Kalonda, Congo, 1981 Close together wooden benches children packed into the front rows enthusiastically singing, waving, clapping, dancing.
Indianapolis, 2019 Padded pews space between us modulated voices harmony children in the back with distracted parents.
COVID, 2020 Computer screens miles apart children dart in and out of view we mute ourselves when we sing.
Doing Church in a Pandemic
I’m used to sitting in the front row at Shalom Mennonite Church, seeing only the worship and song leaders and preachers up front. On Zoom I see rows of faces. I click back and forth to see who’s here. I am distracted by my own face and try to adjust the camera.
Preaching works fine on Zoom; fewer distractions on Speaker view. One or two persons read the litany while others follow along from home. Singing is the biggest challenge. We can each sing at home but can’t hear each other. I see what tech-savvy folks are doing in other locations (including Quito, Ecuador), but our congregation hasn’t gotten there yet.
Zoom is a great medium for folks with social anxiety. One can hide one’s face or turn the camera to the ceiling. Some folks have been attending who rarely or never could gear themselves up to come to an in-person service. Shy folks watch from behind their names. We are joined by folks who are at a distance, snowbirds and folks who have moved away.
For a person who doesn’t drive and doesn’t have internet, this is a terribly lonely time. No access to email, no friendly person picking one up on Sunday morning and chatting on the way to church, no fellowship meals. Listening to worship by phone is a poor substitute.
How to be church together in such a time?
Our Shalom leaders created a panel of deacons who check in on each person or household on a regular basis. A social calling tree is available to encourage informal conversations. Small groups meet by Zoom or stay in touch informally. We still take meals to folks who have had surgery or been hospitalized.
Our sharing time takes on a new urgency when several members of one family are ill. Some of us work in health care or other high-risk settings. We pray for each other, virtually reaching out to surround each other with the hugs we can’t share.
Looking ahead, it’s not easy to find the best path. We feel the desire to draw together, while the rising Covid case numbers pull us apart. Will cases spike when school opens? When will it be safe enough to gather in person? How will we care for the most vulnerable among us?
There have been plagues and pandemics before, but in reading about them we underestimated the upheaval that they caused. Now it’s our turn to live in a pandemic. Lord help us, we pray.
My ordeal with COVID-19 began this spring around the middle of April, waking up on a Monday morning with aches and pains I wasn’t used to. With body aches, headaches, and extreme fatigue, I slept for quite a few days. Then the symptoms began to get worse. When my fever rose to 100, I called my doctor for suggestions. She advised I begin a 14-day isolation period; so, my sojourn in the bedroom continued!
The fatigue stayed extreme; I could sleep for hours on end. While headaches are not my usual thing, they managed to stick around for a week. I monitored my temperature carefully. When during the second week, my temp got to 100, I called the doctor again. Her advice was to go to the ER if temps hit 102 or if I had breathing difficulties. At that point, I got scared! I remember telling Lu that would mean a hospital stay, and I didn’t want that. Being in a high-risk category with diabetes and heart issues, I was indeed fearful! Following Chris Cuomo’s advice, I started deep breathing exercises five to six times a day. I repeat, I didn’t want to go to the ER!
Armed with a mask and gloves, Lu brought me good meals. She and her trusty Clorox spray kept the bathroom and doorknobs sanitized! Our son, David, hooked me up with a TV in the bedroom. Between sleeping, reading, and TV, I managed to stay isolated for two weeks. Fortunately, respiratory problems never started. By day 10, I began to feel better except for the fatigue, which still hangs on.
After the quarantine, I lucked into a COVID testing study conducted by Marion County Health Department, in conjunction with IU School of Public Health. By then, I tested negative for COVID-19, but a blood test revealed I had developed antibodies for the virus. The research is a year-long project so I get tested monthly. The results in July showed the antibodies have now decreased some. So… Doc says, “Wear a mask, wash hands often, keep a distance until a vaccine comes along.” AND I’M LISTENING!
The April morning started with my usual brisk walk, a first cup of coffee, reading from Rejoice! and then, “Why isn’t Del up yet, it’s nearly ten o’clock?” So, a bit alarmed, I headed upstairs to find him still in bed saying, “Probably don’t come in here; I’m feeling weird!”
My heart sank. We hadn’t gone out much at all and always with masks and wipes. But here we were! As the days wore on, I became grateful his symptoms weren’t worse. I would gladly mask up and take Del meal trays, then fetch them again. And scrub the bathroom…a lot! I was so thankful that he didn’t chafe at staying upstairs in the bedroom.
