As I sit down to write this column, I confess to feeling unbearably sad. Today the official number of American dead from Covid-19 surpassed 100,000. Two days ago, the Sunday before Memorial Day, The New York Times printed the names of a thousand of the dead, a list that fills three pages, including the front page. “U.S DEATHS NEAR 100,000, AN INCALCULABLE LOSS,” the banner headline reads. “They were not simply names on a list,” the editors write. “They were us.” Here is an excerpt: “Cornelius Lawyer, 84, Bellevue, Wash., sharecropper’s son. Loretta Mendoza Dionisio, 68, Los Angeles, cancer survivor born in the Philippines. Patricia Frieson, 61, Chicago, former nurse. Merle C. Dry, 55, Tulsa, Okla., ordained minister. Luis Juarez, 54, Romeoville, Ill., traveled often in the United States and Mexico. Michael Mika, 73, Chicago, Vietnam veteran. Black N Mild, 44, New Orleans, bounce D.J. and radio personality. Donald Raymond Haws, 88, Jacksonville, Fla., administered Holy Eucharist to hospital patients. Alan Lund, 81, Washington, conductor with “the most amazing ear.” John Cofrancesco, 52, New Jersey, administrator at a nursing facility. Fred Walter Gray, 75, Benton County, Wash., liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. JoAnn Stokes-Smith, 87, Charleston, S.C., loved to travel and covered much of the globe. Ronald W. Lewis, 68, New Orleans, preserver of the city’s performance traditions. John-Sebastian Laird-Hammond, 59, Washington, D.C., member of a Franciscan monastery. Carl Redd, 62, Chicago, squeezed in every moment he could with his only grandchild.”
They were us! Making music, cooking potatoes, praying in community, visiting the sick, encountering other cultures, healing from wounds physical and otherwise, playing with children, being alive. To remember is to bring back to life, momentarily, what is gone. Teju Cole, in a moving diary of the pandemic, notes, “People are dying in hospitals and dying at home. The official tolls are almost certainly an undercount. The morgues are overflowing. Those are the facts. But where is the grief?” My friends and I are shocked when we see the photos of Memorial Day weekend crowds at beaches, pools, boardwalks, car races, packed together, not one wearing a mask. The POTUS orders the flags at half-staff and goes golfing. Where is the grief? America describes itself as a Christian nation, but what does that mean if as a nation we stop remembering the dead and caring for the living? And how to grieve when we cannot gather together in mourning?
In these strange days, I find I do not turn to the Church for consolation as I once did. I find it elsewhere. I watch a pair of house finches build a nest in the eaves, read the daily Facebook posts of Kara Tav, a rabbi chaplain at a Brooklyn hospital. She is surrounded by an overwhelming amount of death, her job made hell by Covid-19. And yet she keeps on, and with such a generous heart. I like to think the people who are impervious to the loss would feel differently if they had a tour of a hospital ICU, maybe if they had eyes to see, ears to hear.
In the face of the pandemic what was once important falls away. We are left with basic questions. What is ‘church’ when we cannot gather together? When, paradoxically, by not going to church we are helping others, especially the elderly, who represent more than half of congregations and who are at greatest risk if exposed to the virus? Lately, with some insisting churches reopen regardless of risk, there has been a considerable amount of online discussion on the subject: A cartoon is circulating on social media of a simple drawing of a church. The caption reads: “The building is closed. The church is open.” “Our highest and holy calling is to be church, not to go to church,” states a meme. Catholic apologist and blogger Mark Shea remarks that “in this strange hour, it is mostly those who think they do not believe in Jesus who are proving themselves his disciples by the only measure he cares about: their actions which put the good of others first.”
Such concrete action and concern for the common good recalls Dorothy Day, another recent source of consolation. Day worked as a nurse in a Brooklyn hospital during the 1918 flu epidemic. The work was arduous and heartbreaking, as it is for the nurses on Covid-19 wards today. This was years before Day’s conversion and creation of the Catholic Worker, and yet here perhaps were seeds of what was to be of utmost import to her and the communities she birthed: Christ’s commands of Matthew 25, the source of the corporal works of mercy: visit the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, shelter the homeless, bury the dead. To be church is both basic and difficult. It is to love the least of these our brethren, to know that they are us.
Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.