Young Harris College Campus Community,
I’ve heard it said that you can learn a lot about someone by asking what they’re waiting for. The next vacation, graduation, the perfect job. Too early to dream about retirement? Later, it’s good news from the doctor who is on the other end of the line. An early mentor told me to pay attention to my fantasies—that they’ll reveal my deepest longings. If you're dreaming about California's coast, maybe it’s time for a vacation. It’s another way of asking about salvation. What do you think is going to give you a sense of wholeness?
I’m guessing that the answer is college for most of our students. They've been waiting to come back to campus because they've spent the last six months cooped up in their houses with too much bad news and snapchat. Even after Carole Baskin and John B came to an end, college was still on the horizon, a carrot dangling at the end of a stick, to motivate them through another week. The college campus offers salvation from the reality of pandemic. It’s the Waffle House, a few interesting lectures, a good party—escapism. And that’s the risk. If we’re not careful, coming back to campus will become a mask that’s pulled over our eyes instead of our mouths.
Fear is normal as we return back to our campus home. Some in our community have trepidation about the health of our campus and the health of the community—the moment a loved one will contract the virus. Kierkegaard, my philosopher-superhero, says, "The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.” What's the right kind of fear? Some types of fear keep us immobilized, debilitated by irrational thoughts. But we need the healthy sort to keep us home when we're supposed to be home or lead us to strap cloth coverings on our faces when our droplets carry a deadly disease (even when they fog up our glasses).
I’ve found myself in both camps within the same hour—excited and anxious. The whiplash from my excitement’s collision with despair has given me a crick in my spirit. Quarantine began as a social distancing competition and I was in the top third of the pack (the competition turned out to be light). Now, I have daily fantasies about eating with friends, dreaming for the kind of communion that takes place around dinner tables. The isolation is hard to bear, but our communion must remain modified, nonetheless.
In an earlier devotion I mentioned that the year 2020 is the ironic lens by which we are coming to see who we are as human beings, particularly the ways we are deeply intertwined with one another. A touch, a sneeze, a cough can travel all the way from China to Young Harris, Ga and take a life. We’re seeing the ways that our racial imaginations have travelled from the 16th century to the year 2020. We are being forced, amidst life and death, to acknowledge the ways that we can’t live apart from other people, nor can we tell our own stories apart from the story of another.
Think about this: what happens when you must make a deliberate calculus about whether to come to a college or university because it might result in the destruction of life? Or, forced to leave the house to satisfy an economy? What happens when must realize that Black and Brown people have been weighing that risk of leaving the house, weighing life and death, for hundreds of years? These are the pandemics at play in 2020.
I look around and notice people who are acknowledging our deep interlocking humanity and stories. But there are others, in a particularly modern way, who wish to insist that they have no story, but the story they chose when they had no story, to quote a former professor of mine. We are learning—in a fear filled, violent way—what Martin Luther King Jr. said so eloquently: “We are inevitably our brother's keeper because we are our brother's brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all.” That’ll preach during pandemic.
Our life together must consist of physical distancing for it to be successful. Our community’s health is only as strong as the most selfish or obstinate student. This means we must wear masks and become vigilant in paying attention to the ways our bodies are taking up space. (Could this be a good exercise as we continue to think about racial justice?) But implied in our physical distancing is the antithesis—our deep connection and dependence on each other. We are a people who are so intertwined with one another that even our physical distancing is an act of human joining and solidarity. The body is broken, but it remains one.
Fall of 2020 might encourage us to go smaller and deeper. Young Harris College Religious Life will not let physical distancing lead to spiritual or social distancing. Rather, we’ll find a way to prune our gatherings so that they foster greater spiritual depth and flourishing. The United Methodist Church began as an 18th century movement of small groups—families gathered together, pursuing piety and mercy together. The church has always grown big by getting small. The first guideline of their gatherings was, “do no harm.” Can we modify our life together accordingly? It will be a challenge, but we’ll find a way to wrestle out a blessing.
We have reason to believe that we can do this safely, but it depends on your response on campus. President Van Horn calls this our ‘shared responsibility.’ My health depends on you. And yours mine. That’s frightening, but it’s the way the world has always worked.
Jesus challenges his followers by saying, us with “there’s no greater love than one who lays down a life for a friend.” It’s a draconian charge to sacrifice your life, but we can start by laying down our comfort and wearing a mask, having smaller gatherings, put a hold on singing in chapel. We can avoid needless trips off campus or dining inside of community restaurants. The best engine for right living isn’t fear, but it’s developing empathy and love. In our selfless empathy for another we will begin to model the God who was emptied for our salvation.
What are you waiting for?
At the end of the pandemic, maybe we’ll have discovered that we’ve learned how to wait on the needs of another. And in learning how to wait for another, we’ve learned how to love.
Love to all of you,