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Pandemic Ministry: Between the Church and the World

Pandemic Ministry: Between the Church and the World


When the pandemic hit, I was caught completely off guard. I shouldn’t have been. For weeks a parishioner I was working on a project with had been telling me everything, absolutely everything, would have to be canceled. “Fine” I said, “we’ll move the event til next month.” She tried to tell me everything was going to be canceled for, like, 18 months. I still didn’t get it. She sent me articles, to no avail. I had things to do. I simply could not conceive that life as I knew it was about to be radically reoriented, and that our collective lives were about to change forever.


I had only been ordained 3 months before. I was just barely adjusting to where I was now supposed to stand on the altar, speaking in the service, and preaching without someone approving my sermon. I was not at all adjusted to leading large ministry projects as a clergy member: the authority that folks gave me was new and uncomfortable, and I was surprised by it. Of all my expectations about ordination, people’s unearned deference was not something I had anticipated or wanted. I was trying to find my place in the church ecosystem, in two churches where I split my time, in fact, and I was finding that I had new questions about my identity and purpose and call. It was nearly overwhelming.


And that’s when the pandemic bloomed, like an evil flower. All of a sudden my personal questions, about who I might be, what I wanted, and what I needed were jettisoned. There was the question of how to continue services online, and there was the question of needs in the community. At one church, I found myself broadcasting alone, in an eerie Good Friday service which was beautiful, but appeared to people as sideways. Not having a camera person, I had no idea til it was over. At the other church, I was part of a team of 10, livestreaming services. We had mishaps too. None of us really knew what we were doing, and the parameters kept evolving. Could we have communion? At first yes, but soon that was limited to the presider and one representative of the congregation. At first we didn’t wear masks, soon after that they were mandatory. 


One night I couldn’t sleep. I knew I had to make a decision. I realized that I had a short window of opportunity in which I could use my (non high risk) health condition, and the high risk status of my diabetic partner, to get out of doing anything risky for the duration of the pandemic. I could get out of serving on Sundays, and I could get out of serving in the community, and everyone would understand. That sounded pretty appealing. I thought about the promises I had made at my ordination a few short months before. The deacon is supposed to serve the people, and to be the connector between the church and the world. The bishop had asked: do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to the life and work of a deacon?” And I had said “I believe I am so called.” He asked “Do you now in the presence of the Church commit yourself to this trust and responsibility? I said “I do.”


That seemed pretty clear. I did not commit to serve when it was convenient, or when there was no risk. I had said I was all in. Now that I was being called on it, I wondered, “am I trying to be a hero? Do I think my contributions are more important than they are? Am I needlessly putting my partner and my family at risk?” I sat with that and then I did what I felt the Spirit was calling me to do: I jumped in. I committed myself for the duration, whatever might happen, to continuing my work in the community as a deacon. I committed myself to doing this work as safely as possible, but accepting that I was taking a risk. I prayed that I was doing so faithfully. It felt like it. But in the chaos of the moment the feeling of being grounded didn’t last long.


Over the next few months, I pitched in. I rarely felt prepared and I never felt rested. I was working in contexts and with problems I could never have imagined, and the risks were real. I stopped being able to hear the Gospel, even when I was proclaiming it. I could preach but I couldn’t hear my own message. I kept on with my work as a deacon but there was no joy left in it. I struggled to find the right boundaries and balance between church work and paid work. I struggled to make decisions. I began to struggle with finding the energy to get up each morning. I wasn’t even bothering to pray anymore and I felt more alone than I ever have before.


It was connecting with people that allowed my ears and heart to open again. I am trying to continually remind myself that connection is possible in the pandemic, and that it will help keep me afloat. The grace of the folks in the homeless camps we delivered food to reminded me again and again why I do ministry. One day I showed up with bags of sandwiches and a woman who lives in one camp greeted me with laughter. It was strange, something I hadn’t heard in a long time, and I smiled. The people of my parishes who cared so deeply about each other and the world dared me to hope. The way they talked to each other, with genuine concern, every time we met by Zoom. The way they organized to support our homeless neighbors, gathering resources and sharing their time. So I did hope, a little. And then a little more. Finally I was able to pray. And then to listen to the Word. And so I continue in this work, but with a focus on each person I encounter and the blessing they offer, and with a little more patience for myself.


Christ is about upheaval. Imagine the disciples at that last meal, they had no idea what was coming. They couldn’t see what was next, even though they were told in a number of ways. Christ is with us today, in this, in all of the chaos. It’s up to us to show our siblings the caring he shows us and to have faith, even as things tip and sway. I still struggle to find the energy to continue some mornings, but I see signs of resurrection at the edges and the margins, mostly in our service to one another, and in our willingness to be creative and to hang in there one more day.


The Rev Dani Gabriel’s other writing can be found HERE.


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