Being Church In A Pandemic
Pitching Our Tent With God in the Pandemic
Right before the pandemic in February, I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land with a group of other clergy. We made it out right before hotels, planes and borders began to be shut down. Little did I know how much that time in the land of Abraham, Isaac, Sarah and Rebecca would feed and guide my vocation as a priest and the work of my congregation during these now nine months and counting of the pandemic. I mean, it was as if I were a squirrel and God was filling my belly with enough sunflower seeds to get through the long winter of 2020.
After all that I was able to soak up in those two weeks away, what has stayed with me, is the idea that the holiness of a place arises first out of the actual human experiences in that place, rather than the buildings we later build to mark them. Much of our time in the Holy Land was spent visiting churches like the Church of the Basilica of the Annunciation and the Church of the Multiplication (as in the loaves and fishes). These are breathtaking, holy spaces, but they aren't holy because the Church eventually built a beautiful building there. They are holy because Jesus first broke bread with outcasts and sinners there, because the people of God first gathered there and God pitched a tent in their hearts.
And so, right there on the dusty roads where Jesus walked, it dawned on me that holiness is always on the move, following the people of God as we move throughout the world and continue to experience God where we are. Buildings are afterthoughts. And such, are not the containers that hold God – we are. God dwells in us first. We are the holy tabernacles, as are the holy stories that arise out of our collective experience, wherever we, in our human societies, find ourselves.
God shows up where we are
These insights were manna for my soul when in March our church buildings had to close and we went kicking and screaming into pandemic exile. All of a sudden, the Church throughout the world was forced to reckon with how much we built our Christian community around buildings, rather than the raw experience of the holy in our own lives, right here, right now, wherever we are. And that's not to say that I don't think buildings are important. I, for one, can't wait until we can gather together again in one place, but since we cannot for now, the Church has no choice but to throw a tent over those places in our exile where we are finding God – and that's likely not in a building right now, at least not a church.
I first noticed how God was coming to us and breathing holiness upon us outside the church building during Holy Week. I'm an Episcopal priest and serve an ELCA parish called House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver, Colorado. For us at HFASS, Holy Week and the Triduum are the center of our entire year. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil are the most well attended and holy gatherings we hold all year. Which is why I just couldn't imagine holding Holy Week on Zoom. But we had no choice, and so, my partner Brian and I built a bonfire in our backyard so that we could light the new fire and the paschal candle, in as close to our usual fashion as we could.
The actual lighting of the candle on Zoom turned out to be weird, as you can imagine, but the holy part came afterwards. After I took off my alb and chasuble and turned the computer off, I walked outside where Brian was still stoking the flame and kids from the neighborhood were dancing in the billowing smoke. It was as if God was showing me my own version of the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through to the Red Sea, as those kids reveled in the actual holiness that is all around us, right where we are. Like, nothing can stop Jesus from rising from the dead, not even Zoom.
In our work for justice and our longing for retreat
And as the pandemic raged on and we continued to find ourselves in exile, God kept showing up for our congregation and revealing to us that we are indeed standing on holy ground. In June, parishioners banded together to make a video for LGBTQ Pride in Denver. Queer folks and allies made videos in their homes confessing that "We are sorry that the Church has betrayed you...by what we have done and by what we have left undone." And in the same breath, we also confessed that "We are the Church." That no gates of Hell can level against us, including a pandemic, because God is still gathering us, even in 2020.
When George Floyd was murdered and righteous protest erupted in Denver against police brutality, we showed up to pass out water, snacks, sunscreen and first aid, and then we held Compline as bottle rockets and tear gas were launched around us. We marched with protesters not long after in the Black Queer Liberation March and live streamed Sunday liturgy as we walked and chanted. The words of the Lord's Prayer intermingled with shouts of "No justice! No peace!" in what was like the biggest Prayers of the People our little congregation has ever said. God was indeed before us and our rear guard.
In John 1:14, the Greek literally says that "the Word became flesh and pitched a tent among us." That means God is wild and found in the wild. Which is why, at HFASS, we were sad when we couldn't hold our annual Spring Retreat in the Rocky Mountains. So instead, we took a cue from Scripture and pitched our tent where we were and organized an Adult Summer Camp where we divided the whole congregation into "cabins" and assigned them "cabin counselors." The cabins were all given pandemic guidelines in line with state and CDC regulations, but then each cabin decided how they wanted to gather. Some gathered virtually and others went on hikes, outings to botanical gardens or held picnics in the park. On Tuesday nights, we gathered for "chapel" and brought in speakers who normally wouldn't have been able to join us because of distance, including the rapper Aisha Fukushima who taught us to dance and sing, even as the world was burning.
