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The Loneliest Holy Week Ever
April 11, 2020
While the church has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, pastors at Circle of Hope, in Philadelphia, asked their members to build altars in their homes.Photograph by Martin Parr / Magnum
Last Sunday evening, Jonny Rashid, a thirty-four-year-old pastor, drove to his church, Circle of Hope, which is housed in a former dental office in the rapidly gentrifying Philadelphia neighborhood of Fishtown, and locked himself in. People would sometimes wander into the church from the street, which was normally encouraged, but the outbreak of covid-19
in Philadelphia had prompted the church to close, and Rashid worried that someone might come in. “I locked the door of my office, too,” he told his fellow-pastors, in a Zoom meeting, the next morning. Barring the door of the church on any day felt very weird to Rashid, but this was Palm Sunday, the day on which Christians celebrate Jesus’ arrival to Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, shortly before he was crucified. For many Christians, the ritual involves gathering together to reënact the scene of the crowd that welcomed Jesus at the city gates, waving palm fronds and shouting “hosanna.” Rashid sat alone at his desk, taking part in a Zoom service with his fellow-pastors. The next day, he tweeted, “HOSANNA means ‘Please Save Us,’ and I’ve never meant it more in my life.”
Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the seven days that lead to a commemoration of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and are, for faithful Christians, among the most important of the year. Circle of Hope is a progressive Anabaptist church with some six hundred members, and part of a burgeoning movement that encourages followers to try to live, in a more literal sense, according to Jesus’ words and actions. Each day of Holy Week presents members with what the pastors call “practical opportunities to connect your faith to your life.” In a recent letter to their members, they wrote, “You can’t learn the mystery of Jesus’ death without performing it.” Typically, during Holy Week, members gather each evening to read a passage from Scripture that coincides with Jesus’ last days, and to draw a line between the injustices that Jesus spoke against two thousand years ago to the myriad forms of inequality today. They might, for instance, read a passage about Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, and then wash one another’s, to humble themselves and collapse the hierarchy. In past Holy Weeks, they have read the passage from the Bible in which Jesus overturns the tables of the money changers in the Temple, and then gone to the Comcast Center, a skyscraper in the city that they call “the Temple of Commerce,” to protest inequality. Rashid calls this “doing church.”
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For Circle of Hope, the pandemic posed challenges in how to worship that are more existential than the awkwardness of holding church on Zoom. To them, following Jesus’ example means not just ladling soup to the poor and marginalized but actually living and working among them, in solidarity. Circle of Hope bases much of its teaching on the principle of “prophetic witness,” which encourages followers to try to address injustice in tangible ways, as, say, Martin Luther King, Jr., did. This is particularly hard to do in a virtual world, and Rashid was frustrated. “What are we doing?” he asked, on Zoom. “It’s a loss.” (On his blog, he recently called this “the loneliest Holy Week ever.”) In the past, on Good Friday, the day when, Christians believe, Roman soldiers nailed Jesus to a cross, Circle of Hope’s members gathered outside gun shops to call for an end to the practice of straw-purchasing, which makes it difficult to hold buyers accountable if their guns are used in violent crimes. This was hard to do given social-distancing guidelines. Two weeks before Good Friday, three of the pastors instead drove into downtown Philadelphia to take part in #freeourpeople, a protest calling for the release of inmates facing increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus in jails and prison. The protesters remained in their cars, to avoid the spread of infection, and honked their horns.
Because they couldn’t use the church, the pastors were asking their members in quarantine to build altars in their homes, creating a sacred space where they could feel close to God. (One of the pastors, Ben White, had created a sacred end table, but he had absentmindedly put his sunglasses on it, earning the ire of his six-year-old son.) They decided to use the period of enforced isolation to practice rituals that come from cloistered Christian traditions. The pastors had asked their members to participate in Benedictine Hours, a form of devotion rooted in the order of St. Benedict, a sixth-century monk and the father of Western monasticism. At 9 a.m. each morning, and then twice more during the day, followers do a “breath prayer,” inhaling while mentally reciting a line from a sonnet, and then exhaling on the next line. “We really want to bring their attention back to God throughout the day, no matter how chaotic it is in this pandemic world,” Gwen White, Ben’s mother, who helped found the church, said. The day ends with a prayer at 9 p.m., called compline, after which followers are encouraged to rest until the morning. Contemporary Americans “fill up those hours with entertainment,” Ben told me. “Monks spent them in silence and get to the heart of their stuff, their trauma, their attachment.”
