Being the Church as we live with COVID19
What Is This Virus Doing To Us?
Coronavirus has come to stay with us for a while. Exactly how long, we don’t know. How many people will be affected, we don’t know. This moment is asking us to reimagine our lives and ways of being, which at the moment includes the way congregations’ worship since we cannot gather together in person right now.
With this text, I want to spark conversation about how to be the church at this time, trying to open up some liturgical-theological options necessary for our time, especially around rituals. In order to do that, we will need to press for change and question the theological-liturgical definitions of what and how we have been so far as Christians. This virus not only offers us opportunities to change but will demand us to do so. We cannot be the same, and in fact we will never be the same again, just as who we are now is not the same as who we were.
At this (beginning) point, pastors must call off every worship service. In many places around the world this hasn’t been an option yet. For some people, it is the only place to feel safe and find strength to keep going. In Brazil, however, pastors such as Silas Malafaia and Edir Macedo, major neo-pentecostal church leaders, in their fears of losing people and their offerings, are blaming Satan and a certain economic interest. Those of us who believe that this virus is neither a laboratory conspiracy, a Democrat party plot, the newest fake news, or a hysteria of some sort, must be responsible for those around us. The immediate task is for us to reimagine worship services during this time of social distancing until it is safe for people to gather again. The reality that Christian churches are places full of beloved elderly people further presses the church to respond in faithful and loving ways.
COVID19 is making us rethink our lives entirely, including our faith and our religious practices. There is so much pain all around the world and we see the death rate rising. Again, we are responsible for each other and for those who are dying. This virus can act as an altar-call to us all. We are called to pay attention and to change the ways we are living. The earth is telling us that we cannot continue the way we are living. Our current ways of living are taking us on a fast road to a collective death. The current moment is an opportunity for us to learn and believe that not only is another world possible but other forms of living are possible too.
We can’t forget that feelings, emotions and ways of feelings are deeply related to the ways culture, politics and economics organize our common living. In our time, we are so captured by capitalism that we cannot see ourselves without some sense of production, some form of action or project to accomplish. Some people are already desperate after 3 days of quarantine. Some might say that this is just who we are and we cannot escape that, but I’d say this is not true. This is NOT who we are! Rather, this is what we have become! We have disconnected our being from the earth, from a deep sense of connectivity with other people and other living beings, trees, rivers, plants, birds. We feel these things are outside of us as if they are “there” and we are “here.” We need to address this sense of disconnectedness, seeing as that we are not actually disconnected at all.
Moreover, COVID19 is demanding us to slow down, to find joy in being where we are, to stay put and start considering the possible blessings of where we are, to be grateful for the soil we are stepping on, to practice slowness, to not only allow but teach ourselves to be unproductive, to learn about rest, idleness, even laziness, to be friends again with boredom and stare outside the window without even knowing we are doing it. At the same time, if we can rest, we must remember that so many people are losing their jobs and many others working extra shifts to make our restful time possible. Our rest must not entail the loss of awareness and gratitude for those who cannot rest. We must care for them.
With that awareness, we will see that all the rush to accomplish things, the desire to produce, the need to do something is not the only way to live. That unlimited rush, production, and consumption are a trap capitalism has got us stuck in, a sort of adrenaline dependency whose results are anxiety, fear, and anger. In this moment we can step out of the trap and see a new way. A way in which we don’t need to compete with each other. Where we start to think about our happiness from the perspective of the happiness of one another. Where start to think about health benefits through the lens of others’ health care needs as well. Where we start to demand that everyone needs be met right now.
Even in the current moment of crisis, escaping the trap of capitalism is not inevitable. Will we support the bailing out of profit-driven corporations, or will we demand a minimum wage so that all people can survive and be able to stay at home? Will we see that most of what we use isn’t really needed and most of what we take from the earth isn’t necessary? Will we discover that solidarity and mutual sustenance is what we actually need? In this moment let us step boldly into new ways of being. Let us step outside and start talking to our plants! Let us step toward that tree we never said a word to and begin a conversation. Let us say a prayer of gratitude for the birds who sing to us every morning.
