Memory is finicky. Mine comes in fragments. Lately, there’s one I can’t shake.
I close my adult eyes and access those of my childhood. I see my grandmother, to my left, listening attentively to the reverend. We are at church, the one where she is a founding member. The sanctuary is bright. We sit in a pew not far from the altar. Maybe, just maybe, she is wearing white. I don’t know for certain, nor can I recall one syllable of the sermon. But I remember how it felt to lean on her shoulder, to take comfort in the softness of her skin. She seemed both ethereal and anchoring, and as I drifted off to sleep, I felt safe.
In her, I found solace. In faith, she found strength.
Right now, the world over, many of us are worse for wear. We probably don’t feel strong. We probably don’t feel safe. People are sick and people are dying. We’re fighting a virus that could strike us anywhere: at the supermarket, on a subway car, in a hallway where someone sneezed. We’re wondering when we’ll get back to normal, but what will “normal” look like after this?
If my grandmother were alive, I wonder how she would have navigated the grief and the dread. I believe her faith would have been a compass. Partially in her honor, but predominantly because most of us could use some guidance, I asked religious leaders to share wisdom for weathering these uncertain times.
Whether you pray or not, believe or don’t, I suspect you’ll find something, in their words, to lean on.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum stares into a screen. A door is visible over her right shoulder, a bookcase is visible over her left. She is delivering, via video, a Friday night Shabbat service.
“We are a congregation that knows about surviving a plague,” she says, “and we know the power of compassion, and of support, and of joy.”
The video was released in late March — a couple of weeks after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic, a couple of days before New York surpassed 1,000 deaths.
Kleinbaum is no stranger to staggering pain and loss. Since 1992, she has led Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, a New York City synagogue founded by gay men in the 1970s that has, in subsequent years, expanded to include a range of congregants inside and outside the LGBTQ community. But the synagogue’s origin meant that during the AIDS crisis, many members lost their lives. Forty percent of Beit Simchat Torah’s congregation died.
“We saw around us all the time the walking dead, and we had no sense of how far it would go and how much it would take,” Kleinbaum told me by phone, speaking decisively and swiftly. She was slammed.
“We’re in the middle of the storm,” she said.
AIDS and the coronavirus aren’t comparable for many reasons — but “just because you could learn something from history doesn’t mean you’re making an analogy.” There are “profound” lessons Kleinbaum’s congregation took from that time that informs their response today.
First, the value of community cannot be overstated.
Of course, it’s not just about the future; it’s about the present, too. Connection helps us ward off despair.
“That feeling of what you can carry if you know you’re a part of something bigger than your own life is tremendous,” Kleinbaum added. “And when you feel like you can actually help somebody else, that strengthens you.”
The second lesson: Rituals are sacred.
“It’s really important to continue building rituals, using rituals, creating space for people to express and to be together through the fear and the anxiety and the mourning.” (Monday through Thursday, Kleinbaum teaches a morning Zoom class on Psalms: “We spend 45 minutes deep in word by word study of the book.”)
And the third lesson?
“Even in the grimmest of times,” she said, “we have to create space for laughter and joy and art and beauty and a sense of life.”
I haven’t a clue what the Rev. Dr. Emilie Townes’s Tennessee home looks like, but I can tell you who is not inside it.
While Townes, the dean of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, dives headlong into remote work — overseeing virtual Monday meditation and Wednesday worship and coffee hours and afternoon teas — her spouse is more than 1,000 miles away, on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
“I can’t go where she is with a clean conscience because she’s on Martha’s Vineyard and they don’t have the medical facilities to deal with me if I should come down with the virus,” said Townes, who, based on her age and health, calls herself a member of the “at-risk group.”
“I can’t inflict that on a whole island,” she told me by telephone, “and so we’re living apart. Who wants to live apart in the middle of the pandemic? But it’s a thing that helps us all think through, what does it take to get all of us better, not just my personal gain or my personal loss? This is where community becomes so important for me, because it’s not just me as an individual. It’s me sitting in a community with a disease that kills people.”
The paradox of our particular moment is impossible to deny:
“There’s an irony there,” Townes said, “and folks who don’t appreciate irony, which is one of the things that deep faith teaches us, have a hard time, I think.”
In the 1980s, while pursuing her PhD, she served as the pastor of a small Illinois church. There was some friction with a member of the congregation. A mentor lent advice: “What makes you think you can change that person?” he asked her. “That’s not your job. Your job is to model the right thing. … You’ve got other jobs, but controlling people is not one of them.”
She let that sink in.
“I don’t have the answers, although that’s what I’m supposed to come up with all the time as a leader. I’m supposed to have the answers, I’m supposed to know the way, I’m supposed to do a lot of things that in some ways I don’t have control over. And it just becomes, for me, an exercise of the ironic.”
So, if faith teaches irony, and irony helps us cede control, are people who have a relationship with God, or any higher power, uniquely equipped to emotionally withstand this pandemic?
“It doesn’t hurt, that’s for sure,” Townes said. But those who aren’t religious can benefit, too, from an expansive worldview.
“Anyone with a sense of the world larger than themselves is better equipped to deal with times like these. I don’t think this goes well for self-centered people.”
Why covid-19 now? Why AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s? Why death, and suffering, and despair any time? When talking to Kleinbaum, I wondered aloud.
“Honestly,” she told me, “we have to learn to live with uncertainty and mystery. And no, I don’t have the answer, but I do know that the quality of my life will be judged not on my being able to answer these questions, but on what I do with the time that I have, the choices I make in any given day.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a widely revered theologian and interfaith leader — he marched in Selma with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and met with Pope Paul VI — once wrote that “No religion is an island.”
In separate conversations with Kleinbaum and Townes, women with deep roots in different faith backgrounds, there were multiple glimmers of accord. A shared sense of community. A clarity of thought. A clear-eyed look at our current reality interwoven with threads of hope.
And perhaps above all, a call to be useful.
Both cited the book of Psalms as a religious text they find anchoring during periods of upheaval. Townes often gives a sermon based on Psalm 137.
“It’s a sermon where I’m reminding all of us that we have something to give the world that’s distinctive, a gift that was given to us that we should share. So share it.”