Angela Denker: Coronavirus in America: Politics and Survival

Today I got ready to visit our local nursery to pick up a plant. I knew I’d be outside, and I’d plan on staying 6 feet away from everyone else.

Then, I had to figure out a mask. I tried on a mask at home, tightened the back strings, pulled off my sunglasses, tightened it again, pulled it down, walked to the car, drove to the nursery, ventured out into the world. I knew people were watching me. I was watching them. When I saw everyone else wearing masks, I pulled mine back up, covering my mouth and nose. We were alone together again, hidden and revealed.

This week in mid-May, after political protests against coronavirus restrictions in several states, and news stories of violence ensuing over mask requirements in Southern California and Flint, Michigan, the prospect of wearing a mask in public had been complicated by political concerns that hadn’t entered my mind when I’d decided to wear one last week to the grocery store. Then it was just awkward and uncomfortable and unfamiliar; now it seemed to be political, with my friends and family dividing over ideological lines about whether to wear masks or not.

It is by virtue of privilege itself that I had plenty of masks to wear and I could wonder whether or not to wear one as I ventured out, not to treat patients or drive a bus, but to buy a plant for my living room, a decidedly nonessential activity. Across the city of Minneapolis from my house, masks were in short supply—despite the fact that most people relied on public transportation to get to essential, low-wage jobs.

The politics of mask-wearing didn’t bother my husband, an engineer, who had grown used to wearing masks everywhere after spending much of the past month working out of town to design an emergency Covid hospital site. The workers I saw every fortnight at the grocery store were used to masks, too, as was my dear friend the ICU nurse, and my neighbor the ER doc.

I had thus far been shielded and sheltered at home, where I broadcast weekly worship services, tried to teach first grade over the Internet to my 7-year-old son and make sure my 4-year-old son didn’t tear the house down.

My “other” job, as writer and speaker, had been dually affected. I conducted interviews by phone and wrote articles in the backyard while watching my son in the sandbox. I canceled upcoming flights to conferences where I’d been planning to share about my book with churches and universities.

I was lucky and unlucky, like most everyone else. I had so far been shielded from the worst impacts of COVID-19, the ones I read about from acquaintances and long-lost friends on social media, who were mourning their loved ones’ deaths, and being laid off from their jobs.

The rest of us—the relatively lucky majority—await deliveries at home and figure out how to wear masks and make frozen meals and water our plants.

In this time, it is a rare gift to have the luxury of defining yourself in the face of a pandemic. The best among us have long declared such questions moot, as they eat and sleep and work nonstop to care for others, whether they’re healthcare workers or grocery store clerks or engineers or delivery drivers.

The rest of us fight over the margins.

What does my mask say about me?

Is survival political? The nearly 100,000 American dead do not fit neatly into ideological boxes. For some this is all a hoax, a plot, not serious, a drain on the economy. Others have ridden our high horses past the city parks, looking down our nose at the teenagers playing there. They aren’t socially distancing!

We’ve become police to one another, judging each other harshly, letting anger shout while grace whispers.

Each side has its villains. The politicians and health care advisors who shut down your business. The group who gathered for a funeral and set off a viral outbreak.

In 2020 America, is this who we have become? A mask cannot just be protective or precautionary: for some it has become be a political statement.

We are expected to line up: mask or no mask, on either side of a binary that threatens to destroy the greatest nation in the world. Because as a life-or-death pandemic swallows America, we remain in the muck of this debate.

Churches and pastors and parishioners line up, too—some toeing the center of the line, others edging toward the extremes of each group. Should we worship online-only for years? Shall we plan a hymn sing at a time when singing is known to spread the virus? Will God protect us? Is God punishing us?

What about offering? Why about witness? What about community meals and food pantries and First Communions and bread and wine and holy water and communal confession and graduate recognition and colorful vestments and administrative assemblies?

A nurse rolls her eyes.

She pulls on her mask without thinking. She washes her hands. Walks into the patient’s room.

Here is the holy, a space removed from hatred and conspiracy and injustice.

At the beginning and the end of life, we are granted permission to be human. We are loved merely because we exist, the same way that God loves us, that God created us.

God promises to renew our lives, even after death, and life remains a miracle, created out of science and spirit and breath after ragged breath.

There are those who are helping us to breathe again. The respiratory technicians, the ventilators, the doctors, the nurses, the CNAs …

The yoga teachers, staring into the video screen.

The mask covers my mouth and forces me to shut up and listen. I breathe in life. I am alive, and I am not alone. Of course it will not matter what side of political divide I chose if my breath begins to fade. They will remember how I cared for those around me, how I chose life: not only for a cluster of cells inside a woman’s body but also for the man across the street from me, for the people who didn’t have the privilege to socially distance, those for whom the mask was not a political statement but a chasm of life or death.

Jesus entered into death so that we might live.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. John 10:7-10

Don’t tell me who you’re voting for in 2020, or what news station you watch, or what Internet research you did this spring about coronavirus.

Tell me how you stayed alive.

Angela Denker

Angela Denker, author of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump (Fortress: August 2019), is a Lutheran Pastor and veteran journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, Christian Century, and Christianity Today. She has pastored congregations in Las Vegas, Chicago, Orange County (Calif.), the Twin Cities, and rural Minnesota.

To write Red State Christians, Angela spent 2018 traveling across America to interview Christians and Christian leaders in red states and counties. While spending time with the people in her book - and her own loved ones living in red states and counties, she found surprise, warning, opportunity and hope. In retelling those stories, she hopes to build empathy and dialogue without shying away from telling hard truths about the politicization of religion and the prevalence of Christian Nationalism in churches across America.

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Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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