The following email was sent to the People of the Advocate by Priest Associate Nathan Kirkpatrick, on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
Dear People of the Advocate —
Social distancing. I had never heard that phrase before COVID-19 was the headline of every night’s newscast. Yet, it is a reality I have felt acutely for years now. I suspect you have, too.
As a country, we have witnessed social distancing between people who disagree politically – “red state” people and “blue state” people. We’ve seen social distancing between those who disagree theologically and ethically – what is the reach of grace? We’ve watched it happen between those in the top income brackets and those in the bottom. We’ve known it as feelings of loneliness and isolation rise even as we are more technologically tethered to one another than ever before. Social distancing.
Robert Putnam, the sociologist, saw this coming when he wrote Bowling Alone in the 1990s. What he observed in his research was that Americans had fewer encounters with people who differed from us, fewer opportunities to practice being in relationship with people who disagreed with us. We were becoming strangers to one another, and if strangers, we were becoming suspicious of one another. Social distancing.
It’s why being the people of the Advocate together matters. Week by week, we create real community with one another. We span generations and gender identities. We are gay and straight and everything in between. We cross political parties and theological beliefs. We are wealthy and comfortable and struggling to pay the bills all at the same time. We are healthy, healing, recovering and ill. We are hopeful, joyful, brokenhearted and anxious. But, week by week, when we come together, we reduce the social distance that so many of us know in other realms of life.
Now COVID-19 is requiring a measure of actual physical social distancing. As a people of faith and as a nation, we are confronted with a paradox. At a time when we need community the most, the tangible practices of being community must be adapted or suspended to slow the spread of the virus. As Advocate Peter Morris asked provocatively, “how will we adapt our life together to safeguard our people as best as we can while also continuing to provide real community?”
This is the question before us, especially since Lisa and I received word late this afternoon from our bishops that, effective immediately, all church activities across the Diocese of North Carolina are to be canceled for the next two weeks (through March 28). This includes Sunday and weekday worship, book studies, prayer groups, meals and meetings. The only exceptions the bishops offered are for funerals, food pantries, and churches that serve as shelters for housing insecure persons. In two weeks, the bishops, in conversation with the clergy of the diocese and appropriate health department officials, will reassess the situation to see if these cancellations will continue or will lapse. (You can read the bishops’ statement on the Diocesan website.)
Friends, to the best of my knowledge, these are unprecedented actions that underscore the seriousness of this moment. Lisa and I will be meeting tomorrow morning to discuss how we might gather for worship online and support one another generally in the weeks ahead. You will hear more from us before Sunday, and as you have ideas, please be in touch.
For now, though, it matters that we find creative ways to be community for and with one another even when we cannot gather face-to-face. It matters not just to the Advocate but to our neighbors and to the world. Our community is a witness of hope in the midst of fear, peace in the midst of panic, and faith in the midst of uncertainty.
As ever, you are in my prayers. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep all our hearts and minds.