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A Word from the Conference Pastoral Counselor

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When ‘Facts Not Fear’ is Insufficient: Being Church in the Midst of a Pandemic (3/26/2020)
Rev. Deborah Wight-Knight

 

COVID-19 known cases in Georgia have increased and the death toll continues to rise. Church activities have been canceled. Communities are social distancing. “Isolating in place” has become necessary in most communities, regardless of how much we resist it. For our lifetimes, this is an unprecedented voyage into the unknown. Facts are important, indeed. But….if you aren’t just a little bit scared about what the future holds, then you are made of a more faithful substance than I.

 

One of my beloved friends in his late 80s is fighting for his life in a North Carolina ICU and none of his family, including his wife, can enter the unit. I listen as my friend describes how family members come to wave to their elderly loved ones through the window at the assisted living lodge. I listen to citizens, clergy, and funeral home employees in Dougherty and Lee Counties mourn the outbreak impacting so many as the virus exponentially spreads. And, yes, I read too many facts. I pay attention to the scientific projections. As a result, I would be dishonest to say that I am not worried, and perhaps feeling embarrassed as a Christian when I admit that I give in to anxiety and fear on some days. I, perhaps sinfully, obsess constantly about what this means for all of our brothers and sisters around the globe and at home.

 

Family chaos is increasing as those not accustomed to being exposed to so much togetherness are wondering, “How long can we keep this up?” How do you entertain four children for weeks on end or explain to a 5-year-old why she cannot play with her friends down the street? What happens when the mom, already prone to using alcohol to calm herself, cannot stop self-medicating or when the dad, who perhaps resorts easily to angry and even violent outbursts, arrives home after being laid off? 

 

As we wait for the stimulus checks to be mailed, who will buy groceries and other essentials, pay the mortgage, the student loans, the car payment? What about the person who just lost a spouse after 65 years of marriage and is told he cannot gather with other residents of the retirement complex -  his lifelines? He is in his fourth week with no contact, still dreading the empty side of that big bed at night.

 

A renown epidemiologist explains: “Pandemics aren’t just physical.They bring with them an almost shadow pandemic of psychological and societal injuries as well.” Hearts, souls, and minds suffer. Where is that rainbow Noah was blessed with at the end of his tumultuous journey?

 

I could go on. The examples of suffering are myriad. So how do we settle non-anxiously into the best of who we are during tough and uncertain times? How do we live with faith as our rock, our foundation, the embodiment of the living Christ - a faith that compels us  to stand in solidarity even at six feet apart. Is there a way to capture the feeling of sinking our feet firmly into our most comfortable pair of shoes, braced for the uncertain journey?

 

One way is to REMEMBER. Remember the foundation and fullness of God’s presence as the Israelites wandered in a similar state of fear, chaos, and sin that lurks in all of human nature. For 40 YEARS in the desert they failed time and again: they tried to hoard the manna provided for one day at a time, only to find it odorous and full of maggots or when they gave up on Yahweh and turned to worship golden idols, anything for pleasure and relief. Their story serves as a reminder of reality in the midst of human suffering and psychological complexities. Uncertain of when this period would end, they finally arrived in the promised land as God in God’s mysterious ways instilled some valuable lessons, ten of which we uplift today as primary and everlasting values, commandments of the faith. (We need to add an 11th; “Thou shalt not buy more than one pack of toilet paper at a time.”)

 

Remember the psalmists’ laments and Job’s struggle during his calamities. Remember the disciples of Jesus being frightened and utterly convinced they could not survive in a boat during a storm or survive at all without Jesus alive in human form. Recall the chaos of pre- and post-Pentecost, the sacrifices unto death of the Christian martyrs.

 

Remember our world history beyond Biblical times: the dangers of sharing Christ in the ancient secular world which resorted in the catacombs, the wars, plagues, famines, natural disasters, and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Remember the devastating world wars in the 20th Century. Remember the Holocaust, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

 

Remember the generations of medical personnel who adopted an oath during the middle ages that continues to this day, as countless committed doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals courageously put themselves in harm's way to care for those who are infectious, suffering, and dying. 