In retrospect, I was most concerned about Del getting worse, and didn’t have the time or energy to worry about getting sick myself. I would like to know, though, if I too garnered some antibodies through his ordeal! I remain thankful for restored health.
When confronted with something or someone unfamiliar to us, we humans may have a variety of reactions. Some of us run the opposite way as fast as we can, probably out of fear or ingrained survival instincts. Others of us run toward the unknown to learn more or get a better look. Perhaps this is a built-in curiosity and eagerness to learn. Or it may be due to an undeveloped or blunted sense of danger. Some of us stand or sit and simply observe. We take in the visual, the auditory, the sensual. We process and react in small increments. Persons watching us may not know which set of reactions is going to turn out to be the best in the long run.
Imagine you are living in the late 1970’s and into the 1980’s while working in a hospital laboratory and also beginning medical school and residency. During this time, you may remember hearing about an unusual disease which at first was thought to only “affect homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs and Haitians.” It seemed to cause swollen lymph nodes and make them susceptible to unusual infections, such as Pneumocystis, Mycobacterium avium, and Cryptosporidium. It also seemed to cause rare cancers such as Kaposi’s sarcoma and aggressive lymphomas—in young persons!
Many of us were fearful. We were told this was an infection. One that was caused by a virus and was highly contagious. So, we suddenly began wearing gloves while caring for patients. We stopped eating our lunches in the laboratory’s work areas. Many persons also developed biases, especially, against hemophiliacs and gay persons. We did not know if this infection could be transmitted just by touching or kissing, or if it was transmitted only by sexual contact. At this time fear, hatred and stigmatization of gay persons had increased in our society. But we soon saw infections occur in recipients of blood containing this virus and in infants born of women with the virus. How could this be!
By now you are correct if assuming I am referring to human T-lymphotropic virus III, also once known as lymphadenopathy-associated virus and now known as Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Over time, with many, many, many studies, we have learned a lot about HIV. It turns out merely being gay or a hemophiliac or using drugs does not make us positive for HIV! In reality, the risk of getting HIV was all about behaviors and actions, such as sharing/not sharing intravenous needles, having/not having unprotected sex, being exposed/not being exposed to blood-containing body fluids, etc. How wrong we were about so many aspects of HIV!
Skip ahead to 2020. We hear “virus” until we are either mortified, numb or exhausted from the effort to process what we are hearing, seeing and sensing. Thirty years from now, what beliefs about COVID-19 will still hold up scientifically? Which ones will have been way off the mark? What additional biases and stereotypes that result in human damage will we struggle to counteract? Could it depend on whether we choose to look through a high-powered lens and see only a miniscule field of vision clearly, but miss the broader view? Perhaps using a low-level objective with a wide field of vision is better right now, even if we cannot discern the fine details of what we are seeing? I certainly do not know the answers to these questions. But so far, I have been devoting most of my efforts to observing, absorbing and listening, while not shrinking in fear, not being dangerously cavalier, but always learning as I go.
I encourage you to observe, listen and take inventory of where you are today, into next year and even thirty years from now.
Tema Okun, along with Kenneth Jones, are two individuals who have paved the way for us to understand the term “White Supremacy Culture” as it is presently used. This is also the name of a book by Okun. It’s a term that often leads to defensiveness among individuals of European heritage, i.e. “I’m not a white supremacist!” But it’s one that we, whatever the hue of our skin color, could learn much from, even if we bristle at it.
No – we are not Neo-Nazis; however, most of us grew up in a culture predominantly influenced by white people in power. It’s just a fact. These systems that were created with patterns and processes common in white culture also benefited the people who created those systems…white people. You are not a white supremacist just because you grew up in that culture. But if you are white, you have benefited from the system, because that is how it was designed—to make “us” comfortable.
Corporations, non-profit boards, schools and churches have all been influenced by white supremacy culture. The way we run meetings, the things we value in group work, the focus of the work—all are influenced by our experiences and training in white culture, whatever the ratio of melanin in our skin. Not all of that is bad, but when we don’t look at the pieces of that culture that can marginalize BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) individuals and shut down their voices, we are continuing the negative pieces of the pattern.
