors. Part of the fun of this was that I got to work with community volunteers who were highly skilled and creative; graphic designers, videographers, excellent writers and storytellers. These folks came from large corporations or smaller, highly successful boutique businesses. Many were very well off financially and often completely unaware of the problems in their own communities that the United Way sought to address.
We would set out together for day long sessions, me and these marvelous professionals, interviewing folks for the videos, taking photos and video footage. By the end of the day, I was exhilarated at hearing these stories of terrible trouble, which ended in amazing success. My partners were often “blown away.” From the safe insulation of their well-appointed and organized lives, they had managed to avoid knowing anything, really, about the crushing problems of everyday people. Some could not face it and did not return for a second day of work. Others, however, allowed the experience to change them deeply, to open them up with compassion. These folks would often find ways to continue their journey of discovery through volunteering at a local agency or working for a cause they learned about during our days together. What they thought was a brief volunteer project became an opening for new knowledge, new insight, and new ways of making our town a better place.
As we move through these bewildering days of pandemic, we have the same opportunity. For most of us, it is easy to remain unaware of the level of human suffering that exists, even in a nice place like Greensboro. For most of us, we have what we need – and in fact, much more. But as we watch the daily news, hear the stories of shortages in medical equipment, staff, food, and work, we cannot avoid the realization that this is happening here, now and to people we know. Pandemic is no respecter of social economic status or privilege – although most of us have resources that will carry us through…unless we get sick and there are no ventilators or hospital beds to welcome us.
Unless we shut our minds and hearts, as we now must shut our doors, we cannot escape the reality of pain and suffering that is part of many people’s daily lives… pain and suffering that has been around long before this recent outbreak. The overpowering numbers of deaths remind us. As do the reports now rolling in about who it is that is dying more than others – those who are poor, who are uninsured, uneducated; those who are victims of racial and ethnic discrimination, those who are at the margins of society; even those with means, but who are living alone and afraid.
Much like the experience of Holy Week, we cannot escape the evidence that this world is not heaven and evil exists in force; that often greed, corruption, failed leadership, hate, envy, spite and a consistent cynicism about the world form the foundations of social policy.
We can run away, like those volunteers I worked with long ago. No one could blame us. Even the disciples could not stand up for Jesus on that terrible night in the garden, and the grueling day of crucifixion, so long ago. Or we can let this experience change us deeply…open new pathways of knowledge and awareness in our hearts and minds and souls. We can see this experience as a portal, an invitation to live life more abundantly by challenging ourselves to see, to speak up, and to work for a community that enables everyone to receive a fair shake. We can arrive at the empty tomb, and just walk away, shaking our heads, silently capitulating to the belief that we cannot change the world. Or, we can make our way through this terrible time, with resurrection in our sights – and find ways to make things new through the power of the One that not even death could overcome.