COVID-19, love, and regret

By | March 16, 2020

Recently I read an article from a nearby church talking about its reasons for shutting down in-person worship. Much of the content was predictable, but one portion really resonated for me. That was the comment that love requires us to minimize the possibility of regret.

The concept of minimizing the possibility of regret is useful as we think about next steps in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, if our worst fears come true, will we come to regret our response to the crisis, or our lack of a response? Additionally, this concept is generally useful as we probe the ethical questions that arise in day-to-day life.

Of course, the idea isn’t new. For example, the Rotary uses a four-part test to evaluate actions:

  1. Is it the TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

Similarly, we have the concept of the Golden Rule, as well as Jesus’ many admonitions, including to love thy neighbor as thyself.

But in the case of COVID-19 pandemic, the concept takes on renewed meaning, particularly in light of the aging demographics of the mainline churches.

Consider this not far-fetched hypothetical:

St. Andrew’s was an affluent but aging Episcopal church located in a mid-sized town along the East Coast. While the church had seen some declines in recent years, in 2020 it remained vibrant and loving, with a beautifully maintained property that welcomed countless local groups. Additionally, it took seriously the baptismal covenant, operating a food pantry and providing other resources for those afflicted by food insecurity.

When the coronavirus pandemic first made headlines, the bishop diocesan, reluctant to risk alienating people at a time when the diocese already faced sharp declines in membership, held a Zoom meeting for clergy and wardens. During the meeting, she expressed her strong support for churches that chose to close in response to the pandemic, while expressing hope that church offices would remain open during the crisis. She also shared a number of best practices for preventing community-based transmission of the virus, including not using a common cup, suspending non-essential meetings, disinfecting the altar rail and commonly used surfaces, and avoiding physical contact during services.

The rector of St. Corona’s, herself relatively new, similarly was reluctant to make waves when news of the outbreak hit. In a hurried conference call with the vestry and wardens, she reminded the church of the importance of taking care of others, of checking in on those already isolated, and of the important role that Sunday worship has for some, including those who may otherwise rarely leave their homes.

The vestry agreed wholeheartedly, and began plans to stream Sunday services live via Vimeo. An email was sent to the entire congregation, recommending that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions stay home. Volunteers called those who didn’t have email to make sure they heard the news.

The following Sunday, only about 12 parishioners showed up, together with the rector and long-time deacon. Since it was Lent, the service was hushed, beginning with the General Confession and Kyrie, and ending with parishioners partaking only of the consecrated bread. Those in attendance were stalwarts of the church, all long-time members who gave generously of their time and talent.

Fourth Lent was similar, with many more people joining the Video feed that Sunday. Meanwhile, the rector continued to visit shut-ins, being careful not to touch her face, to remain well apart from congregants, and to use hand sanitizer at every opportunity.

Towards the end of March, a parishioner in his sixties submitted a prayer request, saying that he had been under the weather, but was starting to feel a little better.

A few days later, the parishioner started to feel short of breath. He went to the doctor’s office where he was found to be running a temperature. Out of an abundance of caution, he was admitted to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with COVID-19. Fortunately, he was well enough to be discharged two weeks later, and promptly went home to self-quarantine.

As word of his condition got out, members flocked to their doctor’s offices. Waits were interminable, and many did not get tested, as they weren’t running temperatures, and test kits were in short supply at the county health department. Meanwhile, families within the parish faced myriad challenges, ranging from the children being home from school, to loss of income, to difficulties in obtaining toilet paper and other essentials. The county health department also urged all 380 church members to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Meanwhile, the county health department was hard at work, trying to trace potential exposures. To the dismay of everyone, several married members of the congregation were reported to have had “close contact” with others located miles away. Details were few and far between, but it was clear to even the casual observer that the situations involved extra-marital affairs. Still, folks took things in stride and tried to be as supportive as possible. Meanwhile, questions abounded: How did the infection enter St, Andrews? Was it the people who came to the food pantry? Should the rector have been wearing a face mask?

Others faced more serious issues. Several parishioners reported that grandparents had died from the virus, while others tested positive but showed few symptoms.

In the coming days, several members of the congregation were hospitalized. Three recovered fully, while two elderly and much-loved parishioners, long-time members of the altar guild and gardening club, died of respiratory failure despite mechanical ventilation and aggressive efforts to save them.

As the federal government finally made enough test kits available for wide-spread testing, parishioners turned out in force to be tested. To the surprise of many, much of the parish had been infected. This included numerous children, none of whom had complained about anything more than a sniffle here or there.

When all was said and done, St. Corona’s was in shambles. Many had fallen out of the habit of attending church on Sundays and were too busy regrouping from the crisis to resume their previous levels of involvement. Meanwhile, the vestry had dug deep into cash reserves to cover salaries at a time when giving was down by almost 40 percent, draining the formerly affluent parish of much if its cash reserves.

