The Work of Faith: A Report on Rural Church Life in the Time of Pandemic
Tanner Capps writes about the relationship between faith and politics at a North Carolina church.
Built Space and Pandemic
That the church is much more than its built structure is an idea that many Christian congregations hold as basic. And yet, across the country, state and local mandates on the use of church buildings and their grounds as a result of COVID-19 have tested this widely held belief. Recommendations have changed week to week, but the consistent message has been that churches are one of the most likely places for communities to spread the virus due to singing, touching, meal sharing, and general close proximity during services and community gatherings.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, many churches migrated to online platforms for their services. Congregations with little to no information technology infrastructure scrambled to learn the ways of Zoom, Facebook Live, and YouTube. Collective frustration over the diminished quality of services quickly followed, but most congregants soon became accustomed to these technologies as part of a new normal for their faith communities. This has raised fundamental questions about the merits and disadvantages of virtual space vis-à-vis a traditional built environment—whether or not they are broadly consonant with one another, if a physical space is required for the exercise of certain rituals, and so on.
The impulse to gather is at the heart of most religious systems in general and the Christian faith in particular. As a kind of middle ground between the virtual and traditional, the summer months brought a return to services and gathering outdoors, reminiscent of the camp and open-air meetings of the previous two centuries in America. These gatherings transcend the physical space of the church building and have been called “church on the lawn,” “parking lot service,” “drive-in church,” and the like. As one local minister observed early on, “This [recommendation against gathering] is going to be very difficult for us, because the whole premise of the Christian church is social proximity—proximity to other members, proximity to other congregations, proximity to neighbors in need.” With restrictions on proximity and state recommendations for social distancing in place, the kind of life that faith communities have previously nurtured has been forced to evolve. It is seen by some as a precaution and by others as a threat to the very identity of their faith traditions.
Trinity Presbyterian Church in Laurinburg, North Carolina (the focus of this feature) grappled with this issue as it received requests from younger families and other congregants to reopen. Though concerns around reopening existed—principally the fact that the average age of the church’s membership was around 60, with many older members living in local retirement communities—loneliness, social isolation, and a desire for children to interact with friends were cited as reasons to gather again. There was a feeling of real loss as weeks went by without face-to-face meetings on the church grounds. While virtual platforms easily deliver content and information, in the Christian tradition, the care of souls requires being together in the flesh. Weekly visitation of older and ill church members by pastoral staff, regular meals together, and weekly in-person meetings of different kinds are the lifeblood of rural faith communities. This lack of gathering brought on by COVID-19 put church leadership in a nearly impossible position, forcing them to ask themselves, “Is the potential of an outbreak leading to long-term sickness and death worth the risk of the immediate gratification of meeting on the church grounds?”
Answers break in two directions. On the one hand, some have argued that it is a Christian duty to defy government restrictions on gathering, since gathering is explicitly mandated by the Bible (e.g., Hebrews 10:25, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…”). Here, we see the tacit appeal to the “wall of separation between church and state” doctrine—the idea that state and local governments should have no role in determining when and how religious groups should use their grounds and resources. This perspective tends to privilege individual choice, suggesting that it should be up to each congregant to decide whether or not following social distancing restrictions is an implicit moral injunction that violates central tenets of the Christian faith. On the other hand, there is the argument that, despite one’s personal desires and wishes, Christians have a moral duty to ensure the health and welfare of their neighbors (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10:24, “Let no one seek their own good, but the good of their neighbor…”). This perspective, by contrast, privileges the wellbeing of the collective whole, understanding federal and state public health recommendations as honest, well-intended attempts at community care that the church should embrace as part of a robust understanding of the importance of material bodies and physical community.
In either case, the current pandemic has served to reinforce how crucial the church is to the maintenance of social existence in rural communities. Moreover, the congregation’s recent decision to allow a local Black Lives Matter collective to hold a public demonstration on its property further clarifies the continued importance of the church as a facilitator of social life, even as it serves to complicate the relationship between the church and politics.
Shared Space and #BlackLivesMatter
Following a series of conversations about reopening the building and grounds as per COVID-19 restrictions, things took a turn when the church received a request from a local college student and their colleagues about using the church’s grounds for a Black Lives Matter demonstration. The organizer had grown up in the church-sponsored childcare facility, Trinity Presbyterian Schools, and in their words, it was at these schools that they “came to value [a] plethora of different perspectives and experiences,” witnessing “the inclusion of the Trinity community [without regard for] any differences or disparities,” as they “grew up with children from all walks of life and with backgrounds different from [their] own.” The organizer concluded that these experiences at the church schools were a formative part of their childhood, and subsequently influenced the morals, values, and ethics that led them to be a voice for racial justice and anti-racist action in the local community. On the stipulations that the gathering would be promoted as a peaceful community demonstration and that the church would neither endorse nor denounce the event, church leadership moved to allow use of its property. However, what was intended as a nascent act of community solidarity evolved into a decision that began to disabuse many congregation members of the idea that the church is an apolitical institution.