Holy Week has coincided with a surge of coronavirus cases in Philadelphia, which, due to its high rate of poverty, a factor that increases the risk of exposure, was seeing a sharp rise in cases. Many of Circle of Hope’s members—doctors, nurses, and social workers—had no choice but to remain out in the world, trying to help those in need. Most church members meet each week in cells—small groups that emulate the experience of early followers of Jesus, who came together to worship secretly in the first three centuries of the faith, when being a Christian was punishable by death. On Zoom, the stories people shared were wrenching. Two doctors explained how they traded off shifts while taking care of their three-year-old daughter. They didn’t have homemade masks, which they needed to follow C.D.C. protocol while dropping their daughter off at a day care for the children of essential workers, so the church’s Quilting Compassion Team, which normally makes blankets for refugees, was knitting masks for the family. Patrick Ciak-Linton, a thirty-four-year-old E.R. nurse, had been exposed to the virus at work. On the Circle message board, he’d asked if anyone had a place where he could self-isolate for a couple of weeks, to keep him away from his two young children and his pregnant wife. In the end, he built a small room in his house out of drywall, where he could stay isolated. But the separation proved too traumatic for his kids, so his wife drove them to her parents’ house.
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Julie Hoke, one of the church’s pastors, told me that her husband was still working in the city’s welfare office, helping the swelling number of people who were filing for food stamps, and the more than one million people in the city who have claimed unemployment. Several of his colleagues had tested positive for the illness. “My anxiety spikes every time he leaves the house,” she said. Andrea McIntosh, another member, worked as a case manager for Pathways to Housing, PA, which helps homeless people find apartments—a need made even more urgent by coronavirus. On Monday, she had co-led a virtual vespers service on the passage about the money changers in the Temple, who sell religious tchotchkes that are supposed to make people clean before God. “I have a co-worker who calls me every day to tell me about the deals he finds on masks,” she told me. She agreed that taking precautions was important, but thought it was unfair that protection was only available to those who can afford it. “I can’t help but be reminded about the people in this passage deciding what price is fair to feel clean.”
Still, the crisis was bringing the community together. On the Web site’s bulletin board and church listserv, people were offering to help teach one another how to file for unemployment online, parents were sharing tips on how to keep kids engaged, and a musician was recording members’ voices to weave them into a single song. Rachel Sensenig, one of the church’s pastors, had recently delivered a meal to a family that was self-isolating to protect their premature baby. Sensenig was beginning to notice how strange it was to be living without physical connection to other people. When she arrived, the father, in a gesture of thanks, reached out and touched her hand through the glass, which was both horrifying and moving. “These are my people, and I haven’t even realized how I miss them,” she told me. She felt that the pandemic was reinvigorating people’s religious devotion and commitment to social justice. “We’re accessing some deeper spiritual hunger here, because we have to.”
Holy Week doesn’t end with Jesus’ crucifixion, on Good Friday; it culminates in Easter, which celebrates his resurrection. According to the Gospels, women, including Mary Magdalene, were the first to greet Jesus when he returned to life, so, this year, the church’s (virtual) service will begin with the voice of women singing. Sensenig hopes that, when the pandemic ends, and the world comes back to life, the current sense of solidarity will remain. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with the whole of the world, but my hope is there will be a growing remnant of God seekers who are going to keep shining the light,” she said. Ben hoped that followers could find comfort, during the crisis, through the week’s teachings. “The question at the heart of Holy Week is ‘How can you look death in the face?’ ” he said. covid-19 has made death more present than ever—there is no opportunity to ignore it. White believes that, when Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, knowing that he would be killed and then resurrected, he gave Christians a road map for how to confront their mortality. White said, “He gives us that same promise, that we can look death in the face and keep walking.”
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