Presence in Pandemic
This is a sacred text: “I’m hanging in there but pretty overwhelmed.” My friend Kathleen Atkinson wrote these words in response to my check-in the other day. There is no peeling back the layers with Kathleen. Her authenticity always rushes from the inside out so that she meets others immediately with the force and freshness of true presence.
A Benedictine sister whose monastery sits atop a bluff overlooking the Missouri River on the outskirts of Bismarck, N.D., Kathleen finds her work in the city. She leads a ministry that provides food, clothing and friendship to people in transition, including individuals re-entering the community after incarceration. In this time of pandemic, Kathleen and her volunteers are now organizing emergency housing because the prisons and jails reduced their populations through early release while the city’s shelter also lowered its numbers to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Her organization, which is called Ministry on the Margins, “decided that homelessness is not an option at this time,” she wrote, “and made the commitment to provide housing for all who are in need.” So every night Kathleen coordinates lodging at a motel for 20-23 people. What is the purpose of a religious community? Pope Francis says the church is to be a “field hospital,” healing the wounded as it steps outside itself. The Catholic priest and philosopher Tomas Halik explores this metaphor in his recent essay “Christianity in a Time of Sickness.” I was struck by the metaphor, first of all, because I was not satisfied a while back when I heard a retired pastor describe his former congregation as a hospital for the wounded, specifically those wounded by the church. That shared identity seems like a start for a community but not the end. Yet many congregations stay here, stuck in sacred buildings, locked in self-justifying narratives about their needs and the world’s threat to their identity. So it has been since the time of the prophet Jeremiah, who mocked the religious community for its pseudo-religious, self-serving mantra: “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.” But “field hospital” is something else. It is a temporary structure for a transitional purpose. It meets others where they are so they can become well. It is situated beyond the sacred building, even outside the religious community. Indeed, it rushes from the inside out, for it seeks genuine healing, which we know is true when the wounded become “wounded healers,” as Henri Nouwen put it. This is a sacred text: “The church should not remain in splendid isolation from the world but should break free of its boundaries and give help where people are physically, mentally, socially and spiritually afflicted,” writes Tomas Halik. The metaphor ushers him beyond the confines of a self-preserving theology to a “self-sacrificing love.” The metaphor opens the door to a provocative possibility, which he calls “a bolder search for God in all things.” The pandemic has pulled us from our sacred buildings as no prophet ever could. We are outside now. So what is our purpose? Our work is to heal. Our work is to place our sacred buildings and other assets in the service of the recovery of our towns and cities. Our own healing depends on us moving farther out, toward our neighbors. The common good depends on us meeting others with the force and freshness of true presence.