Our earth Gaia, what professor Mary Jane Rubenstein calls “the ‘event’ that calls us into question,” is at the center of our life as it has, strangely enough, always been, even if we never realized it. Perhaps this is a great time for us to realize that the earth is calling us into question and every gesture, practice, thought and way of being or relating is at stake for the continuation of our own existence.
If we step into new ways of living and being with Gaia, we will be able to think about ways to heal people and we will engage with knowledges that have been suppressed and erased. We will see pollution diminish, eco-systems will be kept and recover, we will demand the end of the continuing transfer of wealth and richness to corporations and few billionaires, the poor will be honored, injustices will be addressed, and life will flourish in known and unknown ways. We will be filled with gratitude and will continue to take care of the earth as we take care of each other fully! Deeply! In wholesome ways!
Worship Services – The Practice of Faith During COVID-19
As we move on, there are deep questions that entail both practical and theological reasonings that do not have simple answers. For instance, how will churches that understand the sacrament as transubstantiation or consubstantiation offer the sacrament if the ritual is fundamental to the theological process of transforming the elements when people are not present? How can we pray for someone who is only virtually present? Can healing happen? How can someone be baptized, married, buried when we need social distancing?
When we think about church, community, and worship we must also think about sacraments. What is a sacrament? If a sacrament, as we learn from St. Augustine, is a visible sign of an invisible grace, it is time to expand the signs of grace that lives within us. God’s grace can grace us through the fibers, electronic cables and satellites that get us the internet we need to get close to each other virtually. I believe some Pentecostal churches have a much stronger notion of grace when they carry on radio programs and invite people to put their water glasses on top of the radio and when prayed, the person listening can drink it for it is now blessed: a visible sign of an invisible grace. For what is the difference between a cup of water on top of a radio and a loaf of bread on top of the altar, when they are both prayed for and blessed? And if we want to challenge that, we can say that the bread and the wine are always already blessed since it all came from the earth, a soil already prepared and blessed by God for us all.
One thing for me is clear: if we call the sacraments the gifts of God to the world, and some will call them even means of grace, we cannot say “nope you can’t have it now.” Be it for whatever good and sound theological reason you might have. During a crisis, we are not supposed to protect tradition but to bless the people. We cannot say “oh this can be dangerous for you,” “oh people can’t do that because they don’t know.” Also, the preached word of God alone is not enough at this time. Not because the preached word is not enough in itself, but because for those who carry the sacrament in deep relation to the Eucharist, which that cannot be taken away. Pastors, bishops and theologians cannot keep holding power in the name of a necessary piety that is based mostly on hierarchies but named as faithfulness to the gospel. The notion of the assembly has to be redefined. The real and the virtual must be rethought. For people coming from the Reformation, they must continue to “be reformed.” As for those who carry the preached word as the fully presence of God, the ordinances of Baptism and Eucharist must also continue to be shared.
The focus here must be the relation within the assembly and not the altar. It must be the listening of each other’s voices and seeing each other’s faces as the very sacrament of God to each other. My mother once asked her pastor to come visit a nursing home where she used to visit weekly. But her pastor could never go. After a while and without a response, she decided to take communion to her people. One night, my mother called me and said: “son, I feel I committed a sin: I gave the eucharist for people who were begging me for it and were about to die. They were so happy I cannot even begin to tell you. How can I be forgiven?” I said, “mother, I have no power to forgive anybody, but I surely believe that the gospel was made alive to those who received it.” For me, she was graced with the “priesthood of all believers” and had all the authority to share the Eucharist. But was it really the Eucharist? For whom? Perhaps not for us theologians and pastors who hold ties to a certain tradition, but for the people who took it as God’s gift= for them, I believe so. At any rate, I am not called to protect any tradition, I am called to serve the people. With or without traditions.
