The Spiritual Practice of Social Distancing

If things had gone as planned, I’d be preparing to go to the airport this morning to fly from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama to Seattle to be the chaplain for graduate students who are earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I was supposed to be with them during their 11-day residency on Whidbey Island, leading morning prayer and meeting with students one-on-one for spiritual direction. As a graduate of this same MFA program, and as a writer and spiritual director, this was my dream gig. I had chosen Scriptures and readings and contemplative practices for each morning. I had prayed for the residency attendees and asked God to show me how to help them notice the presence of God in their lives, in the writing process, and in the world around them.

After reading about the global escalation of the coronavirus, watching things unfold in Seattle, and praying about what I should do, I notified the director of the program last week that I was canceling my trip. I didn’t feel comfortable flying to and from Seattle, possibly getting stuck in Seattle, possibly getting sick and being quarantined in Seattle, possibly bringing the coronavirus back to my family and community. He thought I was overreacting. Others thought I was overreacting. They told me there were no coronavirus cases on Whidbey Island. They did not address my concerns about 50+ people from all over the country flying into and out of the city of Seattle. I pushed back. I emailed university administrators. I told them they were being unwise and dismissive. I encouraged them to think about the common good, the public’s well-being, and those who are most vulnerable. They stopped responding to me.

A couple of days later, I learned the residency had been canceled. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of regret. If I had just kept my mouth shut and stayed silent about my concerns, I might be able to be a residency chaplain in the future. If I had played a game of coronavirus chicken, my trip would have been canceled anyway and I would still be on good terms with the program’s administrators. Now I’m pretty sure that gig will always be a dream.

I have continued to follow the coronavirus news here in the US and around the world. I have given particular attention to how my neighbors in Birmingham are handling the situation. While many are concerned and are doing what they can to mitigate coronavirus escalation—washing hands, not touching faces, staying home when sick—several people here think it’s fake news. 

In a recent Facebook post, a local pastor at a large church admonished Christians to not live in fear, to trust God, to go about their business, to go to work, to go out to eat, to continue to do what we normally do. People who commented on his post suggested everyone is overreacting. They said the media is stirring up trouble. They pretty much claimed the coronavirus is nothing to be concerned about and looked forward to high fiving their pastor at church on Sunday morning. After reading their responses and seeing how many people liked and shared his post, I got up and washed my hands. Just in case.

I get it. I don’t want to live in fear. I want to trust God. I want to go about my business. I’m not afraid of getting the coronavirus. But I also want to do what I can to protect those in my community who might be most affected. I want to do what I can to keep our healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. I want to do what I can to “flatten the curve” and prevent what’s has happened in China and Italy from happening here in Birmingham and beyond.

I wish I could trust government officials at the federal, state, and local levels to make wise decisions and lead me and my neighbors in ways that will minimize the spread and impact of the coronavirus, but I can’t. As I have continued to pray and read and follow along, I have become more convinced that I have a personal responsibility, especially as a Christian, to do what I need to protect those who are most vulnerable. Several scientists and medical experts have said social distancing is our best bet right now. We have a chance to keep the coronavirus from exploding here if we avoid large groups, cancel events, and stay home as much as possible. So, I’m practicing social distancing. I’m canceling coffee, lunch, and dinner plans with dear friends. I’m keeping my kids home from school. I’m skipping church.

While my kids were still sleeping this morning, I sent the following email to administrators at my kids’ school:

Good morning,

After everything I’ve read, it seems the best thing we can do to prevent the escalation of the coronavirus is social distancing. Although there are currently no official reports of coronavirus in Alabama, it’s here. We don’t have capability to test. There’s no way it’s not already here. Our federal government is botching the response. I’m not sure the State of Alabama will do much better, and I doubt the City of Homewood has any clue about how to handle this. Some people in this city think the coronavirus is fake news. If people in Birmingham aren’t taking this seriously, that means it is really going to be a mess here. Too many people have been dismissive about the gravity of the situation.

I’m keeping my kids at home today and tomorrow and will re-evaluate over the weekend. I know kids aren’t as affected, but Riley and Brady both have a history of asthma, which means they could be impacted more. And I (and my family) have a responsibility to be concerned about the common good and the general public and those who are most vulnerable. At this point, it means staying home as much as possible.

My kids don’t know this yet since they’re still asleep. They may fight me on it, and they may end up at school today. I just want to let you know where I am on this and let you know my intentions. If they are at school today and tomorrow, they may not be there next week.

Thanks,

Charlotte Donlon

The principal and others at our local high school will probably think I’m overreacting. I may soon wish I hadn’t spoken up and kept my concerns to myself. I’m sure friends and neighbors and pastors and members of my church congregation will accuse me of not trusting God. They have every right to think what they want to think. But I’m doing what’s best for myself, my family, and my community. I realize I have the privilege to make this decision, and I don’t take that lightly. I know many are unable to voluntarily move toward social distancing.

I’m trying to be curious about how God is calling me to navigate this healthcare crisis. I’m giving my attention to God’s presence and work in my life and in the world around me. I’m considering how God wants me to be mindful of the coronavirus and what might occur in my community and beyond in the coming weeks. I’m keeping my eyes and ears open to ways I can support those who are on the front lines caring for the sick and suffering. I’m seeking opportunities to provide assistance to those who need it most. I’m checking on friends who are immunocompromised. I’m doing what I think God is calling me to do while I watch, pray, and wait.

Charlotte Donlon
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