By Father Matthew Hawkins
Parochial vicar, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Benedict the Moor parishes, Pittsburgh
In the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic we faced the unimaginable. Our houses of worship were shuttered and the very essence of what it means to be “a community of faith” seemed to be in jeopardy. We wondered, How could we remain a community if we could not physically gather in public space? How could we remain a community if we could not raise our voices in song with one another and share the breath of life? How could we remain a community if we could not have a meal that we shared in common?
We looked around, but the future seemed desolate. We had become the bare skeletons of what we once had been. We were reminded of the verse from the ancient prophet Ezekiel (37:1-14): “The hand of the LORD was upon me, and He brought me out … and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. He caused me to pass among them and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley; and lo, they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord GOD, You know.’
The world around us seemed like dry bones. It was a time of fear and doubt; only the Lord could answer the question that was in all of our hearts: Can we be revived as a people? Can we be renewed as a community of faith? There was hope, yet that hope was like the faint glow of a lamp in the distance. We wondered whether or not the glow of hope was real or if it was merely wishful thinking arising from our imagination. Then we remembered the words of the 23rd Psalm: “He restores my soul.”
With this promise of deliverance, we began the long and painful process of coming back together and returning as a community. Our initial steps were timid and uncertain. Our confidence was slow in coming. We knew that if we were to be restored, it would require singleness of focus; the clouds that obscured the light in our souls had to be swept away.
With the Psalmist we cried out: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation …” (51:10-12).
Gradually, painfully, we picked up steam. Though the elders in our community were shut-in, their spirits were undiminished. Though the youth of our community grew restless and some began to lose their way, the patience and the discipline they had learned from ancient wisdom proved to be the elixir for the times of trouble they faced today. The prophet Isaiah once proclaimed: “Though youths grow weary and tired, and vigorous young men stumble, yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.” (40:30-31).
While clouds remain on the horizon, much of what we feared has been dispersed. The light of faith, and hope, and charity breaks through the darkness. We do not walk depending on our own power; we walk leaning on the arm of God. But walk, we will. Walk we must. Like the words of the Negro Spiritual we are inspired to sing: “Sometimes I feel discouraged, and deep I feel the pain. In prayers the holy spirit revives my soul again” (There is a Balm in Gilead).
Where once we seemed to be facing endless physical separation, we are now increasingly able to worship together as a community of faith. Health and safety precautions, along with the development of effective vaccines, have restored our social ministries and public worship, and even during the darkest days of the pandemic, people of faith volunteered their time and energies to take care of the elders and the homebound. The trials of the pandemic, rather than breaking our spirit, have brought out the best in us.
By the grace of God we can now look out over what was once a field of desolation and answer God’s question to Ezekiel about whether or not those bare bones shall live once again. We raise our voices like a heavenly choir and we sing in gratitude with the Psalmist of old: “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name” (Psalm 103:1-5).