So, what does white supremacy culture look like in an organization? Those, like Okun and Jones, who have studied this topic, have a list of traits that are common. Let me name a few that I have perpetrated, thinking I was just being a good leader: Urgency, Perfectionism, Either/Or thinking, Patronizing, Individualism valued over Group, and Avoidance of Discord.
Urgency—Ask my husband, I have an issue with time. I want a meeting to start on time, everyone to BE there on time, everyone to have their limited time to speak, and all the points I’ve written in the agenda to be covered. Heck – I’m a ONE on the Enneagram! I value time management. But how often do I leave out good discussion and ideas because I’m rushing to get through the agenda? Who do I silence by moving ahead before someone else has really been able to form their thoughts or get the gumption to speak up? Do I listen less to the person who was late, because they were late? Do I give more time to the person whose ideas most closely reflect my own? Conversely, when I’m not in charge, how often have I felt I wasn’t given a chance to speak? Have I ever sensed that a leader of a group just wants to hear from certain people, like my opinion doesn’t matter? Chalk one up for Urgency, which cuts off voices and limits ideas.
Also chalk one up for Perfectionism. MY agenda, My meeting, completing MY tasks… check, check, check. Recognizing this doesn’t mean meetings shouldn’t have a time limit. It just asks us to be aware of the voices we are leaving out through our rigidity.
I often go into a meeting thinking I might have an answer to an issue on the agenda. That in itself isn’t negative. There was a time in my life, however, when I was very proud to say that I had a knack for “constructive manipulation.” Because, of course, I had the BEST idea and I wanted others to SEE it was the best idea. This is a pretty common phenomenon for people in charge who grew up within white systems. It’s not that we shouldn’t bring our ideas, but it’s the investment in our ideas at the cost of other ideas that creates a problem. There’s an Either/Or way of thinking that blocks us from hearing other points of view. White supremacy culture tends to value ideas from white culture over BIPOC voices. I need to think more in terms of Both/And about new ideas instead of Either/Or.
I used to create health curriculum with a team. Some of that had to do with abusive relationships, dealing with violence, and various mental health perspectives. We made good curriculum that was mostly well received, and we always tried to get perspectives, ideas and feedback from people affected by these issues prior to launching. But even good curriculum can fall flat if we provide it to persons with cultural experiences we did not take into account. Talking about depression with a group of 14 and 15-year-olds who have witnessed unbelievable violence and know a level of sadness I can only imagine means switching gears entirely. Not including those affected by a situation as you try to remedy or address it, is Patronizing. Missionary history is rife with such stories.
It should be abundantly clear in this age of COVID-19 that this country suffers from, what I term, “the wild west syndrome” or individualism over what’s best for the group. Our inability to control this virus is in part due to an irrational need to put personal desires over societal needs. This is also a white supremacy culture issue.
A good issue for Mennonites is Avoidance of Discord. The past few years we’ve been forced to accept some discord in our congregation, but I will own that I have rushed through a discussion, or glossed over a topic, while praying no one brings up anything difficult. To make myself feel justified, I might say those folks are being divisive, and I’m just keeping the peace. Being unable to hear the pain or the anger of others minimizes what those persons feel. It then allows for those in charge to make the same mistakes over and over.
These are just some of the ways I have participated in white supremacy culture. They support each other. For instance, I can’t hear your pain or your thought because the meeting is nearly over. Or if I truly consider your idea, it might derail my idea that is the BEST… etc. Sometimes the culture is very subtle, sometimes it’s overt.
In the past four years I’ve taken a closer look at myself and at my patterns. I’ve tried to adjust how I lead or participate with an awareness of these and other aspects of my white culture. I become defensive, feel shamed, self chastise, then consider, ponder and try again. I make constant mistakes. Unlearning is a lot harder than learning. Unlearning doesn’t mean throwing out all my learned behaviors, but it does demand that I consider carefully whether what I’m valuing in my actions has genuine merit.
Our country is at yet another crossroads in understanding its history. This one is big. Many of you are on a deeper journey into recognition and ownership of the privilege that has been given to some over others during the creation of this country, and the effects that continue today. Some of you are reading like never before; others are joining SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) groups; some are marching in support of Black Lives Matter. Some of you have joined Alicia Amazan online to tackle difficult subjects in regards to racism. Some of you are educating your children more earnestly about privilege and history.
It’s a big undertaking, and we are ALL late to the table. Until we understand how we participate in perpetuating racism, it’s hard to take needed action to change things. It’s difficult work, and it really has no end, but the results have the potential to enrich all of us.