 

REMEMBER that you are dust; and to dust you shall return…

 

Remember, too, that even when we come to grips with the dark side of creation and humanity, we are ultimately an Easter People. Our scarcity mentality can be rewired in our brains by resorting to creativity, acts of service, and productivity. Crisis, for Easter People, is another OPPORTUNITY to shine light in a dark world. 

 

School lunches are delivered. Private companies are finally producing additional medical masks. Car manufacturers are putting together ventilators. The young couple shops and take groceries to the elderly folks down the street. The doctor has recovered from her case of COVID-19 and is back at work. Cell phones and computers abound with FaceTime, video conferencing, and virtual classrooms. Netflix is showing “Two Popes,” a must see for any Christian. Mexican Dominoes are waiting to be played.

 

My friend who is a Chaplain Supervisor at Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, tells her students as they hesitate to visit patient rooms, “You will feel a lot more empowered if you live out of your love and not your fear.” And I Peter 5:7 reminds us, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

 

As I write this piece, the clock struck 12:19 p.m., the minute we have pledged to all pray together for what lies ahead. I am praying constantly for our clergy and laity in South Georgia, our healthcare workers and other professionals on the frontlines of this pandemic, all of our political leaders regardless of party affiliation, and our neighbors all around the globe in troubled spots who have no means to “social distance” or even who struggle to receive manna for the day. I do not know what the living Christ looks like to them, but I am exploring how to volunteer to help put together some “Contagion Survival Kits” for those in less fortunate countries. I am determined to feel more empowered out of love, not fear. I am determined to BE church even if the building is on lockdown. Won’t you join me?

 

Here is a link to a lovely moment of inspiration for such a time as this.

 

Claiming hope,

 

Deborah

 


How to be present in a pandemic: use your words (4/7/2020)

Rev. Deborah Wight-Knight

 

I was a CPE (student) chaplain at Grady Hospital in 1984. One of my patients - I’ll call her Gloria - was the first documented female diagnosed with AIDS in the southeast. This was before they called it HIV/AIDS. No one knew at that time exactly how the virus spread. Was it only sexually transmitted? Was it contained in the gay and lesbian community? Were our medical personnel at risk? No one knew. Studies were just beginning on intravenous drug use and the sharing of needles. Could it be airborne? Was it transmitted via touch, through saliva, or as a result of that used tissue in the trash can? Real research had just begun and facts - pre-Internet - were questionable and hard to acquire.

Gloria was an anomaly for Atlanta. She was straight when most other AIDS patients were gay. She was alone sick female in a sea of sick men. She was not into drugs and she had not been sexually active with an infected male. She had, however, for quite some time, been sharing with her drug-dependent brother a sparse supply of needles that she needed in order to inject the insulin on which she was dependent due to diabetes. 

When I met her, she weighed 86 pounds. Doctors, if wearing full protective gear, would examine her with a host of medical students and residents in tow. They were as afraid of and perplexed about this emerging epidemic as anyone else. Gloria had lesions all over her body, part of the Kaposi’s Sarcoma, so they never touched her. Nurses, also in protective gear, would administer her IV medications. Written instructions on the door alerted personnel to a “no touch” recommendation, even while protected with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Housekeeping was afraid to enter her room, so Gloria’s trash piled up day after day after day. No one cleaned her bathroom or mopped her floors or gave her a bath. Workers from the cafeteria would leave her tray outside her door even though she was too weak to retrieve it.

