Have a little faith; or in these times, maybe a little more

As pandemic, racial injustice and political divisiveness ramp up stress, religious faith may offer comfort

By , Daily Memphian Updated: July 27, 2020 12:11 PM CT | Published: July 26, 2020 7:47 AM CT

At 7:46 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Over the next 102 minutes, we watched a large-scale terrorist act claim 2,977 lives, drop both WTC towers, hit the Pentagon Building, and scorch a field outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania – the latter a symbol of our resolve in the worst of moments.

It was sudden. It was cataclysmic. And though we never would have wished to achieve it this way, it was unifying.

Waters: Churches move online, preaching gospel of social distance

On Sunday, Sept. 16, many of America’s houses of worship were full, or at least fuller.

“You had a physical attack. You had death all at one time, the specter of those buildings crashing down,” said David Allen Hall Sr., pastor of Temple Church of God in Christ (COGIC) in Memphis. “It did drive people to church.

“This drives us out of church.”

This, of course, is the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it is not just the pandemic and none of it is playing out over a mere 102 minutes. Yes, there were aftershocks from 9/11 that reverberate till this day, but the attack itself lasted less than two hours.

In Memphis, the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus was on March 8. So, we are approaching five months of COVID-19 combat.

Then came the death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police, the protests and calls for action that followed, and always there is the overhanging tension of a deep political divide.

A “triple-whammy,” said David Bowen, middle adults pastor at Second Presbyterian Church.

“After 9/11, we united together,” Micah Greenstein, senior rabbi at Temple Israel, said. “Now, it’s about forming community in isolation.”

<strong>Micah Greenstein</strong>

Micah Greenstein

Because the danger is ever-present.

As of midday, Friday, July 24, the United States had more than 4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 144,525 deaths. Worldwide, there were more than 15 million confirmed cases and 634,594 deaths.

The overall positivity rate in Shelby County as of Friday’s health department report was 9.9%, with 10% the benchmark for community wide transmission.

“This pandemic is tough and insidious because it separates people socially and physically,” said Hall, who also is bishop of COGIC’s Tennessee Headquarters Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction.

“You see hurt, and you want to embrace. You want to hold, and you’ve got to separate.

“People are in search of something.”

So much so, that when restrictions eased enough to broadcast the Sunday services with 10 or fewer people in attendance at the building, it created a new problem for Hall.

“Everybody wanted to be a part of the 10,” he said, adding that they now carry the services and Bible studies from his home. “So, we stopped that, had to put it on an equal basis.”

First things first

Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s so-called hierarchy of needs is typically presented as a five-step pyramid. The most basic need is physiological (air, food, water) and is at the foot of the pyramid.

Then comes shelter (safety, stability), social (the need for love, belonging, inclusion), ego (self-esteem, recognition, even power) and at the top, self-actualization (the need for development and creativity).

The pandemic has put the more basic levels -- physiological health, safety and stability, and belonging and inclusion – in peril.

Faith has a role to play in all those areas and because the virus is global both geographically and psychologically, Greenstein says it perhaps has fostered “unity across religious lines” in the name of a shared enemy.

“Not to get all existential, but the foundation of our very being is being tested,” he said. “People are facing questions they didn’t have to before. Death has never been this close to us.”

We might like to lay all COVID-19 matters off to the side, but it’s not possible. Efforts to compartmentalize our lives – our faith lives included – are not very effective.

“We talk about faith and life being interwoven here,” Joseph Preston, director of campus ministry at Christian Brothers University, said. “They’re not two separate baskets.

“I’m seeing that more and more with students during the pandemic, wanting to talk about school issues, faith issues, even life at home.”

Sonia Jaramillo, a rising senior from Bartlett, is one of those students.

CBU is going with a virtual/in-class hybrid plan and Jaramillo is weighing whether to take a semester, or even the year, off. Whatever she decides, she won’t make the call in a secular vacuum.

“My faith has provided a lot of hope,” she said. “I just put my trust in God that eventually things will go back to normal.

“If I didn’t have my faith, I think I already would have gone crazy.”

Other ills

Beyond the pandemic, America is still stinging from a divisive Presidential election in 2016 as another approaches.

“Then George Floyd was killed, and the social dynamic of that has been off the charts,” Hall said. “Anxiety, frustration … How does one endure through all this madness?

“I’m not gonna turn this political, but the (national) leadership is segmented, broken.”

Members of his congregation and Black people across the country, he says, can’t believe that the Confederate flag or Confederate monuments are even points of discussion.

The ongoing racial/social injustice movement is an extension of the old war, lived out in a new fight that can test the faith of the strongest believers.

“There’s an anxiety that comes with police brutality,” Hall said. “People are saying, `Is there hope?’ It looks like America’s struggling to understand that Black lives are not elevated to the point where they’re appreciated.

“So, for Black people, it’s `What are we going to do? Are we going to fight back? We will have to endure lynchings, like in the old days?’

“Right now, we’re in the midst of that.”

Greenstein’s prayer is that faith can help.

The political climate, he says, is “sowing divisions apart, and faith communities are our last, best hope for a bridge.”

It’s tough on everybody

Men, women, Black, white, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, young, middle-aged, old … it doesn’t matter.

We’re all searching. We all have the same challenge – living in a time of high stress – and we all have our own challenges.

“As Christian women, we thrive on connection with other Christian women,” Crickett Keeth, director of women’s ministry at First Evangelical Church, said. “We can go to church now, but we still have to social distance and wear masks. We can’t sit next to somebody who’s not a family member.”

Keeth is a greeter on Sunday mornings. She sees women walk in – those she knows, those who just look like they need a little kindness – and she wants to give more than she can.

