With the rapid escalation of circumstances around COVID-19 in the last two weeks, our face-to-face gatherings have been cancelled or moved online. As a result, many of us are left feeling sad, feeling lost, stressed and anxious. 

In a recent press conference, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison described what we are facing as a 1 in 100 year event. Which is true, the last time the world saw something like this it was in 1918 with the outbreak of the Spanish flu. And a key difference between now and then is social media, technology and software that allows all of us to experience this whole thing together - at once. We aren’t just seeing what is happening in our pocket of the world, we are experiencing these events over and over again. And in the midst of all this we are physically losing the connection to places and people in our lives that are our community and identity.

There is a seismic shift happening in our way of life. And it is becoming clearer it isn’t just going to return to what it was in a month. It's going to be longer. And for that, some of us are at a loss. 

I have a personal mantra I carry around with me, “All feelings are valid, no one is punished for having feelings”. 

Whether you’re feeling stressed, anxious, upset, isolated, worried, scared, your feelings are valid. It's okay to not be okay with what is happening. It is perfectly acceptable to be feeling the way you are. And it is important to acknowledge and recognise our feelings in order to move past them. More on this again soon, I’ll write another blog about mental health. 

Normally when a large scale disaster event occurs, we see and experience our communities pulling together and supporting each other closely like with the recent  bushfires. Obviously, we are not in the same situation of being able to reach out to each other in person. But I think this is where language is really important. 

The current message is for all of us to “socially distance” from everyone. University classes are being moved online, people are working from home (where possible) and many businesses, like cafes, pubs, restaurants and gyms have been forced to close. And now, the Police have been given new powers to fine people $1000 and businesses $5000 on the spot for social distancing violations.

While “social distancing” is a critical practice being recommended by health authorities, it has some troublesome origins. In a Sydney Alliance leaders meeting earlier this week our friends from the National Tertiary Education Union shared with us that “social distancing” is the phrase employed by academics to describe the poor quality of relationships with our neighbours. Think of standing in line at the local supermarket and not talking to anyone. Or, even closer to home, do you know the name of the people who live next door. Being “socially distant” is social disconnection. As a result, for many of us when we are being told to be socially distant, we might be likely to think, “How inconvenient! As if I’m distancing from my friends/family.” In fact we don’t want to encourage social distancing, we want to encourage PHYSICAL DISTANCING. And especially in a time of heightened anxiety for all of us, now more than ever we need SOCIAL SOLIDARITY.

We’re acting in solidarity and being physically distant for our neighbours, grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, our friends who are immunocompromised, or our friends who have respiratory problems. 

And here’s the opportunity. There is potential for us to exercise more connection than we had before. Some of our friends live far away and can’t get to church on Sunday. Some friends are too unwell to get to church. But with live streaming of worship services on Facebook, using FaceTime to catch up, or having bible studies and small groups over Zoom (we are running live public bible studies here www.facebook.com/christianstudentsuniting starting this week) - there is the opportunity for us to reconnect with friends who can’t always be with us physically. 

The difference is, all this takes a level of intentionality we aren’t always used to. We run into our friends between classes at uni. Church services are organised by our ministers on Sunday where we see our church family. Our small group is run by a church leader. 

What it will take for all of us to be connected is a bit more effort from each of us. Intentionality and creativity. Organise your friends to get together over Google Hangout and play board games where one person moves all the pieces. Already on Instagram I saw someone playing quiplash with their friends. The laptop was facing the tv so everyone on Google Hangout could watch the answer on the screen. 

And if you’re lucky enough, like me, to live with people you like whose company you enjoy, organise a daily schedule together and re-establish a new routine for yourselves. I’ve started going for morning walks to make sure I’m still getting steps in throughout the day. Organise a weekly games night and a movie night during the week and cook meals together. If you live alone or don’t have friends nearby you can still do these things. Cook together over FaceTime. Netflix have started a Netflix Party so you can watch things together with your friends.

Churches are moving their services to online in a variety of ways. We are going to have more content online over the coming weeks. We have kept up with our bible study gatherings over Zoom. Yes, some of us might feel a bit down or frustrated by being endlessly cooped up at home. You can still go outside. Go for a walk with your household. If you’re feeling cooped up at home get on the NextDoor app and find out who nearby needs help.

To paraphrase  one of my favourite people, Brene Brown: 

We live, thrive and survive based on connection. In order to have connection you need to be vulnerable and in order to be vulnerable you need to be courageous. Be courageous enough to be vulnerable so you can find connection. 

The church doesn’t have to meet in your local building. It can be on your laptop in your living room. It can be on FaceTime, it can be on Snapchat. Church is where our people are. Our people are everywhere you just have to reach out to them.

Physical distancing.

Social solidarity.

Community care.

All of this is us.

- Andrew.

Blog originally posted on csu.org.au (https://www.csu.org.au/church_when_we_cant_physically_gather)