Houses of faith are now considering a deliberate move back to in-person worship as the number of inoculations is rising.
But no one believes we will simply take off our masks and step back in time to a previous way of being.
We cannot simply go back to the way things were prior to this strange and weird year as though nothing at all has happened. We must deliberately seek to understand just what has happened and to heal the broken fractures that have resulted.
Our loss of community, particularly in the context of our faith community, is immeasurable as we’ve “neglected meeting together” (Hebrew 10:25).
We’ve also lost persons who died in the pandemic, journeying through grief without the usual interactions with our community of faith. Shared grief is a powerful reminder that our faith communities bring us together and offer comfort in our time of loss.
Allison Gilbert cited the work of Ashton Verdery, associate professor of sociology and demography at Pennsylvania State University, in her recent article in The New York Times.
Verdery introduced the concept of a COVID-19 bereavement multiplier, which calculates that for every person who dies of COVID-19, nine loved ones are left behind.
The multiplier included the losses of spouses, siblings, parents, children and grandparents. If other relatives – like nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, stepparents and so on – are included, those bearing grief expands further.
In short, our communities are bearing unexpressed grief as we’ve been forced to sequester ourselves from one another.
Our brains process experiences by fracturing them into an uncountable number of factoids in order to retain the experience itself. When we exercise our ability to recall the event, the brain re-assimilates the factoids in the form of memory.
No memory or recall is absolute because the brain creates a story out of the factoids chosen to represent the event.
In other words, our brains create a narrative, a story, which is almost surely a limited representation of the event. It is filtered by the storyline our brains have created as an expression of a purposeful narrative that represents us.
All of us have stories to tell from the universal experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has created a zillion stories – each as valuable and unique as the others, each necessary expressions of individual experience.
Every story contributes to a library of stories that will emerge as we slowly come back together.
In the desert experience of isolation, houses of faith should consider how the parched social distancing can be healed when the community comes back together through the power of telling one another their stories of grief and loss and hope.
A narrative method can be employed to help us tell our stories to one another as an expression of community. The mantra for this method is, “Gather the people, break the bread, tell the stories.”
Whether our community involves a house of faith or a close group of friends and family, we must tell our stories to one another and listen to others do the same.
In doing so, we deepen the meaning of those stories. When you tell your story and I tell my story, our sense of community deepens.
This narrative method, while applicable in all communal contexts, will be particularly important as people experience their communities of faith in new ways.
There is grief to share. There are stories of isolation and depression.
These very human reflections need the presence of others who will share their stories and draw close to another as an expression of wholeness and love.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).