I, too, stood outside that room helplessly for two weeks. She would look at me with the most intensely forlorn expression I had ever witnessed. At the beginning of the third week, when Gloria was down to 70 pounds, I went to the nurse administrator and said, “I need to see the Infectious Disease Specialist on Gloria’s case.” The nurse looked at me with sheer unbelief. Who in the world is this student chaplain demanding to see an overworked physician? I persisted. She finally gave in and paged him. A renowned infectious disease specialist from Emory arrived 15 minutes later. It took me 10 minutes - talking as fast as I could - to get his permission to enter Gloria’s room and help her eat and bathe as well as empty her trash, as long as I wore fully protective clothing (cloth gown, gloves, mask, and eye protection). 

Over the next two months I endured many chastising encounters with my supervisors, peers, and other hospital staff. Their argument was that even if I was not putting myself at enormous risk of infection with this mysterious disease, my job as spiritual companion on the journey was not to feed and bathe a patient. It certainly was not to act as a member of the housekeeping staff. Gloria’s first words to me were, “It sure feels good to hear a compassionate human voice.”

One day, after Gloria’s weight was less than 60 pounds, I said, “To hell with it.” I took off my gloves and held her hands and touched her forearm as she wept deeply from feeling the first skin to skin contact in more than three months. Shortly thereafter, Gloria died. I cried often, off and on, for weeks. Regardless of what the field of medicine reported, for the next five years I lived in fear of having contracted the disease. At that point, I drummed up the courage to be tested. I waited three weeks before receiving the news that I was HIV free.

You may think that I use that illustration to imply that we, as Christians, should ignore the precautions required during this current pandemic of COVID-19. Hear me! I am NOT recommending that. In fact, I implore you to honor the advice and instructions from those in authority who know best. This new coronavirus spreads quickly, especially through touching infected surfaces and being in close contact with infected people.

Instead, I tell the story about Gloria to emphasize the significance of the loss of human touch, actual skin-to-skin contact. You probably remember the research done decades ago on babies who were never touched or held close. As they got older, many developed serious personality disorders and other behavioral and mental health issues. We learned from those studies that touch is as essential to an infant as food. Appropriate nurture, in the form of food, love, AND touch, influences the progression of healthy natural development. Most humans either crave affection through touch or shun away from it. That quite often depends on our past experiences, especially when they include violence, neglect, or abuse.

So what are we to do when suddenly a touch or a kiss or perhaps even a breath means that we are putting someone in harm’s way? How do those in current hospital beds and ICU units feel when the squeeze of a hand is offered only by a stranger through latex- covered palms and fingers? What is it like to not see a human face in full view or to hear the familiar voices of someone we love? Or, almost as difficult, how do infected loved ones at home feel when they are confined for weeks to the basement or a bedroom once they are symptomatic?

“And Jesus put out his hand and touched…” the leper, the woman with the flow of blood, the blind man, the ear of the high priest’s servant. Very soon we will be reminded of Thomas putting his hands in the wounds of the risen Christ.

My time with Gloria was pre-Internet, pre-cell phone, pre-Facebook, before any other social media platform we can name. The other day I was introduced to a good friend’s father for the first time, so I “air hugged” him and blew him a kiss from more than six feet away. Technology, whether in the form of FaceTime on your phone, the written blog or Facebook post, or through livestream on Sunday morning as a way of sharing or hearing God’s word, can be a gift from God. When used for good, the means to stay connected and spread hope – even as a method of simply sharing your thoughts, fears, frustration, and loneliness during these complex and unprecedented times – is vital.

I have not forgotten about those without access to or the ability to use the latest technology. That’s when we pick up a phone and dial a number or grab a pen and paper, write a letter, peel off a stamp, and help support the good ole’ US Postal Service. Words create worlds. They incite imagination; provide important updates, and keep us connected…together…in Christ and in hope.

This too shall pass. It really will. Soon we will be hugging our best friend, our elderly parents, our at-risk neighbors, and the person in the pew next to us. Handshakes will resume. A pat on the shoulder or back will most likely be welcomed. In the meantime, do all in your power to be present for those who long for human contact and expressions of love. It’s like we tell our toddlers in the middle of a tantrum: “Use your words.”

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