Prioritizing People over Partisanship Is the Faithful Response

On May 22, 2020 I published a reflection in Global Sisters Report about the vows of religious life and their significance during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the vow of obedience. As I continued to reflect in the following days, I considered how my reflection about obedience could be re-oriented toward a different narrative not of my choosing.

The unfortunate demands made by the President Trump before Memorial Day weekend pushed for houses of worship across the nation to reopen their buildings. While his ultimatum was directed at States, the pressure it puts on faith leaders and their communities to begin congregating in the middle of a pandemic is very real.

As a woman religious, I know the importance of religious services and joy of coming together in person with a community of believers. These are central in the lives of many people of faith, myself included, and it is very difficult to go without them. But we aren’t making this sacrifice without cause. We are doing this because lives are at risk if we gather again too soon, without the proper protections in place.  As Rev. Franklyn Richardson, chairman of the board of the Conference of National Black Churches, said: “We are out of the buildings because our people are important.”

Our unfortunate reality offers a case study of what prophetic obedience might look like. Because of President Trump’s pressure, faith leaders are even harder-pressed to defend their authority as they discern the risks, benefits and precautions of opening houses of worship and exposing their flocks to the virus. Congregants’ personal choices about how and when to resume in-person gatherings also became more complicated and contentious.

In these days of uncertainty and ineffectual national leadership, people of faith cannot afford to relinquish our own judgement. Decisions like these cannot be made based on ideology or a particular political agenda but should be centered on love of neighbor, with a special concern for the most vulnerable.

Faith leaders can model the thoughtful, nuanced discernment that prophetic obedience calls for at this unique time. The path forward will require leaders and congregants to do the hard work of listening, exercising patience, and carefully considering the real risks.

Pastor Dave Simpson of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Frederick, Maryland put it well:

An open letter to the President:

You have declared that churches are to be reopened.
My church has never been closed.
Perhaps you are unclear about the meaning of “church.” A church is not a building. The church is the people of God called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified by the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that not even the gates of hell can prevail against the church. This virus has certainly not stopped the church from being what we have been called to be – the Body of Christ for the sake of the world. The people of God who are Good Shepherd Lutheran Church have continued to care for each other and reach out to the community and beyond.
Perhaps you are unclear about the meaning of “worship.” Worship is not only – or even especially – what happens in a church building on Sunday mornings. Worship defines us as followers of Jesus Christ. We strive to worship the God who creates and saves us with everything that we do and everything that we are. We worship our God when we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Our building may be closed, but we are still the church and we have not stopped worshiping. God has blessed us with new and enhanced ways to be church together as even technology has been sanctified (set apart for God’s use) for accomplishing the mission that has been laid before us.
Our building will be open again – when the time is right. It will be open again when we can gather in a way that does not put our members or our neighbors at unnecessary risk, especially those who are most vulnerable. Our building will open when we have a plan that manages the risk and we have the resources to put that plan into action.
When our building opens, it will be to glorify God, not to make any secular or political point or to advance any agenda, nor will it be to assert our “rights.”
Until then, we will go on being church. We will go on worshiping online and, more importantly, in our community and in the world.
We are the church.
We are, and will remain, open.

Originally published on Pastor Dave’s Facebook account.