So let me offer quickly, two concrete ways we can do the sacraments during this time:
First, a clergy centered communion. On a Saturday night, the pastor will have lots of bread and wine/grape juice and do the Eucharistic prayer online with those who want to participate. After the whole worship is done, the pastor and other members will pack a loaf of bread and some wine/juice and take it to the members’ homes. The next Sunday morning the pastor will do the eucharist prayer again and the people will use the bread and the wine consecrated by the pastor.
Second, a clergy-people oriented Lord’s Supper. People will have their own bread and wine/juice near them and when the pastor prays for the elements, they will raise the elements and receive the blessing. Then, they are instructed to take, eat and drink all together. They can respond collectively about how their hearts are full of thanksgiving.
Third, a people oriented Eucharist. The pastor will instruct the congregants online to take the bread. At this point, each person will raise the bread in their own home and say a word of thanksgiving. The same will be done with the wine. In both thanksgiving, something concrete from life will be related to the thanksgiving of the eucharist. Something like: “with this bread I offer gratitude to God for the earth who provides for us.” With this wine I am grateful for the life of my community, people, plants and animals around me.”
Fourth, a whole universe as a sacrament. Everyday every person will be grateful for something. One day we will listen to the birds as a sacrament and we will sing back to them as a gratitude. The second day we will tell a story to a child either in our house or online to somebody else and count this storytelling as a sacrament. The third day we will eat and say to the earth how grateful we are for our bountiful meals and safe some for the hungry. The fourth day, we will pay attention to a plant in our house, give her/him/they a name and say its name. Every day we will greet her by saying her name. The fifth day we might celebrate the rain we receive as God’s sacrament, God’s pouring out of blessings on us, heaven and earth united in who we are: water. If there is no rain, our shower will be a sacrament, our washing of the dishes will be a sacrament of who we are. The six day we will count every neighbor as a blessing and make sure they have what they need. On the seven day we gather together on our online worship service, count the thousand sacraments we experienced tell each other how the bread and the wine can be enriched by so many other sacraments, keeping our hearts on high all weeklong!
In these ways, even if differently, people are not only part of the sacrament but are the sacrament. A huge challenge for many churches during this time is to trust that the holy Spirit will do what we cannot do or don’t trust can be done. Perhaps the biggest challenge here is to have our pneumatology, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, turn into something, strangely enough, more expansive, more real, more vivid, more communal, trusting that God will do more than we could ever imagine or even allow God to do.
Baptism. It can follow the same two patterns of the Eucharist. However, baptisms are easier to postpone. But to reclaim our baptism, people can go to a creek near their house or the beach and get the water from there. See if it is clean. If it is not, start the worship lamenting what we have done to the waters around us. People can share in the worship where the water was taken and show what the water looks like. So the church will reclaim the clean waters of the earth and commit to work for the cleaning of the rivers. So many people don’t have clean water. How can we join the global concern for those who can’t afford water? With that form of solidarity, we can reclaim our belonging in the earth’s baptismal waters of God’s love.
Funerals: the close family can gather and do a worship service with the presence of the body of the ashes of the beloved one. When the crisis ends, a worship of celebration of resurrection can be done.
Prayer services: prayers can be the most important resource of the church for this time. Prayers that see people, that visit the most vulnerable people in their most daring needs. Prayers that act prophetically by calling each other to care for those abandoned by companies, governments, families. Prayers that makes us decide who will go around our streets and neighborhoods to check in to see who needs something. To stay home doesn’t mean to let ourselves off the hook. It is precisely the opposite. Perhaps those who have good health insurance can be the ones taking care of others? I don’t know… But we know that the elderly must be served in their homes with food and their medicines. The families around us, can they pay for their rent and then shelter their loved ones? Are nannies and cleaning people being just dismissed from their work or they will continue to receive a payment even if they don’t go clean homes and offices? This is our gift: pray with others. Since to pray is to see others in their needs, in their fears, in their hopes! To pray is to listen to them and say: I hear you, and I pray God will hear you too. To pray is to go to others through our phone calls, video calls, and check in on one another. It is so necessary. To pray is to know our limit and what we can offer. Pray the Psalms, pray the prayers of the church, pray extemporaneous prayers.