“As women, we’re nurturers,” she said. “I want to give them all a big hug and we have to settle for those air-hugs.”

The desire for a connection with sisters sharing the faith is not bound by borders. When Keeth does Bible studies on Facebook Live, she has women from as far away as East Asia joining in, too.

“They are hungry for spiritual encouragement,” she said.

Since the pandemic started, Greenstein has heard from people who had not been coming to synagogue each week.

“I have people who are not regulars in the congregation who are calling and wanting to talk about Judaism as a source of strength and hope,” he said.

Bowen, from First Evan, ministers to middle-aged people, folks who often are simultaneously caring for aging parents as they launch their own children.

Their parents, now in their 80s and 90s, might not see the pandemic the same way they do, viewing safety precautions such as social distancing and mask-wearing as unnecessary, even telling their 50-something children, Bowen says, “You’re not gonna buy into that, are you?”

Rather, they just want to be visited.

“They just want the contact,” Bowen said.

The pandemic also, like it or not, has made self-reflection just about unavoidable for all.

“One guy was sort of beating himself up for living for himself and not paying attention,” Bowen said. “And then he lost a lot in the stock market. He felt bad on multiple accounts and it sort of took something like this to get his attention.”

Of course, even for a pastor, self-reflection isn’t easy.

Noting Blaise Pascal’s famous quote, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone,” Bowen, as a member of the human race, pleads guilty.

“I put myself in this category: I don’t default to humble prayer as much as distraction,” he said. “Netflix, Apple TV+, Disney+, music apps, `Hamilton,’…”

Doing the job

For faith leaders, none of the usual duties have stopped.

From weddings and funerals to bar mitzvahs, baby naming ceremonies to conversions to Judaism, to counseling people who have lost jobs or have family issues, Greenstein is in constant “go” mode.

“In more than 30 years, I’ve never worked harder,” he said.

A huge part of the Jewish faith, Greenstein says, is to share the happiest and saddest of moments – such as weddings and funerals – and do so with food. In the case of the “Shiva,” which means seven in Hebrew, it is the beginning of a seven-day period of formalized mourning by the immediate family of the deceased.

“We’ve been doing that on Zoom and it’s just not the same,” Greenstein said.

Said Hall: “I even had a double-funeral. Two young men lost in a fire. So, I’ve got two grieving families – they were cousins – and two sets of grieving friends, two sets of work relationships, and everybody wants to be in there.

“So, I’m not just the pastor, I’m also the regulating agent when all they want to do is to just let go” of their emotions.

His church normally can seat 350. For the double-funeral, he limited it to 125 and employed social distancing.

“And then I had to shut the door to keep anybody else from slipping in, and I’ve got two coffins in front of me, two young men that died, and I’m concerned about whether I have broken (coronavirus) protocol,” Hall said.

“I’ve got to minister. It was a trying day, a trying day.”

Keeping hope alive

We know the bad of the pandemic, of racial/social injustice, of political discord.

We need to know there is some good.

“There have been families who have reconciled, a father and son who hadn’t spoken for years,” Greenstein said. “And mostly it has been good stories, and silver linings like my 25-year-old son had to leave New York (because of the pandemic) and lived with us for three months. That’ll never happen again.

“But there have been job losses, too, and spouses trapped together in the house who have separated – almost like, `Life is short, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and I’m leaving.’”

Life, after all, isn’t a Hallmark Christmas movie with predictable plot lines, pretty people merrily realizing their dreams, killer snowscapes, and happy endings sealed with a kiss.

No, the real thing is much harder than that. But also, more worthwhile.

Joseph Preston, director of campus ministry at CBU, notes that LaSallian higher education stands on “together and by association” as a driving principle, saying, “We’ve seen students walking with each other during this time.”

“In a weird way,” Preston said, “it’s bringing patience to people, patience in their relationship to God. They’re thinking about what is God calling me to, what is God calling us to, in this experience.”

Keeth, in her ministry, hears women’s frustrations in so many echoes. She hears words and phrases such as “uncertainty” and “unpredictability” and “no sense of normal” time and time again.

“There’s a sense, as moms, that they want to communicate to their families that it’s all gonna be OK,” she said, “even though inside they feel like they’re falling apart.

“I encourage them God is very much aware,” Keeth said. “He’s never left us and is still on the throne.”

Will the faithful live up to their name?

Greenstein notes that both Jews and Muslims draw from the tenet, “You save a life, you save a world,” adding, “Coming out of this pandemic, it’s important all religious communities meet people where they are … not to make the world fit my truth, but my path to God to fit this time and place.”

It is Bowen’s hope that those who turn to their faith now, will not turn away later when the crisis subsides.

“I’ve heard voices from both sides,” he said. “That when there’s a vaccine and we wrestle this thing to the ground, then people will feel good about returning to church and be more involved in small fellowships.

“I’ve also heard some churches won’t weather this economically. And, some people might feel more comfortable not going to church on Sunday morning – that it’s now less of a stigma to not go in the South, and that we especially might lose more nominal Christians.”

But Bowen is encouraged by the idea that an opportunity will be presented to “reinvent what church would be like.”

“We have so many traditions now, we’ve kind of obfuscated the main point,” he said. “Let’s think fresh, deliver the gospel in a clear way, help people built up their faith.”

COGIC bishop David Allen Hall believes he knows what will happen in the short-term. After that …

“If we open the church tomorrow, take away all the restrictions, I’m sure it would be beautiful and it would be full,” he said. “How long is it going to last? I wouldn’t know.

“But the pandemic will have a residual effect. Putting this back together, people are going to need their faith more than ever.”

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COVID-19 9/11 David A. Hall Sr. Micah Greenstein David Bowen Crickett Keeth Joseph Preston faith religion
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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