A friend from Westchester County in New York called me yesterday. She told me of a neighbor in his 90’s whose wife of many decades had been hospitalized. Because she had contracted COV-19, neither he nor any family could visit her. Within a few days, alone, she succumbed to the illness. It will now be a long time before final arrangements can be made. Her husband lives in loneliness, made worse by being kept from his wife in her final moments and the fear that he may die before he can place her remains to rest. There are thousands, now, facing such losses, with a grieving that has gripped us all. Gripped us: some with compassion some in fear. Only one of those is part of the solution.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s when the AIDS Crisis was ravaging my community, we faced many barriers to visitation of loved ones and friends who had been hospitalized. When they would die, we would often be denied services or burials in many funeral homes, sanctuaries and cemeteries.
From 1981 – 1989, during the most critical time of the virus’ spread, the president and his administration referred to the illness as the “gay plague.” Eighty-nine thousand, three hundred and forty-three (89,343) people would die of the virus in the United States by the time his term was done. There would be no tests for the virus for more than a year after it was initially reported; the first time he would mention the virus in public was in 1985, addressing whether or not children with AIDS should be allowed to attend school, “I can see both sides of the [the argument]”, he said.
It wasn’t until I began attending a Presbyterian Church in 1994 that I once again started to believe in the potential for organized religion and congregational life to be compassionate and loving without restrictions. I still believe in that potential.
Since then I have learned. Learned that communities of faith respond in different ways. All those ways are not correct or helpful. Denominations may believe they are right in exclusionary or other practices – but that doesn’t make it so. There is no underestimation, however, of the power a denomination can have to bring the love of God into every situation and condition. No underestimation of the power of compassion and the complex healing that faith communities can bring to those suffering, without judgment of their salvation. And there is no question of the harm communities of faith, institutions, governments and others have done in practicing fear and exclusion; denial and dismissal as a solution.
This virus, however, has all our attention, mostly. While there are pockets of “this is fake news”, still, about COV-19 (think about that for a minute) – this time around everyone is affected and everyone is paying attention. The human spirit and voice has pushed for responses, overwhelming (mostly) the talking heads. As communities of faith, I believe our role is to support that human spirit and voice with our resources and our voices, affirming what we believe in a way it can be heard. No person; no thing or condition is more powerful than our combined love, compassion and our resplendent, resilient relentless voices and actions to match.
We all have been through things; Lent reminds us that we are not the only ones to have ever struggled in this world. It reminds me, too, that God is not an insurance policy – but an active and daily presence in our lives, a resource to call upon, reminding others of the same. God is always in “invitation mode”, inviting us to call upon this Resource of Life in the expression of our love and compassion, insisting upon it in all the actions we take — while listening deeply, as painful as it may be, to those who mourn and cry from any distance.
In prayer and in action.
Please join in the conversation. How are you? Tell us your stories of hope and love and compassion. Share with us how you cry, how you laugh, what you are doing – so we may do so with you, as well.
You – we – all of us are loved.
Thank God for God.
Ray Bagnuolo, HR
Presbytery of Genesee Valley
Currently serving as pastor of Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ Sayville, NY 631-827-8611