Healing Prayer Services: Ask people to be on the phone and call them. Ask them to choose a piece of cloth and hold it while you pray for the healing of that person, an adult, a child, an elderly person. After that ask the person to put this cloth on the person. Or ask people to hold a glass of water while the others pray for healing. After others pray in silence or out loud, ask the person to drink the water. Ask people to hold oil and pray for the oil to be anointed. Then ask the person to put it on their forehead or on the place that needs healing.
Dance and Art Prayer Services: dance with one another! The app TikTok is going viral with people doing dances that my children teach me. Put out some dance moves that symbolize blessing, anointing, healing, presence, transformation, sustenance, etc. Create art, write a new theater play, paint a canvas, take pictures, recite poetry, do short movies, play an instrument, learn an aria!
Singing Prayer Services: sing a song and send it to somebody. Don’t forget St Augustine said that to sing is to pray twice.
Lamentation Prayer Services: gather people online, read the book of Lamentations or Psalms to each other, then say out loud all of your frustrations with this virus, your anger about this situation and share it with each other. End with a word of gratitude.
Children’s Play/Pray Prayer Services. We must never forget to engage the children in any service. We must play and pray with them without ceasing. They are feeling it hard and we must hear them both in their fears and also in the ways they lighten up our time to continue.
Mental Illness/Disabled Bodies Prayer Services. It is time for people to learn about people’s abilities and disabilities and forge new vocabularies, new gestures, and new ways to engage with those who have any form of challenge that needs better care and our awareness.
Thanksgiving Prayer Services: This must be done daily so we don’t lose the joy to live. Recollect 5 to 10 things you are grateful for.
Remembering the Poor Prayer Services. Everyday raise your voice to God and one another so God can look upon the homeless, the people in prison, those suffering violence, losing their jobs, their sustenance.
This pandemic is a continuation and a stretch of modernity and a movement away from a sense of connectivity to a sense of self and individuality that triggers isolation, constant emergency and fear. How can we respond to the fears of this time? How to ground ourselves during this pandemic? How can we help each other with solid information and help each other to cope with this time? People are saying this might take a year or 18 months. How can we learn to stretch our path into a long run?
But also, how can we respond to domestic violence/intimate partner violence? To people bound to addictions? To people stuck in their homes? To the precious people in jail systems confined and in utter danger? To poverty and growing unemployment? To social uneasiness and restlessness? To the challenges that will appear and distress people? How do we not let government protect the rich and forget the poor? How do we care for people feeling isolated and fearful? How can we offer a blessing and healing in this time of so many challenges and unknown? How do we care for each other? what can we offer to sustain each other in this changing world? Can we hear each other’s fears and anxieties? Can we pay attention to our not knowing?
In other words: how can we create a community in the midst of isolation?
How can we be open to the new that is coming and say goodbye to the old that is going away? What is it that is worth holding on to and even retrieving when we move forward? Not necessarily habits, but wisdom. At this time, we are called to create new ways in our old but immensely new common life.
Worship – Gathering With Other Folks
Worship and preaching must learn to go outside of the walls of the churches. We must create gatherings of small communities in open air when we gather together with other folks, other sentient beings. We gather around a tree and we learn about the soil where this tree lives. In the morning we gather outside to listen to the birds and let their singing be our praise, our song, our sermon, our sacrament. We gather on the grass and pay attention to the little creatures crawling around the green. We gather around a plant and learn about it. Where it came from, what size are its seeds, how it springs, what it needs to grow. Next we go to the creek or river and listen to the water as if we are listening to a beloved uncle. Where did he come from? What is he telling us? Is our uncle still alive? We go to a mountain and there we ask the mountain as our grandparent, how long have you been here? How many transformations have you gone through just to be here today? We gather with rocks in our hands and think about time and huge transformations in the history of the earth.
