For our 21st Century Plague project, we spoke with 17 Georgians about the toll of COVID-19. Below, Dock Hollingsworth—senior pastor Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church—describes the how the virus has impacted funeral services and the role of existential hope. (Hollingsworth was interviewed on March 17)
Wednesday, March 11, was a turning point. We were here for the Wednesday night services. There was still a lot of levity. A 94-year-old man came up to me and said, “Boy, I was relieved that this is targeting people 60 to 80 since it’s been so long since I was 80.” By Thursday morning we were in a whole different mode. I was in a peer group with other Atlanta pastors. Everyone was asking, “Who’s cancelling Sunday? What measures are you taking?”
How do you keep a ministry going when touch is forbidden? How do we check on the shut-ins? How do I appropriately respond? We don’t have a rulebook for this.
For the first time today, somebody said, “We’re making all these plans as if none of us is going to get this virus.” The probability is, if it doesn’t enter our staff it will enter our church community.
Every industry has something peculiar that they’re facing. How do we do funerals and memorial services? If we do have a death in our community, it’s our practice to come together as a community and tell the stories. We can’t do that. An interment can’t wait. The staff here will do small graveside services and we’ll encourage families to push a memorial service into the future.
We are in the holy season of Lent right now. It’s already designed to be a season of introspection and asking the big questions. So in many ways this makes the Lenten questions more real and more pressing because the ground is shaky under people. But personally the ground doesn’t feel that shaky to me. Because I have a different kind of existential hope. We may see people turning to the church to ask, Are there answers there that perhaps I’ve been making fun of for a long time? This is an opportunity to live inside a hope that is not built on markets, or how many widgets you can sell.
This Sunday [March 22] we’re doing a livestream of the service, and I do have to speak a pastoral word into this anxiety. So I’m trying to figure out that now. What do you say that’s pastoral and hopeful and grounded in reality?
How do we understand God in the midst of crisis and suffering and fear? A theology that moves into loving action is a wholesome theology. I’ve actually experienced less fear [in conversation with members] and more conversations about what kind of opportunity this is to be a loving witness and agent of God’s love in the world. Two women who stopped me yesterday who said, “We’re cooped up in the house so please tell us which of our older church members need grocery runs or pharmacy runs.” That’s what I mean.
You can watch the sermon Hollingsworth gave on March 22 here; it begins at the 18-minute mark.
Interview edited for length and clarity.