Metropolitan Community Church Detroit
Rev. Dr. Roland Stringfellow is the Senior Pastor of Metropolitan Community Church Detroit and also works with congregations on LGBTQ inclusion as the Director of Ministerial Outreach for the African-American Roundtable, a program of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies (CLGS) in Religion on the campus of Pacific School of Religion. Rev. Dr. Stringfellow has been consulted by media outlets regarding his work on marriage equality and religious liberty and the role...
The lead deacon at my church called me several days into our mandated social distancing (I cannot recall which day he spoke to me because all the days blend into one another.) and asked if he could post encouraging words daily on our Facebook page. He commented that he had not seen many pastors or religious leaders publicly providing encouraging words and the people are scared. I responded that he absolutely could and should do that. He has always had a way of blending inspirational insights with scripture.
After reflection, I too could not recall hearing many religious leaders providing comforting words or spiritual guidance in the immediate days after COVID-19 captured our nation’s attention. That was understandable, after all, who has an emergency plan for a pandemic? Talk about being caught off guard!
I am skeptical of religious leaders who respond too quickly after a crisis with platitudes because they feel they must give people “a good word.” These faith leaders run the risk of over spiritualizing the situation (i.e. “God will not allow a hair on your head to perish, and neither will you.”) or downplaying the emotions of those they want to help (i.e. “Why are you so fearful? Where is your faith in God?”). Over spiritualizing the moment and downplaying very real emotions are examples of spiritual malpractice in my view.
Being a local pastor comes with many expectations – being an inspiration dispenser, caregiver, community organizer and a spiritual leader during troubling times. What do we do in order to make it through perhaps the most unsettling global crisis we will see in our lifetime? How should we minsters feel when, as a global community, we are experiencing the same trauma as the rest of our community? How do we get our own bearings and provide encouragement for others when we have no idea what is going on?
I know of only one way to provide inspiration and a good example for others – and that’s being spiritually grounded. In times of emergency, the instructions given on an airplane before takeoff apply – before assisting others, put your oxygen mask on yourself first. Before I could minister to others during this crisis, I knew I needed to attend to my own fears and bouts of uncertainty by going into my “prayer closet”. I needed to get my own spiritual bearings before I could utter a word to members of my community.
The same practice I use for myself is the inspiration I share with others in these days of isolation, fear and vulnerability. Being spiritually grounded means going to God in an honest and transparent way with our humanity and our emotions. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness. I am well content with weaknesses … for when I am weak, then I am strong” 2 Corinthians 12:9-11. This means not trying to appear stronger than we really are, (This would be ego.) nor being so disconnected from God we behave out of irrational panic, (hoarding food and supplies). As we become more transparent with God, the more we begin to rely on God’s strength and see ourselves and the world as God sees us. We gain a proper perspective, not a self-sufficient nor overly anxious perspective, but one where we are grounded in God. We feel safe in God’s arms, protected and covered, strengthened by comforting words written more than 2000 years ago that support us to this very day. We are reminded the world has survived myriad humanitarian crises before and why should this one be any different.
In my first sermon delivered from my home office last week, I encouraged others to not allow resentment and fear to build up in their hearts. We need to practice forgiveness of those whom we blame for losing our jobs, losing our plans for the immediate future, losing our freedom – even if God is who we need to forgive for causing this “Act of God.”
I was later asked by someone, “How do you forgive when the offense is ongoing?”. That was a question I needed to go back into my prayer closet to be able to answer. The answer I received was, when we are honest with God about where we are emotionally in the moment (i.e. angry, resentful, frustrated, afraid, depressed), we also need to ask God for help in order to get to the place where we want to be (i.e. hopeful, confident, fearless, faith-filled, trusting,). I believe we need to begin moving in the direction we want to be. Our actions are crucial. Is this “fake it ‘til we make it?” It could be, but I like to think of it as moving to where God is.
Referencing the wisdom of Psalms, I believe moving to the place we want to be though our prayers and actions is a wise approach to becoming more spiritually grounded. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God ” Psalms 42:11. “You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word ” Psalms 119:114. We can hope in and give praise to God, even in fearful and uncertain times, because we are called to move toward those places of hope and confidence. And when we arrive at our spiritual destination, the place where God is, we are guaranteed to find “the peace that passes all understanding” Philippians 4:7.
My hope and prayer is that we each become more spiritually grounded by going to God in all of our honesty and humanity, discovering we are always protected – even if we become ill. There is peace in the midst of a world-wide pandemic and our God offers it overflowing. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27