written by Judith A. Davis
We are used to singing the Lord’s song within our church buildings when we gather to worship with our community of faith. In many ways, we take for granted our ability to “go to church” on Sundays, and in that context, we often forget we are the church wherever we are. Sometimes we might sing a few songs as we walk a Camino or go on retreat or find ourselves worshipping with others apart from our usual church buildings, but overall, we do not sing those songs by ourselves in our homes (unless we’re gathering for a small group meeting of parishioners). So, now we find ourselves in a situation the likes of which we have never experienced. I do remember once being hospitalized for a month after a neck injury, but I could worship in the hospital chapel and the hospital chaplain visited my room often. That was an exception to the “rule.”
When the Hebrew people were dispersed after the Babylonian Captivity, they missed the Temple in Jerusalem on Mount Zion. The psalmist of Psalm 137 said that they did not know how to praise God with their songs if they were dispersed from their community of faith. Perhaps in these days, we feel dispersed as well from our communities of faith as we are quarantined. We certainly miss singing hymns and worshipping together and sharing in our parishes. We are at home instead of being far away, and yet we are dispersed even so. That brings me to looking at the word Diaspora, but that seems an illogical conclusion for isolation and social distancing. Stay with me.
The free online dictionary, Wiktionary (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/diaspora), gives us this information:
“Diaspora (plural diasporas) noun”
- The dispersion of the Jews among the Gentiles after the Captivity.
- Any similar dispersion.
- Any dispersion of an originally homogeneous entity, such as a language or culture.
Etymology: From Ancient Greek διασπορά (diasporá, “dispersion”), from διασπείρω diaspeírō, to scatter”), from διά- (diá-, prefix indicating motion across or in all directions) + σπείρω (speírō, “to sow”).
The word “diaspora” seems inappropriate to describe a people quarantined at home during these days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, when the word usually refers to a people being dispersed. But I for one have found it to be an unexpected byproduct of quarantine. Our situation of staying at home now for six weeks has disconnected us physically from our friends and family, our workplaces, and other places, our communities of faith, our recreation, sports, and schools. One difference for us from the days of the 1918 pandemic is evident because our digital age has allowed us to stay connected via the various social media platforms undreamed about in 1918.
When I retired from active parish ministry of almost 30 years, I supplied some Sundays in the diocese where I now live (the Diocese of Western North Carolina). I have chosen to stay serving on most Sundays with a small parish, not close by, but good for a ‘Sunday drive.’ The parish can only afford a “Sunday priest,” and, while I have a long drive, I found that I love and care for those people more than I expected to and feel really called to be among them now. When the Senior Warden called me on Saturday evening before March 15 to tell me the Bishop had cancelled church services through May 10, I said I was just finishing up my sermon and I could email it, which I did. The warden called during the next week and said the vestry would like for me to send a sermon every week and how ideal it would be if I could video the sermon as well. The learning curve on how to do a YouTube™ video was challenging, but I have managed it now for the past five Sundays and each day of Holy Week. I found that I have really enjoyed doing it, providing a short service of the Word with links for hymns and the sermon video. As I miss being with that parish family. I found it to be a blessing for me as well
Since I would be sending a short service and sermon to that church, I also posted it on Facebook®, since some of the members are connected with me there. Stay with me now because this is the cue for the diaspora. Long ago, in a parish far away on Historic Capitol Hill in the mid-1990’s, as I served as rector of Christ Church +Washington Parish (https://washingtonparish.org/) for 12 years. I was surprised my first Christmas to see the church packed since Congress was in recess and almost all of my parishioners worked “on the Hill.” Like the Congress, they found home to be somewhere else, and yet they stayed on the Hill for Christmas and others returned. The congregation talked about the “Christ Church Diaspora,” those who had worked on the Hill for a time and were faithful parishioners but had moved on with changes in the political party or other reasons for moving. Yet many of them would write back that they could never find a similar, progressive, intimate community of faith where they moved. As often as they could, they came “home” to the parish at holidays, especially Christmas and Easter. The college kids, and those who were out on their own, all came home at Christmas and attended the late Christmas Eve service, after which we had a fabulous, festive reception. How well I remember going home to the (thankfully, attached) rectory at 02:00 to help Santa put together drum sets or other difficult projects for our son, only to get up at 05:30 to see what Santa brought, and then to preside over the Christmas Day service. Retirement does have its perks! The Christ Church Diaspora was large and dispersed all over the world with former members’ jobs with the Feds, as we called them, and for former clergy and seminarians where they had moved.
