"This is my body, broken for you," I say to the screen, as my laptop records me presiding over the sacrament on Thursday. I offer a torn piece of bread to my imagined congregants, who might or might not tune into the service that we will edit beforehand and stream on Sunday, through our website and Facebook Live.
I keep stumbling over the familiar words, replaying the recording and obsessing over the details. I get to the line about "joining our voices with all the saints across time and space," the one that's supposed to prompt the people to sing, "Holy, Holy, Holy . . . heaven and earth are full of your glory." I wonder if my congregation will notice that they, and not just their deceased loved ones, are scattered saints. They, too, are separated - not by death, but by a virus that does not forgive our trespasses into another's personal space.
The novelty of "attending" church in pajamas wore off a few weeks ago. Most of the members of my Presbyterian church now find themselves starving for human contact. We compile photo montages of familiar faces during the prelude. We lean into the visual strengths of film, doing pastoral prayers spelled out on a letter board or expressed with hand motions. One member emailed to say, "Sermons are actually better up close. It reduces distractions." Another said she feels closer to her pastors this way: "You're in my living room. You're speaking straight to me."
Congregational singing is the hardest to replicate. Though impressive, inspiring videos of virtual choirs and musical ensembles circulate on the internet, putting them together requires professional editing skills unavailable to most churches our size. It took our volunteer a day to sync a video of a member at home with her tambourine, to one of our church pianist alone in the sanctuary.
In some ways, though, the hours I agonize over our digital worship service offer a welcome distraction from my guilt over being unable to embody my calling as pastor. I am accustomed to being in the room with the members of my congregation after difficult news or during important decisions. Now people are suffering, but I must stay home. When a couple chose home hospice for the husband, weeks passed before I managed a safe visit - on the other side of their living room window. Through a crack left near the floor, I listened to their stories of their life now and from when they served as missionaries in Brazil decades ago. I sang a hymn and prayed for a graceful ending.
Families have decided to postpone memorial services indefinitely, as gathering to share our grief feels riskier than letting it go unchecked. The anguish burrows underneath our everyday losses. Our congregational life can feel like a compilation of missed connections. Each week, people meet in Sunday school and small groups via Zoom with varying success. We offer tech support, but many of our members insist that "they don't do Facebook," and some don't have computers with cameras for videoconferencing. Our young adults have all the devices and the know-how, but not the depth of relationships nurtured over years; they tell me that organizing video meetups for their fellowship feels too forced. Our congregation's youths and children check in for teleconferenced games and escape rooms, but they miss the physicality of playing sardines or casually holding hands during prayer time. Attendees of our virtual meeting for parents, meanwhile, have bonded more than any group - they feel bolstered by commiseration and camaraderie.
I want to tell everyone, "This too shall pass," but when I look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for houses of worship, and I see that the infection rate in our state does not subside, I know that we, as an intergenerational community with many vulnerable members, are a long way from being able to safely gather in person.
My inbox fills up with offers from church consultants to help us expand our technological reach. "The virtual church shall always be with us," they advise - a prospect that both excites and terrifies me. Our Facebook page registers views across the country. Because people can watch worship whenever they want, they no longer have to choose between 11 a.m. on Sunday and enjoying a beautiful weekend outside: They can do both. A recent poll showed that 25% of Americans are feeling more connected to their faith in this time of crisis - perhaps the flexibility of platforms will encourage our overall growth.
As the governor of Georgia has allowed businesses to resume modified operations, some pastors feel pressured to reopen their churches. So far, my members have made no such requests. Maybe they were listening when Jenn, a mother of two and a nurse who works in a covid-19 intensive care unit, cried during Sunday school class, or when her father, Rex, a veteran, commented that her work these days is riskier than his tours in Vietnam. Maybe they read the prayer list for updates on Susan's brother, Tim, a corrections officer in Minnesota who was hospitalized with covid-19. Or maybe they heard Trey tell the men's fellowship that he's moved 50 miles away to be closer to the hospital system where he serves as a chaplain; that county has a higher covid-19 caseload, thanks to its poultry processing industry, where social distancing protocols are hard to maintain.
I am proud of our congregation's adaptability. Even so, the church cannot fulfill its calling in lockdown. Christians are called to serve, to heal and to do justice, challenging the powerful when their actions threaten the vulnerable. Making masks and signing petitions only go so far. Our congregants - so many of them tireless volunteers and activists - feel as uncomfortable with staying home as I do.
As I sat at home and watched the video of Ahmaud Arbery's death, it was a devastating reminder that the best efforts of Christians to love our neighbors haven't dismantled the racism and injustice that are still plainly a part of our society. For our congregation, thus far, the pandemic has taken more of a moral toll than a human one. Few members know anyone who has died of covid-19. My denomination is 89% white. Eighty percent of covid-19 hospitalizations in our state are of African American patients. In my enforced stillness, I feel deeper sorrow for what we have left undone as a congregation and a society. We are more implicated than afflicted.
Texts and emails asking, "What can I do?" fill up my phone and inbox. Masked church volunteers deliver Easter lilies, prayers and baked goods to the homes of our essential workers, single seniors and beleaguered parents. Other members buy groceries for food-insecure seniors. These small gestures are often gratefully received, but I wonder how long something like banana bread can tide over people aching for connection and yearning to be part of a better world. The gifts left on a doorstep, like my voice mails and cards, send a mixed message of presence and absence.
Presence is not just at the heart of Communion; it is at the heart of our faith. We show up for others. "I am with you" is the message Jesus embodied in life, death and beyond. But therein lies the tension during this coronavirus pandemic: To obey the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor, we must stay away from both the church and others.
The bread in my hand is stale, the grape juice past its expiration date. We believe the real presence of Christ is in these elements. Even with this subpar offering, I sense something transcendent in our efforts to bridge the unfathomable divide between human suffering and unconditional love. I don't know what "real presence" is during a pandemic. But I think I have glimpsed it in the members of a beloved community, who continue to connect to God and to each other the best they can. Which is to say, our Communion - the sacrament and the way of life - as always with human beings in an ephemeral world, is performed imperfectly.
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Waltemath is a writer and minister outside of Atlanta. She serves as co-pastor of North Decatur Presbyterian Church.