April sure was a long year, wasn’t it? Now that May is here and half of the country is preparing to reopen in some way, church leaders have an important decision to make.
To open? Or not to open? That is the question.
For those of us who follow the lectionary, we just journeyed with Luke the Evangelist down the Road to Emmaus. Roads are a common theme in Lukan stories of the Bible. For example, in the story of the Prodigal Son, a road leads the son back home to his father. Likewise, the primary scene of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is a road. And on the first day of the week, sometime between the resurrection and the disciples self-quarantining in a house for fear of the Jews, the two meet a mystery man on the Road to Emmaus.
For Luke, roads have a way of bringing us together—a way of connecting people of faith in untraditional settings such that roads become a symbol of a mobile faith. The events on the Road to Emmaus foreshadow the future of Christ’s church, and it begins with a chance encounter that has all the makings of modern-day worship, just without the building. Scripture was shared, there was even a little gossip, and then an invitation was extended to fellowship at the table and partake in the Eucharist. This story that Luke the Evangelist writes that no other Gospel tells, is a story about outreach. It’s the story of an agile and flexible faith where the road and the table meet in-spite of the absence of a physical church.
In the same way, God is calling us during this time apart to embrace a mobile model of evangelism that’s emblematic of a church on the move. One of the good things to come from COVID-19 is the opportunity to reimagine the ways in which God has equipped us to do ministry. I think we’ve proven over this last month that the holy spirit can certainly move virtually and even over the phone—reaching beyond the four walls of our faith houses. My small church has enjoyed more participation over the phone than we did in the sanctuary, and we’ve even hosted holy communion with whatever bread, cracker, or wafer one might have in their home accompanied by any fruit of the vine. I can attest that communion has been no less powerful, because God has been no less present.
God has been with us this whole time helping us to deliver what the world desperately needs right now—compassion for bodies beyond our buildings. Compassion for elderly and sick bodies; compassion for first responders who are putting their bodies on the frontline; compassion for black bodies that are disproportionately dying and Asian bodies facing discrimination. Compassion for the body of Christ. Given our current circumstances, people of faith are still in a divine position to deliver the compassion, care, and dignity needed to treat people, and not just disease.
If COVID-19 (and pandemics before it) has taught us anything, it’s that we are all connected, whether by our shared humanity, or globalization and technology, or by faith. In the same way we are experiencing this dis-ease together, our journey down the road to recovery, and ultimately the road to reopen, must also be together. Whether it’s one month from now or one year from now—our roads will again converge at the same table. And it won’t be because we missed our houses of worship so much that we went right back to doing church as usual, it will be because we loved each other enough not to.
So if you’re struggling with the freedom that’s been granted to many of us to once again worship inside our tabernacles, know that it’s a freedom rooted in economics and not epidemiology. Until public health experts give the “OK” to gather, pastors should plan to continue doing ministry virtually and telephonically, because Jesus is there with us too.
Many of us have been challenged to consider who we want to be as individuals when we come out of this. Now, God is challenging us to consider what kind of church we want to be down the road. My prayer is that Church will continue to be a ministry on the move, sent out by a Jesus who walks alongside us even when we don’t recognize him. My hope is that Church will be where Jesus continues to reveal himself through the breaking of bread, the drinking of wine, and tactile expressions of mutual care—the smile, the clasp of another's hand in the passing of peace, perhaps even a warm embrace after months of social distancing—but also a Church that recognizes that Jesus is ever present wherever we are, and even where we are not.
The country might be re-opening against the best advice of experts, but we certainly don’t have to, because God is with us.
Ulysses Burley III
Dr. Ulysses W. Burley III is the founder of UBtheCURE, LLC – a proprietary consulting company on the intersection of Faith, Health, and Human Rights. Ulysses served as a member of the Executive Committee of the World Council of Churches as well as the United States Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA) under the Obama Administration. He has been recognized by the National Minority Quality Forum as a top 40 under 40 Minority Health Leader for his work in faith and HIV in communities of color and serves on the NMQF Advisory Board. Ulysses is an internationally recognized speaker and award winning writer on topics including faith, HIV/AIDS policy, LGBTQIA, gender and racial justice, food security, and peace in the Middle East. He is a lay leader at St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL.
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