What was fairly unique about the parish was that almost everyone lived and worked on the Hill and could walk to church on Sundays, down by the Marine barracks and Navy Yard. Some dispersed members would come back for July 4 to hear members of the US Marine band play Sousa marches for the prelude and postlude, and attend the Barracks Row local parade featuring the Marine Band and many local people on the Hill including children in the neighborhood. John Philip Sousa directed the choir in his day and brought Marines to play and sing for services. He is buried at the parish’s burial ground, Historic Congressional Cemetery, which people believe belongs to the government. While Congress has given donations for its upkeep, since it was “the Arlington before Arlington” for Washington, and famous and infamous people like Sousa, J. Edgar Hoover, Matthew Brady, and others were interred there since 1807, it is still owned, though managed by an independent board, by Christ Church. Every year on Sousa’s birthday, I and a few parishioners and some members of the Marine Band would gather at his grave and have a few speeches, prayers, and glorious music by the Band. The Diaspora came for that, too.
So, how does this diaspora work now? I found that by sending the emails to some friends and former parishioners and by posting the services and sermons on Facebook, that I re-connected to parishioners from the parishes I served over the years, to seminarians who had done field education with me, and with communities of faith of which I have been a part. Who would have thought of this connection? I never thought of doing “virtual church,” although many of my colleagues have blogs. Now I realize the blessing of virtual church even when we did not imagine that or want it, I expect. My heart has been strangely warmed, as John Wesley said, by this outpouring of support and by this re-connecting of people from my communities of faith for this “virtual church.”
The Church gathered and the Church dispersed, our current parishes and those communities of faith of which we have been a part, those we miss seeing and with whom we miss sharing the Peace of Christ—all these matter much more to us than we thought six weeks ago. I know they matter to me even more than I realized, and I cherish this connection in faith, friendship, and community. At the same time, I welcome the day when we will come back to our churches and sing the Lord’s song in our familiar places.
One of my communities of faith is a summer, island community in the Isles of Shoals on the border of coastal New Hampshire (Portsmouth) and Maine (Kittery) where I have gathered every summer for about ten years with a small group for a summer learning experience for only a week. We attend lectures, share meals, sit on the huge porch in the evenings, play tennis, go on bird walks, paddle row boats, and worship in a candle-lit, historic chapel built in 1806. When the steamship brings conferees from Portsmouth for their summer experiences, those on shore at Star Island chant a cheer to those arriving. Those “shoalers,” as we are fondly called, sing “You did come back, you did come back,” when shoalers arrive, and “You will come back, you will come back,” when they leave. Then those on the steamship leaving sing back to the others, “We will come back, we will come back.” This saying is more meaningful to me now, not knowing if we will come back to Star Island this summer. During the year, however, we remember the wonderful experiences of community we have had during the many years the same people return to Star Island, and we keep the joy of those memories alive until we realize “we will come back.” Now, this also applies to our communities of faith, where we long to be now, physically present with each other. At least we have a virtual connection for now, and one day soon we believe and hope that “we will come back.”
The Rev. Judith A. Davis, PhD is a retired priest living with her family in Brevard, NC, in The Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina. She retired at the end of 2017 from The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts where she served as rector of Christ Church Episcopal in Harwich Port for almost 10 years. She served as rector of Christ Church +Washington Parish on Historic Capitol Hill for 12 years, and as associate rector of St. Michael’s Church in Bristol, RI for four years. She holds an MDiv and STM from Yale Divinity School and a PhD from the University of Florida. She was a university professor in medical sciences before seminary and she was ordained in 1990 in the Diocese of North Carolina.