Our Need for Physical Social Presence
Albany UU changed Internet providers to get faster data rates and save money on Tuesday. I was in the building to meet the technician from Spectrum Business who was making the switch. I am familiar enough with our phone system and Internet configuration to offer assistance if necessary. The tech looked at our aging PBX phone system and informed me it probably would break after he made the switch to their service. Then he told me it wasn’t his responsibility to help me fix it if it did. He also didn’t have a phone handset to be sure the telephone numbers had been switched correctly. Fortunately, your minister is very clever and knowledgeable about electronics. With the help of Doug, our office computer consultant, an old phone, some spare RJ-11 cables, a screwdriver, and crude wire stripping tools, I had everything up and running by the end of the day. (Made me feel a tiny bit like Scotty fixing the warp drive engines on Star Trek)
As I was walking around the silent building by myself getting this job done though, my heart felt very heavy. As I passed through the kitchen, I thought of how many times I’ve been there after the Sunday service, during a memorial service, cooking for fund raising dinners, making my lunch or dinner, or cleaning up. Sitting in my office getting the internet configured, partly remotely, it felt so empty without Leah, Sapphire or Tammy there and the constant flow of activity. Elizabeth Baldes stopped by wearing her mask to pick something up and it felt so good to talk to someone (with lots of physical distance of course) in person rather than on Zoom. In Community Hall I reflected on how hard I’d worked to get the sound problems resolved. I reflected on all the wonderful events we’ve had in that space over the last 13 years and the memorial services too. And getting a box from the Sanctuary, remembering the services, the weddings celebrated along with memorials.
Social contact is such an important part of pre-COVID-19 ministry that used to happen daily as I went from office meetings to community events and meetings to restaurant meal meetings. While I still go to a lot of meetings on Zoom, I don’t have those casual hallway meetings, especially on Sunday morning that allow me to keep in wider contact and keep in touch many people. I’m the type of person who is fed by these kind of social contacts – the kind we just can’t replicate in the virtual environment – at least not yet. Maybe if we could do a Sunday service with a virtual reality helmet …
Listening to a public health expert on a Deep Background podcast with Noah Feldman, I heard her acknowledge how central social life is to most people’s humanity. Expecting people to stay home and avoid all social contact can happen for a month or two in extreme situations but few if any of us are willing to do it for an extended length of time. It isn’t acceptable to expect people to stay in quarantine endlessly. What public health officials must do is help people understand what are tolerable risks that allow us to fulfill our social connection needs.
The latest concept being discussed is forming social bubbles or “podding” with a few other people who take the same care in virus infection avoidance that you do. This is important for families to allow children to play together, play that is critical to their psycho-social development. Several retired couples might make a pod-pact. Podding also is an approach to facilitate romantic relationships.
Podding public discussion is increasing my desire for social connection to open up a little bit within our congregation. I know that there has been ongoing connection with people getting together for walks and sitting six feet apart on their backyard decks sharing a beverage together. We’ve seen each other at Black Lives Matters demonstrations that followed George Floyd’s murder.
As the number of new COVID cases decrease to 0 in the Capital Region, I wonder how much more we might be able to gather safely. Could we have a congregational picnic in Washington Park? Thatcher Park? What about a physically distant backyard barbeque? Could we even risk a small meeting in Channing Hall in a big circle? What about a service in the amphitheater in Washington Park masked and all spread out with my wireless black speaker and microphone?
We are still learning about the methods of virus transmission. Things that worried us at the beginning are less worrisome now and other transmission risks are more of a concern. If you are elderly with kidney, heart or lung problems forget about this discussion. But for those of us who are willing to consider a very small increase in risk, let us consider ways we might meet our social needs while keeping the risk as low as possible.
Let us recognize our quality of life requires some level of risk. I’m willing to risk shopping and going to demonstrations. Others cannot take that risk. We cannot expect everyone in the congregation to operate at the same risk level.
Whatever we do or refrain from doing, we can make sure we have the widest experience of religious community for everyone’s risk level whether high or low or close to zero. And together, we can continue to be a community of mutual support.