The holiest days on the Christian calendar and the commemoration of Passover are upon us, and they come at a time when government has placed serious obstacles in the paths of those wishing to celebrate them. Indeed Jesus and his twelve disciples could not break bread for the Pasch in an upper room in most states without violating the government’s ban on gatherings of ten or more. Our civil leaders have determined that religious services and organizations are non-essential.
A month ago it was understandable that our nation’s faith leaders cooperated with governmental recommendations to contain the spread of the coronavirus, even if it meant the cancellation of worship services, the shuttering of their sanctuaries and schools, and their own sequestering at home. At that time where projected death tolls in the 1-2 million range presaged an unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe, religious leaders had ample reason to follow, not challenge, the mandates of federal, state and local authorities, even if that meant the surrender of the sabbath.
But it is time to revisit this question. What was thought to be a short-term, temporary arrangement has morphed into something more like an indefinite moratorium on both communal worship and the resumption of faith-based social services. This development comes at a time when people of all faiths are battling fears, contemplating life and death questions, and very significantly, facing the sudden onset of financial insecurity. Our elder citizens are acutely confronted with these adversities. Further, the first wave of ten million jobless Americans will be joined by potentially larger cohorts in the weeks ahead. If faith was central to how people processed extraordinary reversals of fortune and uncertain futures, it is doubly so now. While some religious leaders and groups have found creative ways to address the needs of their faithful, they seem to be the exception, not the rule.
You don’t have to contract the coronavirus to be afflicted by it. The cries of the elderly poor, homeless, disabled and other vulnerable populations who are experiencing real hardship now are emerging. Unfortunately, faith-based charities where the needy once sought refuge are operating on skeletal staffs and providing scaled-back services. Soup kitchens are now grab and go, home visits to shut-ins have stopped, donated clothing and goods distribution centers have shut-down, and nearly all forms of outreach to the 2 million elderly living in long-term care communities are prohibited.
As it stands now, on Easter Sunday in the state of Virginia, it would be a criminal offense for my parish priest to celebrate a public Mass, and the members of my family could be arrested if we volunteered to feed the hungry at a local soup kitchen afterwards. How are such punitive measures good public policy? Religious leaders are just as capable and creative in figuring out how to feed their sheep without endangering public health, just as grocers and restaurateurs have been to feed theirs.
America needs our priests, ministers, imams and rabbis and those inspired by them back in action. Our country’s ideals are honored during a time of crisis when science and faith co-exist and government gives deference to the proper faculties of each. Politicians would be well-advised to revisit the tight restrictions they have placed on communities of worship and faith-based charities so that these “armies of compassion” are unleashed to address the social welfare needs of citizens in this time of economic distress and spiritual turmoil.
Easter proclaims the triumph of body and soul, of life over death. Politicians who make no accommodation for the free exercise of religion in these times, even with appropriate public health precautions in place, and who discount the importance of faith-based organizations in governmental efforts to alleviate human suffering, need to explain this discriminatory treatment.
Our country’s religious leaders and their faith-based friends are needed on the front lines alongside the nurses, police officers, grocers and others to cope with the coronavirus, treat its victims, and deal with the real symptoms of financial and social malaise afflicting virtually every household in the country, particularly our elderly.
If our shepherds do not consider themselves essential and re-assert themselves in the public square soon – even if that means risking their lives or countenancing conflict with civil authorities – then they may not have to worry about social distancing for future Easter services held in churches with empty pews.