Let us not forget that even our technological resources are not a given: they come from the earth to our homes and phones and computers. Technology comes from the body of the earth, the earth being! Even as we gather together online, it is the earth who is making this available for us!
So many things are already being done. Some churches are recording their worship services on various platforms: Facebook, YouYube, Instagram, Zoom, good Chat, Vimeo, and others. Some churches are praying face to face through Zoom, some churches are recording the services for those present and uploading for future views. I read somewhere that a priest asked his parishioners to send him their pictures, he taped the pictures to the pews and led the service remembering his people.
I decided to make this chapter below of my last book on worship available for church folks to engage with as they wrestle with what to do with their worship services. How can local churches deal with worship services, sacraments, baptism or funerals? These questions are not easy and it is amazing to see the new possibilities that churches are coming up with, stretching themselves to go beyond the known and venture into places they don’t know well, often think of or engage in regularly.
The hope is that the article below can give us an expansive theological perspective as we think through the Christian faith under the grid of the virtual. Is the virtual real? The virtual can be fully real. The “absence” of the body doesn’t mean it is unreal or even that the body isn’t really there. People relate, feel, love, hate, are healed and even have sex online. This is a topic that churches need to wrestle more as they move along in their necessary social distancing. Let us keep going!
We must be aware and in sync with the ways our people are reacting. After the first days of shock and getting to know the situation a little and organize ourselves, anxiety, fear and boredom will hit us hard. We will have to use an ecology of knowledges and care to move on, never forgetting that we must touch the earth to be grounded.
A new apocalypse is unfolding right before our eyes! The gifts of darkness will be given to us, yet again! New revelations are upon us. New religious, political, economic ideas and hopes are going to be floating around and we must do something with the good ones so we can change our times! It is our precious opportunity and we can’t miss it! We are called to create a new community, with each other, with the earth! Our religious practices must reveal this new world unfolding before our eyes, and our faith must prepare the way for the new world that is coming.
To engage in the virtual language of worship and the sacraments, see my chapter “And The Word Became Connection. Liturgical Theologies In The Real/Virtual World” in What’s Worship Got To Do With It? Interpreting Life Liturgically(Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018), pp. 221-234.
For access to the chapter click here:
Naomi Klein, Coronavirus Capitalism — And How To Beat It https://theintercept.com/2020/03/16/coronavirus-capitalism/?fbclid=IwAR1pbgJmqwrqeH9Uu71olKep6Ry0palCuQdNCwQ650v2AI271el1BYCOt_g
Otto Scharmer, Eight Emerging Lessons: From Coronavirus to Climate Action
Nick Martin, Against Productivity in a Pandemic. Why are we being told—by bosses, by fitness apps, by ourselves—to optimize this “new” time to get things done?
By Nick Martin, March 17, 2020
 This text is just a beginning, it needs to be expanded, corrected, and transformed. I hope you will take whatever you want and move forward with whatever matters to you. I want to thank these precious friends who read the text and challenged me and helped me expand it. My gratitude to Paul Galbreath, Troy Messenger, Shannan Vance-Ocampo, Pamela Cooper-White, Derek Elmi-Buursma, Moses and Adam Vander Tuig.
 Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 130.
 Elizabeth Dias, In Crisis, a Nation Asks, ‘What Is Community’ https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/us/churches-coronavirus-services.html?referringSource=articleShare&fbclid=IwAR0QOaGNWRKCHBKfwHfq2Rjhi4NmrraWwmq3DvJMhiVlZNdsf2VnftadZ9k
 Naomi Klein, Coronavirus Capitalism — And How To Beat It, https://theintercept.com/2020/03/16/coronavirus-capitalism/?fbclid=IwAR1pbgJmqwrqeH9Uu71olKep6Ry0palCuQdNCwQ650v2AI271el1BYCOt_g