SURJ developed a learning curriculum which has involved a number of FMC individuals. The goal is to help white people develop an understanding of what we’ve perhaps missed in our formal education regarding race in the US, and also the things that hold us back from understanding what BIPOC persons deal with on a daily basis. Another FMC group is being planned for the fall. Here is a link for the SURJ national website.
Alicia Amazan: Upon seeing people interested in learning and talking about racial injustice, my friend Chelsea and I sent out a call to have people join us on the journey. We wanted to provide a space to hold each other accountable, to keep learning when the media coverage loses momentum and we can slip back into the privilege of not seeing the injustices. We are passionate about learning and listening to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) and are intentional about pointing others to these voices that are speaking out and doing incredible work to create a more anti-racist society. We also acknowledge that as white people we need to teach each other and not rely on BIPOC to teach us, as that is not their job. Chelsea and I are providing space for people to relearn history, identify and learn about whiteness and systemic racism and work toward being anti-racist. We have over 100 people joining us from across the country in a variety of ways. Below are ways people can be involved.
What is offered at Continue to Learn and Listen?
Bimonthly Newsletter: On the 5th and 20th of each month, we email a newsletter full of resources related to a specific topic. We hope that you can find a few resources to meet you where you are and challenge you to continue to grow!
Monthly Virtual Gathering: Once a month we will gather on Zoom to dig deeper into the same topic covered in the bimonthly newsletter. We will present information, have discussions, and continue learning together!
Me & White Supremacy Book Club: An online group that works through the book Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad over the course of four meetings.
Maggie Girard spends her time with her preschool aged kids, and as a part-time art therapist with IU Health. She attends FMC, and grew up in Indianapolis, but has enjoyed living in Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Washington DC and Holland, MI before moving back to Indy.
Bethany Habegger is a senior at IU Bloomington and will be receiving her BFA in painting in the spring. She is currently selling prints in support of Black Lives Matter. If you are interested in supporting the cause, check out her Etsy here: etsy.com/shop/bethanyhabeggerart
MennoExpressions is published four times a year in February, May, August, and November by First Mennonite Church, Indianapolis, IN, with a special graduation insert in May.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent from an editorial team member.
Editorial Team: Carl Rhine, Kenda Friend, Rachel Friesen Krall, Elizabeth Goering, Robin Helmuth, Mary Liechty, Carla Schmid, Lisa Habegger, Erwin Boschmann.
Associate Editor: Carol Mullet
Production: Elizabeth Marie Cooney, Jason Schmucker, Gaynel Bryan.
Long Term Past Editors: Erwin Boschmann (Founding Editor), Shari Wagner, Alison Schumacher.
Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
I Thess. 5:11
Beauty can be enhanced by variety and diversity.
Some of our mothers and grandmothers collected remnants of fabric and combined them to create a useful blanket, a work of art, a gift for a new baby, or a donation for someone in need of warmth. Wade’s mother designed a beautiful quilt for us, sewn from colorful leftover scraps that she and my mother had saved. Even now the cherished piece sparks memories of a favorite dress or one of Wade’s childhood shirts. (Yes, we grew up in an era when our mothers sewed most of our clothes.)
And then there are pies… so many pies! More blended bits. We combine tart rhubarb and sweet strawberries, or milk and eggs for smooth custard. Lemon or lime fillings are topped with bland yet beautiful meringue. A fall vegetable becomes a fragrant, spicy, pumpkin dessert.
In another context, consider the way a stained-glass window is comprised of many fragile shapes, held together to complete a design we can’t imagine until it is framed and illuminated.
All of these varied and unexpected pairings create something unique and valued.
But how does this relate to MennoExpressions?
Back in June, the caring members of our First Mennonite and Shalom team chatted online, trying to forge consensus as we explored topics for this issue. No coffee, tea or Long’s donuts were available to sweeten the process, unless we each indulged alone. We vacillated…
The pandemic, so overarching in our lives, seemed impossible to ignore, but we would prefer something lighter to bring balm to our weariness.
Perhaps a general discussion of illness and its impact would be less focused, but surely still difficult for writers asked to share.
We also felt a need to show our concern for justice, recognition, and support for people of color around us.
And we wanted art which could inspire or illustrate.
How would we decide?
