Earlier this week Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center hosted an online mini-retreat, Daring to Pray in the Time of COVID. Fourteen of us gathered together through Zoom to remember that God listens to us, that God is moved by compassion to act on our behalf, that we are invited to pray boldly and persistently, and that we do so in companionship and solidarity with each other. The most meaningful part of our time together, at least for me, was the openness, honesty, and vulnerability of naming that which weighs on our hearts and minds these days:
- the loss of friends to COVID
- the inability to be present physically with those who grieve
- high risks endured by healthcare workers and gratitude for their service to us all
- experiences of loneliness, fear, and anxiety
- deteriorating mental health for many in our community
- hopes that scientists will develop a vaccine and treatments for COVID-19
- upcoming airline travel and the heightened worries of getting sick
- financial insecurity facing persons and institutions
- stress and strain on teachers and students
As each person shared their concerns, I found myself silently nodding (and taking notes). Together we were creating a mosaic of personal and communal human needs in this present moment. Needs for mourning and healing, comfort and compassion, wisdom and insight, safety and wellbeing, inner and outer peace, stability and security, learning and growth.
Then someone shared a worry that stopped me short: the dramatic fissures in our social fabric, specifically the divisions and vitriol accompanying different interpretations of the pandemic. I stopped short, not because this was news to me (far from it) but because I realized, in that moment, how much our present cultural divides impact us (and not for the good). News from this past week has included images of heavily armed protesters storming government buildings, stories of desperate restaurant owners and barbers defying orders to remain closed, Facebook friends lashing out at each other about wearing (or not wearing) masks, and spouses vehemently disagreeing about when to stop working from home and return to the office.
Reverend Kara Root summarized this well (and, I commend to you her full blog post, Free from Anger):
People are tired, angry, frustrated. Some don’t want to be told to stay home or wear masks. Some are furious at those who refuse to stay home and wear masks. Every little decision feels fraught—where to go or not go, how to pass this person on the sidewalk, what to wipe down, when to wear a mask, how to greet a person, and on and on.
We are now entering the vague days where people’s decisions will conflict. We won’t all agree about what we should do or not do. . . . Members of families will make different choices than each other. We will have to tell our kids why our decisions are not the same as our neighbors’. We are all in this together, but we are not in agreement.
I spent years teaching Nonviolent Communication to conflicted persons and groups, so difference and disagreement don’t surprise, let alone frighten, me. But the conflicts of this present moment feel qualitatively different. We all feel more vulnerable. We all feel scared. We profoundly need solidarity, reciprocity, and mutual care at a cultural moment in which sociocultural divisions (of all sorts) seem insurmountable and trust of those on “the other side” (however that is defined) seems near impossible.
Our needs are acute, and we share them. That awareness is the starting place for connection, compassion, and care. The protesters and I have similar feelings. We have the same basic needs even if we pursue those needs in diametrically opposed ways. I’m not going to agree with them now or anytime in the future, but that doesn’t mean that rage or fear must dominate my response to them.
Our divides may be scary, but there are ways to bridge them. Those who regularly go on communal retreats know this. Setting aside time and space for group listening, discernment, meditation, and visioning strengthens bonds between those who are different from one another and who sometimes adamantly disagree.
We can bridge divides when we retreat at home as well. We begin to build bridges when we remember our common humanity. When we feel angry yet choose to remember that we are all suffering. When we resist disdain by setting aside our own dehumanizing thoughts. When we hold each other compassionately by practicing the blessing prayer, healing prayer, or similar meditations.
Twentieth century theologian Karl Barth once said, “The love of God always throws a bridge over a chasm.” This is our hope in scary times: God bridges all our divides. Jesus is our sure and strong bridge. As the writer of Colossians put it, “In Christ all things hold together.” And all means all: all our relationships, all the fractures in our culture, and all the people in our aching world.
*Theresa F. Latini, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Mount Olivet Conference & Retreat Center and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA)