This summer we have instituted the Friday Funday breakfast picnic.
Typical summers, my daughter and I are both off on Friday and we have Friday Funday — because, let’s be honest, Sunday Funday doesn’t work when mom is the pastor.
This year, like most of you, we are finding new ways to have fun. She is a nature lover, so we have been exploring different places while we eat breakfast and I hear all about what happens in her mind. We have baked muffins. We have traveled dirt roads I did not know my car could handle, and now have a hiking bag to take with us full of useful stuff. I sometimes post pictures of our adventures, and recently a friend commented, “You have the most fun adventures!” Pandemic be damned, I will be making memories with this beloved child of mine all summer long. It gives us a sense of normalcy. Yet, what I didn’t post after our latest adventure, was that on the way home we decided to listen to a Christmas CD and had Christmas in July — in pandemic time there are no rules about such things. This led to a conversation about missing Grandma (my mom), who is currently living in Florida. I said: “I regret standing in line to buy dog food on March 13. I should have gone down to get her.” We hatched a plan: The moment the number of COVID 19 cases in Florida dip, we will drop everything and go get Grandma and keep her with us forever. It was a fanciful way of dealing with our collective grief about no Grandma visit this summer and the likelihood that even in December we won’t be hugging her.
Our adventures serve as a great distraction from the pain in the world right now. They are a few hours each week where we don’t have to worry about masks, social distance or a pandemic. For me it is a few minutes to forget about all the impossible decisions I have to make as a parent and pastor in the foreseeable future. For months now, I have been working with church leaders to make a plan for when we can reopen our building. The constantly changing recommendations and illness numbers have made this task feel insurmountable. We have had to ask hard questions about what church might feel like if we return and cannot sing. And: How do we partake in communion if we have to have masks over our mouths? What if someone gets sick? This experience of leading alongside my elders has given me compassion for everyone who has to make hard decisions in regard to safely reopening anything.
My focus on making memories comes from a place of pain in my own coming of age. Just before my father turned 40, he was diagnosed with a disease “men didn’t get,” and he died about 10 years later after a long struggle. Through those 10 years, I clung to happy memories, and I still do. This has certainly affected how I parent. I am always up for making memories — be it breakfast picnics or water balloon fights or reading together. My zest for adventure comes from the truth I have known since I was 8 years old: It can change in a moment. What is easy today can be hard tomorrow.
Why do I tell you all this?
Well it is because we are in the throes of making impossible decisions about reopening church buildings. It is because the news is a political firestorm of if and when our children can go back to school and go back safely. Just last week our school district sent out a survey outlining three options: a hybrid of in-person and online instruction, online only instruction, or homeschooling. I can have compassion for the school district leaders as they offer us three less than ideal options. There is no good solution; nothing can get us back to where we were on March 1. There is no way to meet the needs of every child and parent. It is a complete no-win situation. While I am frustrated at three impractical choices, I understand there isn’t a fourth solution that makes everything better. I also understand that the fact that I get options and can make a choice is a tremendous privilege that not many parents have. It is an impossible decision. Not one of these options is ideal for working parents.
Next, can we talk about economic disparities? In our home we will have to make one of these options work and we are in a place where we can make that happen and keep food on the table. I do not believe this is true for many parents. There are hundreds more “what if?” scenarios and unimaginable decisions to make. My other concern is that we keep hearing “children don’t get this, and children don’t die from this” (teachers and staff, I see you and I value you too). Those statements are both untrue, children can get COVID-19 and they can die from complications. Yes, it is a very low percentage, but in my book one child dying is one too many.
I’ve been flirting with turning 40 this year — and as I do, I am remembering and looking forward. I have often pondered my own mortality; I wonder if we have made enough memories to sustain my dear child through a lifetime should I perish in the next 10 years. But now, as I am forced to make decisions about school, I have thought about that beautiful young woman’s mortality. My tremendous love for my child does not make her immortal. Ash to ash and dust to dust, no one is immune. Somehow in pondering my own mortality, knowing that “in life and in death we belong to God” is a great comfort. This is not the case when I consider her mortality (or that of any child). The uncomfortable truth is that children die.
This is perhaps the underlying truth in what is wearing all of us down these days. We are mortal, our parents are mortal, our children are mortal. Six months ago, we were making decisions based on if our budgets could accommodate a trip to the movies. We thought nothing of being in a building with other people. We made everyday decisions that involved some risk – like driving in a car or swimming in the ocean – with ease. Now we face bigger decisions about if we should send our children back to school and if we should reopen our church buildings. And in the back of our heads, with every decision we make, COVID-19 and its ability to take lives is lingering. The exhausting thing is that it is in our everyday small decisions too: Do we sign up for Girl Scouts this year? What do we do about the summer camps that are still open? How about sports? Is it worth it to go into a store to get an item that would make life easier? How about a small outdoor gathering? Is it safe to visit my sister? Do I hug my aunt at my uncle’s funeral? My throat kind of hurts today, is it COVID-19? Wait — was I exposed?
I am exhausted (and I bet you are, too). I have been working from home since March and trying to do online school, followed by being “camp mom” during these summer months. I come at this with a decent amount of privilege and enough resources to make slime, moon sand and tie dye. Yet, I long for anything that feels like the old normal — to make a decision based on if my budget can accommodate something rather than if the calculated risk of leaving the house is worth it. All the while, I carry with me my own life experience of watching someone I love suffer with a disease they “couldn’t” get. I desperately want to believe my child is safe and protected from this by virtue of her age, but I have already lived through one statistical anomaly and I will do anything to avoid living through that again.
Being a faith leader, I feel like I should have some answers, some wisdom to add to the conversation, or at the very least be a non-anxious presence. In the absence of answers here is what I have. I believe in all things we are loved deeply by God and that God is with us on our best days and on our worst days. I believe when I am anxious about decisions, when I am fearful about what happens next, when I break down in tears because I am absolutely overwhelmed, God is with me. I know that going to school is safer than staying home for some children. I know that teaching in schools is the only choice some parents have. I know that some parents do not have a choice at all. I know we are all experiencing various levels of strain on our mental health. I know that we are called by God into loving community. We are capable of living into that call in these most difficult times. Loving community means we are going to work together to see our way through this. We will not let insecurity about our own decision-making reduce us to judging other people’s decisions about education or opening church buildings. We are called to support the single parent who has no choice but to send their kids to school and to support the parent who opts to homeschool.
Every day I ask: How are we supposed to manage this? Working and doing school/camp at home? The answer lies in that call to community. Community looks different now, but there is no reason we can’t support each other in making the gut-wrenching decisions that lie ahead. We can love each other and support each other even if we cannot hug each other. Let us remember in all things our call is to love one another and trust that God is with us in every moment of our pandemic ravaged lives.
REBECCA GRESHAM-KESNER is pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in Medford, New Jersey. Outside of church and family life, you can find her in nature, finding fun ways to be creative or asking awkwardly deep questions of people she just met.