Faith and fatigue during fourth wave
By Lindsay Peyton
Churches in the Texas Annual Conference are bracing for the fourth wave of the coronavirus. According to the “Texas Tribune,” the spread of the Delta variant is causing a rapid increase in hospitalizations in Texas, faster than at any other point in the pandemic. A report on Aug. 5 showed 129,114 new cases in two weeks statewide, creating a total of 2.7 million confirmed cases in 254 counties since the pandemic began. According to the news outlet, about 44 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated.
Stephanie Hughes, Senior Pastor at St. John’s UMC in Texas City, has witnessed COVID-19 cases rose sharply in her community. A few weeks ago, there were dozens of hospitalizations from the virus. Now there are hundreds.
“Hospitals are already full,” she said. “Ambulance drivers are telling us it’s all COVID cases.”
The Rev. Charles Anderson, District Superintendent of the Northwest District, has also seen a rise in his area. He added that in the district, the average vaccination rate is 26 percent, almost half the statewide average.
“COVID is not just urban,” he emphasized. “COVID reaches into rural and suburban areas.”
In some parts of East Texas, he said, access to medical care is lacking, as well as availability of vaccines. He has noticed a feeling of discouragement during the fourth wave.
“What I am experiencing is fatigue and frustration,” he said. “People are like, I wore the mask, I got the shot, I still got COVID.”
The Rev. Dr. Doug Baker, senior pastor at Marvin UMC, recently recovered from COVID-19, even though he was vaccinated. His case was mild.
Baker explained that individuals who were not fully vaccinated are typically experiencing severe outcomes with the Delta variant. “Some are going into the hospital,” he said. “Some have much more extended illness.”
Pastor Hughes described the feeling in recent weeks as “whiplash.” The church was just cautiously coming back to the building, after their first return service for Easter.
“We were ramping up,” she said. “It was a time of recovery. Now, it’s like, are we going to end up back in the parking lot?”
Hughes explained that some congregation members feel defeated, others upset. And, a few are looking for someone to blame, she added. “People are angry that we’re going to have to take a step back,” she said. “How many steps back are we going to have to take?”
She evokes the Biblical story of the Israelites wondering in the wilderness. “We’re being pushed out into the wilderness, and our soul is longing for a home,” she said. “We’re longing for what we knew. We’re longing to be closer to God.”
The feeling of being lost has lasted longer than we had anticipated, she added. Still, the Israelites solidified their identity as people of God in the wilderness. And faith can be strengthened even in this fourth wave of COVID, Hughes explained.
“Remember that God is on our side,” she said. “God is going to lead us out of this, but you need to be responsible, getting the vaccine, wearing the mask, washing your hands. Not just being protective of yourself, but being protective of people around you.”
Anderson agreed about the importance of demonstrating grace at this time. He pointed to Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Pastor Baker said to remember the importance of faith in trying times. He added that a Gallup poll showed individuals who attend church have better emotional health.
“We have got to find ways to continue reaching our members, stay connected and keep our doors open and programs going,” Baker said. “We have to give opportunities for people to practice their faith. That will help them emotionally, physically and spiritually.”
Providing solace as a church is essential. “What we’re doing is important,” Baker said. “We’re going to keep moving forward.”
Marvin UMC is starting a campaign this fall to encourage spending 15 minutes each day with the Lord, whether that is reading scripture or following a devotional from the Upper Room. “Spend time in prayer,” Baker recommended. “Guard that time with the Lord and make time to settle your heart.”
Hughes suggests that clergy also take time to address spiritual self-care. “It’s important to find something that feeds your soul, whether that’s going fishing or practicing yoga,” she said. “Take care of yourself.”
Pastors can feel run down during these uncertain times, Hughes said. “As leaders, we have to practice what we preach,” she added. “Part of that is staying connected to the source, being aware and knowing when to step back.”
Hughes also suggested drawing strength from the past year’s experience. “We’ve been there before,” she said. “At least, now we know. I can draw on that knowledge, and in that sense, it’s a little bit easier.”
She is working to maintain a positive attitude. Instead of feeling robbed, or feeling setback by the fourth wave, she praises God for the recent respite.
“The last three months has been a huge gift,” she said. “Rejoice in that.”
God is at work, Hughes added. “Remember that God is moving, even in our most frustrating moments, when we feel defeated. And hold onto those spots of hope.”