Staff Columnist

What does it mean to go to church in a pandemic?

A church member prays during a Good Friday service at St. Ambrose Cathedral, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa
A church member prays during a Good Friday service at St. Ambrose Cathedral, Friday, April 10, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa. COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

For almost all of 2016 and 2017, I drove around the Midwest and went to church. I was writing a book about faith in the Midwest and how it was changing and how it was changing our culture. I went to megachurches in Minneapolis and small Presbyterian churches in Indiana. I had coffee with atheists and went to a picnic with pagans, and worshipped in three languages at the Asian American Reformed Church in Bigelow, Minnesota.

What I discovered was that churches are our repositories for community. They are the keepers of our births and deaths and weddings. Even if you don’t believe, church and faith are still woven into how we conceive of what it means to be American.

According to Gallup, church attendance hovered around 39 percent in the 1930s and 1940s. It increased in the 1950s, when Dwight D. Eisenhower encouraged Americans everywhere to go to services. This was the sales pitch: America was now at war with communism, which he believed was perpetuated by atheism. Americans could differentiate themselves from the godless hordes by exercising their freedom of religion. The call was taken up by religious leaders such as Billy Graham, and soon going to church was more than just something for the religious, it was part of being a good American.

In a global pandemic, churches have once again become a Gordian knot of faith and political identity.

Headlines are filled with pastors and congregants defying stay-at-home orders to go to church because Jesus, they believe, will save them. In Iowa, Gov. Reynolds was quick to lift the restrictions on large gatherings for churches, noting the Constitutional right to freedom of religion. When the Vice President came to Iowa, he didn’t meet with scientists or researchers, he met with business leaders and church leaders.

And yet, church is also the place researchers believe to be the most dangerous for virus spread. Churches are indoors, where people are in close contact, where social distancing is hard and where singing increases the spread of saliva droplets.

Churches are also centers of compassion and grace and hope. While I have been to several churches in town where I’ve heard homophobia and racism preached from the pulpit, I’ve also been to churches where I’ve received welcome and kindness I’ve never experienced elsewhere.

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When the pandemic hit and churches switched to Zoom and Facebook Live, I felt acutely what was being missed — the crying baby while we say the Lord’s prayer, the toddler who keeps racing up to the pulpit with her crooked ponytails and smug smile, the way the light moves across the altar as the service goes on, and the peace we give to one another through handshakes and hugs.

Somethings just don’t work as well over the internet. Sometimes the true hope is in the gathering together of disparate people, young and old, to sit them together in a place, make them share bread and wine and think about how to be better.

I’ve had a hard time attending video church. I’ve listened, but the sound is bad, and the music tinny and my kids run away. I want to go back. But I also, as a person of faith, want to take care of those around me.

And it’s encouraging, as I watch video after video on church Facebook pages, the majority of pastors I hear across denominations are urging caution and care for our community. They are opening slowly. They are only opening when they can be sure that it will be safe for everyone. The churches in the headlines are not the churches of the majority.

It’s complicated. Churches have spurred the liberation movements of civil rights. But they’ve also pushed hard against LGBTQ rights. And here we are again, churches both a space of hope in a pandemic and a locus of disease. And I don’t know how to reconcile the Voice of America and the heart of America. The inspiration and the infection seem so tied up in the same spaces.

This weekend marks, the first weekend that all 99 counties in Iowa will begin to reopen. Our Governor is leaving it up to us to decide how much Covid we get. So many Iowans don’t get a choice: they have to go back to work and risk the virus or lose their livelihood. My hairstylist tells me she has to see clients. If not enough want to come back, she won’t be able to eat. But she can no longer get unemployment. She doesn’t have a choice.

In a recent Gazette story, co-owner of LP Street Food Justin Zehr summed it up when he said of the opening, “It’s very limiting. If you were to create a business model off 50 percent of your seats, you wouldn’t be staying open. It’s a regulation that’s designed to make us fail.” But Zehr and so many other restaurant owners don’t have a choice.

The Governor has shifted the burden to us. Like Pontius Pilate she’s washing her hands and leaving it up to the masses. Jesus or Barabbas: Someone will still die.

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And yet, here we are. Longing for the spaces that define us, but could prove to be the most fatal. Not knowing what to do.

So many Americans are now on ventilators and coughing, sick and dying for air. Even the healthy can spread the disease with our breath and our voices. The very things we use to worship.

I keep thinking about something my pastor said once on a Sunday when I dragged myself to church, tired and yes, hung over. She said that sometimes it feels like all you can do is breathe, but in breath there is air and in air there is nature and in nature there is God. So every breath is an act of the divine.

I don’t know where that leaves us. But each breath is a divine transaction with those around us. Each breath now is an act of faith.

lyz.lenz@thegazette.com; (319) 450-0547

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