A reminder that MennoExpressions historically explored and reflected current issues, even when they were fraught with emotion, brought the suggestion that we could encourage contributions relating to any of these topics, or a different focus, and then combine them into a blended issue, a patchwork of reactions and ideas for our days of disarray!
As the mélange of completed pieces and artwork appeared in our email folders, we have been inspired, and gratefully share the hope and encouragement with you, our readers.
O God…Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings. Psalm 63:7
“I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together!”
I remember singing these words in my childhood Sunday school class. This little song also included lyrics about how the church is not a building. The church is made up of people. At the time, I don’t think that made much sense to me. What did the song mean that “The church is not a building”? Didn’t we get up every Sunday and go to church? And what did it mean that the church is made of people? Even a little kid knows that you can’t build things out of people!
I’ve been thinking about that song a lot lately as we’ve been unable to meet in our church buildings. Can we still have church if we can’t go to church? I believe that the answer is yes. Yes, we’re the church together!
One of my favorite parts of church is the sense of belonging to a community. As members of the community we grieve together, we celebrate together, we help each other. When my faith is weak and I feel far from God, it can be so healing and refreshing to gather with other believers who can help strengthen my faith and remind me of God’s love.
Over the past several months, many of us have had to change the ways that we gather and connect with our communities. Right now, for me, going to church means sitting down in my living room and opening my laptop. It’s better than nothing, but it sure isn’t the same as going to a building, greeting others with hugs or handshakes, singing together, and being physically near each other as we worship and pray and learn from God’s Word.
But just because going to church looks different right now, that doesn’t mean that being the church has to look different. We can still grieve together, celebrate together, and help each other. Surely the Creator who knitted our very bodies together can knit together the Body of Christ even while we are physically apart! Although we cannot gather in the same room, we have not abandoned each other, and God has not abandoned us. Perhaps now, more than ever, we can practice being the church for each other. We may have to be creative, but there are still so many ways for us to show God’s love to each other and the whole world. All who follow Jesus, all around the world, yes, we’re the church together!
Who was Steven McLay? He was a member of the HSLC (Holy Spirit Led Church) which meets in our building several times a week. Steven cleaned our FMC building for several years. While he worked part-time as custodian, he took two buses to come clean and two buses to return home. He took great pride in his work. We grieve the loss of Steven, who passed away on June 11, 2020, after suffering a stroke. Below are reflections from some FMC members.
By Allen Mast Whenever I was at FMC and Steven came in, he would always say hi and ask if there was anything he could do for me. One time I had a trash bag going to the dumpster, and he almost demanded that I leave it, insisting he would take it with the other bags later.
By Emilie Walson I found it very interesting to get to know Steven McLay during his tenure as custodian at FMC. Steven was excited to get the job and did a good job for the church. I enjoyed getting to hear stories about his special feline pets–they were his pride and joy. We nicknamed him Flash because he moved and talked so fast. There were several occasions when Steven joined our staff lunches. This was a time for getting to know Steven better, and I am glad we had those opportunities. We were sorry to see Steven step down and leave FMC.
By Robin Helmuth Steven had a broad smile, the widest kind, even though he had few teeth. I never saw Steven when he wasn’t smiling. He always, always, always asked how I was doing and how my family was doing. He was afflicted physically by gastritis and later lymphoma. Steven always put his arm over my shoulder or on my upper back, his way of letting me know he cared about me. I made it a point to thank him for his custodial services at FMC, and he was quick to respond he really liked being part of the staff. There were occasions I regretted not taking more time to learn about Steven and understand his life story more. Steven would nearly always look for me when he saw my Mazda in the parking lot. Yes, Steven’s witness as a loving, smiling, caring child of God will be missed.
By Gaynel Bryan Steven seemed to be a self-sufficient man. Often very happy, he was totally focused on doing a good job. On the personal side, the loves of his life were his cats. To the end, he would cheerfully share photos of them. I would often share my lunch with him because he would always come through the offices around lunch time and say, “Are you eating again?” It was a joke between us. One of the things I kept trying to impress on him was to slow down when he talked. He would speak a mile-a-minute, and I just couldn’t understand a word he was saying. I’d have to ask him to repeat what he just said, but slower, please. He would laugh and try his best to speak slower. It was a sad day for me when he stopped working here. I will miss his blaring speaker playing hymns while he cleaned, and his coming through the office to pick up trash right at lunch time, and his visits to show and tell me about his little fur babies. I will miss him.