In response to the church leadership’s decision, one congregation member remarked to session members, “I guess you have to join Black Lives Matter in order to be able to gather on your church’s grounds.” The comment carried with it the weight of significant emotional and mental trial, partly born out of frustration with the church for taking state recommendations and protocols so seriously, and partly due to frustration over social isolation and the disruption brought on by the pandemic. The inability of churchgoers to gather with people they genuinely cared about was taking its toll. Decoded, though, the remark sheds light on an abiding us/them or we/they mentality—“we,” the church who own this property and are to remain broadly neutral with respect to social and political issues, and “they,” a political action group that represents a controversial platform. The fact that the objector also saw their occupation as one of personal sacrifice for the sake of the good of the community no doubt compounded the frustration—the Black Lives Matter collective represented a direct attack on their vocation as a community servant. Since the church’s decision was interpreted as a personal affront, there was little to no room for a sympathetic hearing of the Black Lives Matter organizers, who were arguing for broad structural changes within the community. The fact that the church’s leadership explicitly announced neutrality with respect to the event was meaningless. Allowing use of the space was interpreted as an act of symbolic endorsement that exposed the fact that the church had waded into American social politics.
This entry into politics is often problematic for rural, majority white Southern congregations, who tend to base their political perspective on the “doctrine of the spirituality of the church,” whether knowingly or not. This doctrine emerged from the break between the Northern and Southern Protestant Churches during the Civil War and argued that the singular role of the Christian church is to administer the sacraments of baptism and Lord’s Supper, and then to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Apart from this, the church as a collective was to have little to no role in settling political or social matters, such as the moral crisis of slavery. This forged the way for several Southern denominations (especially Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist) to claim a broadly apolitical ecclesial identity, excusing them from “direct” action in American political life.
In many ways, the “spirituality of the church” doctrine serves as the theological expression of the Jeffersonian notion of the “wall of separation” between state and religion, where significant tensions arise when overly simple distinctions are drawn between ecclesial and sociopolitical identities. Viewed through this lens, widely publicized recent events like the killing of unarmed Black and brown people by police, laid over the rapid spread of COVID-19, with all of its political entanglements, are seen by many in these church bodies as an unfortunate consequence of an unwell culture, but not ultimately matters that Christians should address with political (or theological) conviction from the pew or pulpit—at least not explicitly. As with the example of Trinity Presbyterian, things are often not so simple, and attempting to abide by the “spirituality of the church” doctrine can result in deeply contested social and theological conflicts within congregations.
The social crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and the serious social questions raised by the Black Lives Matter movement have brought to light a simple truth about religious life in America: with respect to both congregations and their physical space, there are no apolitical religious institutions. Space and communities are indelibly political. Trinity Presbyterian Church faced this reality as soon as the Black Lives Matter organizers made their request. When the question was asked, the church was drawn into unavoidable political deliberation. Retreating into a cloister in order to avoid the encounter was not an option. The church was being called to recognize that no space or building is the exclusive possession of a person, institution, or ideology (political or religious), and that these spaces are always undergoing negotiation by a variety of community stakeholders. While the Black Lives Matter event did take place on the church grounds to warm community reception, the real gift it gave was to the congregation. It gave the church a fresh opportunity to have a sustained conversation about the church’s political identity and its broader role in the social life of the community.
In light of this, it appears quite naive to assume, as the “wall of separation” idea would have it, that religious activity is simply a matter of private belief and not of material and political consequence. The deep longing for social connection that faith communities address speaks to this. The case of Trinity Presbyterian Church taking the risk to symbolically stand with the Black Lives Matter movement by sharing its grounds also demonstrates how complex the church’s relationship to political life actually is. Many have lamented the slow death of faith communities with regard to their declining membership and changing status in American society as sites of moral deliberation and social influence. Yet the recent experience of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotland County, North Carolina, provides a small and intriguing counterexample to this narrative, highlighting the importance of faith communities as sites of public space in the social and political lives of so many who live in rural America.
Following these events that took place over the course of March and July of 2020, Trinity is opening up space for deeper dialogue at the intersection of faith and spiritual care, social welfare, and anti-racist action. These efforts include organizing a video series on theology, race, and society led by faith leaders of color from across Scotland County; the offering of speaking and preaching opportunities that draw on a diversity of people from within and outside the Presbyterian Church (USA); and the crafting of teaching and learning opportunities for congregation members through adult education and Wednesday evening conversations. While these are small steps, they nevertheless serve as an important starting point for further work.