On Reopening and ‘The Least of These.’

Reopening and gathering in person is almost straightforward for vaccinated adults right now – we know, pretty much, at least, what we can do safely and where we need to take precautions. We’re exhausted by over a year of not knowing, moving goalposts, isolation, and stress. We’re ready for it to be over and finally! We have vaccines, we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. We want to see our friends. We want to see our families. We want to gather and grieve and grow together again. We’re ready. We’re willing. We’re able. Let’s do this.

It’s also almost straightforward for unvaccinated children and immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable adults. We know that for them, it’s not quite safe enough yet. Every parent, every family is making daily calculated decisions about what is worth the “risk points,” balancing our exhaustion and need for our villages with the very real danger that COVID continues to pose for our children. We know we’re not out of the woods, despite immense pressure to return to “normal.” 

We see other people returning to “normal” and wonder if we’re being too cautious, if we’re making the right decisions. But then there is another news article about variants, about children being hospitalized, about surges – right alongside photo after photo of our villages gathering and grieving and growing without us. We’re told to assess the risk and stay home if we don’t feel safe, but no one is asking how they can help us feel safe, how they can help us feel supported, how they can help. And is it really our choice to participate or not if the event is inherently unsafe, therefore inaccessible, to our children? It can seem at times that the wider community is perfectly content to move on without us and perhaps, we might wonder, they want it that way.

It can feel like a punishment for trying our best to keep our kids safe. It can feel like being left behind. It can feel like being told again, and in huge systemic ways, that our children are not a priority to our communities, that our children are a burden, that we are on our own and need to figure it out.

Parents everywhere are drowning. Full stop. Some of us have been without childcare for over a year while also working from home. Some of us didn’t have a choice but to send our children to school or daycare and agonize over it daily. Some of us have been to the pediatrician more times than we can count in the last year, convinced that every sniffle is proof that we weren’t careful enough and our child is paying the price. Some of us are trying desperately to balance the needs of our vaccinated teens and unvaccinated elementary schoolers. Some of us still wonder what we’re bringing home to our children from our places of business. Most of us are barely hanging on in one way or another. Children are not meant to be raised without a village, and primary caregivers are not meant to raise children without the love and support of a village.

So how do we reconcile the real, valid, and sometimes conflicting needs of these two cohorts that exist within our beloved communities? 

My humble proposal is that we take just a moment to pause and step away from our reopening plans. Just for a moment. Let us remember that the urgent need to have a plan and to reopen is driven by anxiety, trauma, and white supremacy culture. We have all experienced a profound collective trauma over the last year and we have a deep need for healing. Let us remember that our buildings will still be there when we are fully ready to return – but if we do not take the time now to tend to them with love and care, some members of our beloved communities may not.

I wonder where we might be if instead of focusing our energy and resources on reopening and regathering, we poured them into supporting families and other populations still facing challenges from the pandemic. What if instead of tripping over ourselves to throw our doors open wide for large worship services, we paired up vaccinated folx in our communities with our families who need an extra set of hands once or twice a week? What if church elders took turns putting on a weekly puppet show or telling stories via Zoom or Facebook Live for the toddlers in the church? What if we let families reserve our church playgrounds for an afternoon so they can avoid crowded public ones? What if we returned to our principles and covenants of right relations and put all of our intentions into living up to them instead of figuring out how to reopen the “right” way?

We are a gentle angry people, but as this upheaval of our lives and routines wears on and on and on, perhaps we could stand to be less angry and more gentle. Perhaps over a year of anxiety, uncertainty, and adapting has left us all craving something that has been right in front of us the whole time – community, connection, and opportunities to be and feel seen and heard. 

The ways in which we choose to move forward do not have to be rooted in a desire to return to what once was. Let’s be honest, what once was could have been a lot better. This is an opportunity to completely reimagine what it means to be in community, to be a congregation, to be a church.

In the first days of the pandemic, Unitarian Universalist religious professionals participated in a flurry of graceful, frantic, and collaborative shifts that got our congregations and programs online in a matter of days. Most of us did not miss a single Sunday, and none of us would be able to claim that if it wasn’t for our colleagues. We chose to collaborate, to share our resources and ideas, to take on little parts of the burden so that no one had to do it all. And it worked. There were hiccups, there was stress – I don’t know of a single colleague of mine who is not nearly or fully burned out right now – but it was and continues to be at least somewhat easier to bear because we established early on that we’re in this together.

I’m not sure the same can be said in our congregations, not that I can blame us. I can’t imagine the trauma, yes, trauma, of being told to lock down and adapt to technology I was not familiar with as my only means of connection. It got to a point last year that I rolled my eyes every time someone said “we’re in this together,” because there was definitely no one in my apartment with me and my four year old for the five months his school was closed. It is easy to believe we are alone when we believe there are only certain ways we can be together.

This has been a brutal year for all of us, in different ways that have yielded different needs and experiences, but brutal nonetheless. The urge to fix it and make things right is a deep, soul-level itch – humans love what they can predict and have control of. We don’t do well with chaos and not knowing, especially in societies steeped in white supremacy culture, which tells us we must know exactly what is going on at all times and that everything is urgent.

Reopening is not urgent. Returning to “normal” is not urgent. Having it all figured out and formulating a plan is not urgent. Tending to the needs of our communities is urgent, and the good news is we’re already doing it in a lot of ways. We’ve figured out how to do virtual and distanced pastoral care, we’ve figured out how to have small group gatherings safely and we’ve definitely figured out Zoom. Perhaps that is enough while we take an intentional pause to make sure that in our rush to return to normal, we’re not leaving anyone behind.

In the beginning, we figured out how to focus all of our efforts into protecting the most vulnerable in our communities, and we did it. We shut down, we masked, and we waited. It was hard, and none of us got through it unscathed. 

My question now is how does that determination to keep our communities safe continue to come into play? How are we serving our communities by protecting the most vulnerable? The least of these, if you will. And if we choose to move forward before they can, what does that say about us and our values?

At the beginning of the pandemic, we shut everything down to protect those most vulnerable in our community – now a different population is the most vulnerable, and we have a duty to give them the same consideration and radical love (even, and especially, when it might be difficult or inconvenient) that we gave our older and immunocompromised folx at the beginning of the pandemic. 

This is not just about reopening our building; the choices we make now are sending very clear messages about what and who we value, and that should be done with the upmost care and intention to live up to our UU values. Our principles and values are lofty, we don’t always live up to them and our living tradition is always trying to grow towards them. 

May we choose to be courageous and curious enough to lean into and grow towards them together.

2 responses to “On Reopening and ‘The Least of These.’”

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