And then in the fall, we actually pitched some tents, when we organized our first ever HFASS Camping Retreat. There on the grounds of an old Lutheran campground, we gathered under the stars for prayer and Communion, and like incense, we lifted up our hands and hearts to the Lord as wildfires raged across Colorado and the rest of the West. Oh, and we also got to make some mean S’mores and then look each other in the eye for the first time in what felt like forever and once again remember that we are still God's beloved.
As the summer was winding down, it was if God was trying to tell us something, perhaps something that we have always known, but fail to see – like the Psalmist says, "Where can I flee from your Spirit?" If we were writing Psalm 139 today, we might continue: "When I go up to the church you are there, when I gather your people in a busy street full of annoying honking horns for Holy Eucharist because that's the only the place we can meet on Sundays, you are there also. If I rise on the ether of Zoom and Facebook Live and all of a sudden am at church on the other side of the world, even there your hand will guide me."
In our weariness
I should remember these words as we are now back on Zoom and it's unlikely we will physically lay eyes on each other more than once or twice for the next three to four months. Here in Denver we are in Level Red pandemic regulations ("lockdown light") and it's way too cold to do much outside for long. So, here we are again, longing for God to show up in this virtual world that can feel so godforsaken. But the good news is that God is still showing up.
When the election rolled around, so many in our congregation were already so tired by 2020 and the preceding three years of fear, racism, hatred and erosion of our democratic institutions. We, a community full of queer folks, addicts, the mentally ill, kids on the spectrum and children of immigrants, cried out with the psalmist, "I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping." How long, O Lord, how long? And while we couldn't be together and physically hold each other through our sadness and anxiety, we could get on Zoom and know that we were still alive. So, our parishioners and I put together a prayer vigil for the election and every hour a volunteer curated music videos, reflections, poetry and psalms.
And even though none of us knew the results that evening, we knew something more important, more liberating: that in our tears, we are in solidarity with all God's people in every time and place, all of whom God has brought through the tomb of Good Friday and into the everlasting life of Easter Sunday. God had not abandoned us and never will. We are God's people and the sheep of God's pasture. And God's pasture is everywhere. We are in it right now. Even as the death toll rises and we face a winter staring at the same walls day after day after day.
God’s own in all times and all places
And just like God has continued to feed me with the dew drops of mercy I soaked up in the Holy Land, God is also feeding me and my congregation with the traveling mercies raining down upon us in the barren lands of our pandemic exile. Because of course, everything has not been easy. We haven't found mercy and holiness everywhere. There's so much to mourn all around us. And yet, there is still mercy. There is still holiness. And unless we throw a tent over all that God Kiki and call it what it is, we miss out on all that Jesusy juju. This is the Church in pandemic, and it is holy.
Perhaps the most holy moment, however, for me was the first time we got to celebrate the Eucharist outside after months of fasting from our most sacred duty. We had just moved our congregation and all our stuff from our former building to our new home. We won't actually be able to experience church together in this building until the pandemic is behind us, and so it was bittersweet. It was like cleaning out all your closets after a bitter divorce, not knowing what shape your life would take on the other side and yet knowing that one day all these memories and all this stuff would fuel new stories and new energy.
And so, after we swept the old church and moved into the new, we paused on the church yard and I lifted up my hands for the first time in five months and chanted, "It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should, at all times and in all places, give thanks and praise to You." Tears streamed down my face and I knew that there was nothing more true in the world. We belong to God, at all times and in all places. And it's all holy.
Those same tears streamed down the faces of my parishioners just a few weeks later, when we held our first baptisms since the beginning of the pandemic. Because we, the Church, across the world are still here and we are setting a table for the Holy One who will indeed bring us again to resurrection. Come, Lord Jesus!
The Reverend Reagan Humber joined the House for All Sinners and Saints (HFASS) in Denver, Colorado, as pastor in March 2015. Ordained in the Episcopal Church, he comes from HFASS's big sister congregation, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Before coming to HFASS, Pastor Reagan served as a hospice chaplain in the Bay Area. He has a B.A. in Religion from Wake Forest University, an M.A. in Italian from Middlebury College and an M.Div. from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. Reagan moved to Denver with his partner Brian and their dog Ogre. Being Southern, he can often be found eating or making pie, drinking sweet tea or doing Crossfit.
- Abundant Love in Scarce Times by Gerlene Gordy, Vestry Papers, September 2020
- A Time for Everything by Linda Buskirk, an ECF Vital Practices blog, March 17, 2020
- Training for a (Communicator’s) Marathon an ECF webinar presented by Miriam McKenney, Jeremy Tackett, Sandra Montes and Melodie Woerman, May 18, 2020
- Ministering From an Empty Cup: A Survey of Faith Formation Professionals and Volunteers - Part 2 by Patrick Kangrga, July 21, 2020