In my wet hair, leggings, and circa 2018 Beto Por Texas t-shirt, I went to church, in a manner of speaking—not because my personal presentation standards are slipping, late in my pregnancy, but because I only had to walk across my living room and press Play on the YouTube link. For we are practicing love in the time of COVID-19, and church was available on a strictly virtual basis.
Micah preached and Matt sang and Donna prayed as Zac’s camera panned across empty seats, seats that must have been set up when we were still hoping against hope that we could gather in person. A shot of the headsets we offer folks who would otherwise struggle to hear sitting on two empty chairs took me aback. I was reminded that we are doing this in large measure to protect the vulnerable among us, especially our elders—the same reason we encourage folks to fill out their census forms (a promotional poster for the census appeared in another shot), the same reason we fight detentions and deportations (the New Sanctuary logo on a bulletin board in another shot). What else would we do? When Dakota and I hosted coffee hour last week, we were reminded that the food we offer after church might be the only thing tiding some folks over until their next meal, that the cheese and clementines serve as tangible reminders that spiritual food can’t be the only thing on offer when we open our doors. But today the doors were closed, and I took my material food (Cream of Wheat, lightly sugared) from my Williamsburg Prep High School coffee mug while the service streamed on my television and I fought my urge to thumb through Twitter yet again.
The streaming service at noon was a second attempt at bringing the service online after an aborted eleven a.m. Zoom attempt, which had something of the slapdash cheery feeling of the minutes before a physical service: faces flickering across the screen, laughter that was nervous but no less genuine for being so, folks sipping coffee and hoisting up cats and dogs for others to see. And then the livestream itself happened, showing us the space in which we spend so many Sunday mornings empty and quiet: the coffee not perking in the kitchen, the seats not draped with jackets and tote bags, the altar not sprigged with flowers (but tastefully accented with a spray bottle of Clorox and a clutch of hand sanitizers).
But it still happened. The camera panned slowly out and back as the service concluded, Henco at the piano playing “I Leave You There”:
I leave you there
Do not, do not despair
Remain in a circle and do not despair
Dakota and I sang along at home, feeling anything but silly. I rolled up my t-shirt and rolled down my maternity leggings and watched our baby kick, which makes my abdomen twitch and roll in ways both appalling and adorable.
Later, during Allison’s webinar, someone asked if anyone had sung along at home. I don’t think anyone said no.