Other outcomes were equally troubling but hard to quantify. Faced with tension and anxiety on multiple fronts, parishioners had their hands full as children attended school throughout the summer to make up for missed class time earlier in the year. Others noticed increased levels of conflict within the parish, with some openly denouncing those who had continued to attend services during the pandemic, describing them as selfish. Older parishioners, remembering their experiences with the Korean War and other conflicts, felt that younger parishioners were being crybabies about the whole thing. Others complained that the church was filled with “snowflakes,” but many in the church weren’t even sure what this meant. And still others said the whole thing came about because people coming to the food pantry had brought the disease into “their church.” But true to form, many just quietly quit attending. No one ever followed up with them, so their exact reasons for leaving were unclear. “We certainly don’t want to make anyone go to church,” members said.

The loss of several older parishioners also had a surprisingly big impact on the church’s finances. Indeed, whispers around the parish and some comments from the treasurer suggested that these parishioners had quietly been gifting away their estates prior to death. Yes, each had remembered St. Andrew’s in their wills, but with the stock markets at record lows, there wasn’t really much left.

But most painful of all was the loss of Holly, a long-time member of the parish. Baptized in the church at the age of 5, she and her husband had been pillars of the church, giving generously of their time and talents. Holly’s husband had served on the search committee for the previous rector, and she had served in almost every capacity possible over the years, ranging from senior warden to president of the altar guild. Her children had grown up in the church, and had been married there. Indeed, many members of the church reported that they had become members after she being greeted by her warm smile at the 10:00 service. She had also been a constant presence for stability in the church during previous crises, including the abrupt resignation of the rector more than a decade ago, which some said had something to do with a married parishioner. But throughout the ups and downs of life at St. Andrews, Holly could be seen smiling and saying, “This too shall pass.”

And so it was, for her will remembered the parish generously, and within a few years the church was back on a more firm financial footing, although attendance never really recovered.

But behind the scenes, things were never the same, for there were always those who regretted not doing more to protect her and other members of the parish from the disease. “I don’t know why we didn’t take it more seriously,” said one older parishioner, a close friend of the family. “We miss several weeks of church every summer when we go to the beach,” she added. “It would have been no big deal to close the church for a few weeks or even a couple of months, but we just didn’t think it could happen at our church. After all, we’re like a family here.”

Others blamed the problems caused by the pandemic on those who failed to wear a surgical mask to services. Still others said it might have been the rector, whose brother lived in New York and had been hospitalized, who was responsible for the crisis. A few archly noted that the parish really knew very little about people who visited the food pantry.

But the church’s next door neighbors, a couple in their 20’s, weren’t quite sure what all the fuss was about. After all, they said, “We’re spiritual, but not religious. We just don’t really get into church. And we’re all going to die sometime, right?”

And when Holly’s young neighbors, themselves parents of small children, gently pointed out that there was a lot of unresolved conflict in the parish, and they didn’t want to raise their children in that environment, members were not unkind. “Yes, we have our issues. But church is just like anywhere else. We too make mistakes.”

And so life at St. Andrew’s continued on, with the parish seemingly holding its own, but gradually getting smaller over time as the tensions that came to the fore during the pandemic simmered on behind the scenes, largely ignored or unnoticed to those who remained in the church. “Don’t it take personally,” members said.

Meanwhile, members pointed in glowing terms to the glorious Christmas and Easter services, as proof that things were okay, carefully sidestepping issues of attendance and participation the rest of the year. And some pointed out that giving had remained relatively steady, despite the continuing decline in membership.

Eventually, the day came when even the most optimistic had to conclude that the parish needed to close. Membership had been declining for many years, and much of the church’s endowment spent in an effort to hold onto the building and continue serving the community. And with an increasingly aged population and few newcomers, St. Andrew’s slowly, imperceptibly became a living museum, embracing the past, hoping to ignore the future.

Still, people banded together and did the final service well, fondly reminiscing about their church and their many years together. Remaining funds were transferred to other food pantries and homeless shelters, while vestments, altar ware and other valuable pieces were transferred to other parishes in the area. Even the columbarium was carefully emptied. Some families came to claim urns of long-departed family members, while other churches in the area interred ashes for whom no living relatives could be found.

All agreed that the decision to close, while painful, was well handled. “It was such a friendly, welcoming place,” many said wistfully.

But in all the reminiscing, no one ever brought up the lasting damage caused by the church’s well-intentioned but flat-footed response to the 2020 pandemic. Nor did they consider the loss of cohesion, or the conflict, mistrust and hurt that had arisen during the pandemic, only to be ignored and quietly absorbed into the fabric of the church. And like a hidden cancer, those ugly changes slowly ate away at the once vibrant parish until it simply couldn’t go any longer.

The last victim of the 2020 pandemic had finally died.

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