David Waters

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

Waters: A bishop’s long Lent in coronavirus quarantine

Phoebe Roaf waited, wondered if she was part of chain of infected clergy

By Updated: March 27, 2020 3:48 PM CT | Published: March 27, 2020 3:40 PM CT

The last time she celebrated Holy Communion, the Rt. Rev. Phoebe A. Roaf read to the congregation from the Gospel of Matthew.

It was the story of Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness, a traditional gospel selection for the First Sunday in Lent.


Waters: As shelters close and cheap motels fill, city’s homeless struggle to find sanctuary in a pandemic


“One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” said the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee, who asks everyone to call her Phoebe.

That was March 1. Over the next four weeks, those words from Matthew 4 took on even deeper meaning for the bishop as she found herself in the wilderness of the novel coronavirus.

It began March 4 when she spoke at a Lenten lecture program at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga.

When she arrived, she shook hands with St. Paul’s rector, Rev. Brad Whitaker. She sat at a round table with Whitaker and several others at dinner. She sat next to him before she spoke. She shook hands with him again when she left.

“Even though we’d all heard of the coronovirus by then, we didn’t think anything of it,” Phoebe said.

“You greet people. You sit with people. You eat with people. That’s what church people do. Of course, there are a lot of things we do that we aren’t doing right now. But that doesn’t keep us from being the church and finding other ways to be together.”

***

On March 5, the day Bishop Phoebe returned from Chattanooga, Gov. Bill Lee announced the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19, the potentially fatal virus. It was a Williamson County man who had been on a nonstop flight to Boston before getting sick.

The Institute for Public Service Reporting is based at The University of Memphis and supported financially by U of M, private grants and donations made through the University Foundation. Its work is published by The Daily Memphian through a paid use agreement. Follow the Institute on Facebook or Twitter @psr_memphis.

In Chattanooga, Father Whitaker himself had been feeling ill ever since he’d returned from a national church conference in Louisville, Kentucky, Feb. 19-22. It’s the Episcopal Church’s largest annual gathering. More than 500 people attended.

Whitaker told members of his Chattanooga congregation that he thought he had a cold and a sinus infection. He was diagnosed and treated for pneumonia. He stopped attending public gatherings March 5.

On March 9, he was notified that he might have been exposed at the conference in Louisville to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

“I immediately notified my doctor and was tested that afternoon,” Whitaker told his congregation in a March 13 email. “As of today (at 10:50 a.m.), I am still awaiting my results. I have been isolated in my house this week...

“This is a difficult way for all of us to walk through the season of Lent. But I am convinced that we will move through this challenging season with grace and hope. You are in my daily prayers and I ask the same from you.”

That afternoon, church leaders issued this statement to the congregation and the community: “Father Brad Whitaker, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, has this afternoon been diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Whitaker was Hamilton County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case. Church leaders and county health officials began notifying anyone who had come in contact with Whitaker since he’d returned from the conference.

The list was long and included Bishop Phoebe.

Father Whitaker led a family burial on Feb. 22 and a wedding later that day.

He led two services, served communion and shook hands with about 150 people on Sunday, Feb. 23. He also participated in a benefit concert that evening with about 75 people.

He led a staff meeting Feb. 25 and a memorial service for hundreds of members of the Chattanooga Bar Association Feb. 28.

He led a communion service again on March 1, joined a Bible study with about 30 people from three congregations March 3, and attended the church’s Lenten lecture series March 4, where he greeted Bishop Phoebe.

On March 12, Gov. Lee declared a state of emergency “to facilitate the treatment and containment of COVID-19.”

The next day, March 13, Phoebe found herself in the middle of that containment.

***

March 13 already was a difficult day for Phoebe.

One of her mentors, Rt. Rev. Barbara C. Harris, the first woman to be ordained and consecrated a bishop in the worldwide Anglican Communion, died in Massachusetts. She was 89.

Meanwhile, Phoebe got a phone call from St. Paul’s church in Chattanooga and learned that Father Whitaker had tested positive for COVID-19.

She called her doctor who told her to call the Shelby County Health Department.


Waters: Lenten preparations in a pandemic


“I had no symptoms, so they advised me to self-quarantine for 14 days and to let them know if I started showing any symptoms,” she said. “It was a little scary. I’d been reading and hearing stories about COVID-19 victims and how easily and quickly the virus was spreading.”

Whitaker wasn’t the only clergy person who contracted COVID-19 at the conference in Louisville in mid-February.

Rev. Timothy Cole, rector at Christ Church Georgetown in Washington, D.C., became the first confirmed case in the nation’s capital.

Rev. Robert Pace of Fort Worth, Texas, Rev. Janet Broderick of Beverly Hills, California, and Rev. Roy Cole of New York City also tested positive. Whitaker was the fifth.

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

Bishop Phoebe did not attend the conference in Louisville. But she had been with other people since she’d returned from Chattanooga.

She attended a Pentecostal worship service with a friend March 8, and did not celebrate communion.

She had planned to attend the March 9 meeting of the House of Bishops in Houston. But Presiding Bishop Michael Curry canceled the meeting March 4, the day Bishop Phoebe went to Chattanooga.

“Given what we know and what we don’t yet know about the spread of this virus, I have determined that the benefits of an in-person meeting do not clearly outweigh the potential public and personal health risks that could arise from gathering 130 people from around the U.S. and multiple other countries – who would travel through multiple airports, interact with personnel at the Camp, then travel again home,” Curry wrote to his fellow bishops.

Curry conducted the meetings that week online. Bishop Phoebe spent most of that week alone in her office.

“So fortunately I had very limited contact with anyone else that week,” she said. “But I live with my aunt, who is a senior citizen. I was extremely worried that I had exposed her to the virus.”

***

Phoebe’s 14-day self-quarantine is over. She has shown no symptoms. Neither has her aunt.

“We are fine,” she said. “This has been a good reminder that not everyone who is exposed to the coronavirus gets sick, but also how vulnerable we all are to exposure. This is no time to ease up.”

During her self-quarantine, Phoebe took long walks in Overton Park.

She called and emailed and texted and met with her staff and others online.

She found comfort in “the brutal honesty” of the Psalms.


Waters: As pandemic advances, faith leaders embrace worship services for the digital age


She attended worship services that were livestreamed, including one led by Rev. Laura Foster Gettys, interim dean at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis.

During the online service, Rev. Patrick Williams celebrated the Eucharist. He offered “the gifts of God for the people of God” and this ancient prayer for those unable to take the Eucharist.

“My Jesus,” he said, “since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”

During her self-quarantine, Phoebe never felt separated from God or God’s people.

She misses gathering inside “the prayer-soaked walls” of the sanctuary. “But we are being reminded that everything God created is sacred, every single place is holy ground.”

She misses being able to share the sacrament of Communion, the fellowship of the breaking of bread.

“The Eucharist is meant to be celebrated in community, not alone,” she said. “But during this time, we are being reminded that we find the eternal presence of God through Word as well as Sacrament.”

On March 17, Bishop Phoebe asked her parishes to suspend on-site Sunday worship services and other gatherings and meetings until Palm Sunday. Wednesday, she extended that through April 7, the Tuesday of Holy Week.

She wonders what will happen if her community of faith isn’t able to gather in sanctuaries for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

She wonders but she doesn’t worry.

“On Easter Sunday, we may not be together physically, but we will be together spiritually. And whenever we return and gather again to celebrate the Eucharist, that great thanksgiving will be more meaningful than ever.”

Topics

Bishop Phoebe Roaf Episcopal Diocese of West Tennessee

Comment On This Story

Email Editions

Sign up for our morning and evening editions, plus breaking news.