Public lament and grief shepherding: Neglected roles of the church in these times
Rev. Dr. Corey Fields
June 10, 2020
In mid-March, news and recommendations regarding this new coronavirus were coming out and changing faster than church leaders could update their congregations’ guidance and plans. Understandably, what we all had to do first was figure out how to make everything work, and how to demonstrate, as our leaders like to say, that “the building is closed, but the church is open.” The creativity and determination with which many pastors jumped into the virtual world was inspiring.
Now, however, we realize this is not going to be a couple of months of abnormal life and then, “soon and very soon,” we will all triumphantly return with extra hugs and tears of joy. Expert analysis reveals that our society may not experience any sense of normalcy for a very long time, perhaps well into 2021, and for churches, return to in-person worship will come with difficult protocols and limitations.
The world we knew is gone, and it left us without much notice. However and whenever COVID-19 is finally brought under control, life will not look the same. Some businesses will be gone for good, some churches may close, and we will not easily be able to shake the caution and germaphobia that we have internalized.
This is also a large-scale event. The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting virtually everyone, everywhere, although minorities and the working poor are being disproportionately affected. What we are experiencing, we are experiencing in a very public way.
We were already grieving together this loss of our pre-pandemic world when we were reminded anew of the grief and pain of our communities of color. Although the death of George Floyd seems to have been the final and awful catalyst for the protests we’re seeing, the grief is rooted in relentless neglect and oppression.
In other words, we as a society are dealing with a lot of grief and loss right now. Woe to us, the church, if we don’t recognize and live into our crucial and unique role in this situation. In particular, I see two important but largely neglected roles for the church: public lament and grief shepherding. These two things are not identical but definitely related.
Churches are very familiar with grief, and our sacred texts have the language for lament. But do we recognize how needed that is right now? People are getting pummeled mentally and spiritually. Our world needs the language of public lament and needs to be shepherded through this wide-ranging and public grief. Unfortunately, the grief and lament aspect of this is easy to miss, even for the church.
We sometimes forget that grief and loss extend beyond the experience of the death of a loved one. Although this may be the most acute experience of grief, it has many other manifestations. Many different kinds of life changes can produce a grief response. It even happens when hopes are dashed; when what we envisioned our life would be turns out not to be so.
We as a society are dealing with a lot of grief and loss right now. Woe to us, the church, if we don’t recognize and live into our crucial and unique role in this situation. In particular, I see two important but largely neglected roles for the church: public lament and grief shepherding.
Although the so-called “stages of grief” have gained some general familiarity, we all seem to struggle to identify their manifestations as grief. Thanks to the work of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book “On Death and Dying,” and others’ expansions on it since, we understand that grief’s expressions go far beyond sadness and include things like denial, anger, and bargaining. Nevertheless, it remains difficult for many of us to connect the dots, especially when it comes to something widespread and long-lasting. But is it not helpful, even necessary, to view some of the more problematic responses to COVID-19 or racism as grief, and address it as such? Looting and destruction, harmful though it is, boils down to grief (anger). The spreading of conspiracy theories or downplaying the severity of COVID-19, harmful though it is, boils down to grief (denial).
The collective and public anger, denial, and depression we are experiencing is normal and valid, but some of its expressions have been unhealthy. This is where the church is desperately needed. The public needs us to shepherd our communities through this grief, which involves both recognizing what it is as well as teaching and modeling healthy expression. We are more used to doing this on a smaller scale and in more private settings, but it is time for a wider view. Our society is fractured to a critical degree, and the church must do more than simply join in the chorus of loud voices on one side or the other of a divide. Jesus called himself the good shepherd and said that his sheep know and come to his voice. What would it look like for the church to be a part of a ministry of “naming and claiming” our collective fears and grief in such a way that people turn and say, “I know that voice. I hear my own grief”?
An important piece of the teaching and modeling of healthy expression is that of public lament. Predominantly black communities of faith are especially adept at this; white believers still have much to learn. The Judeo-Christian scriptures, particularly the Hebrew Bible, are a rich repository of the language of public lament. Within the pages of the psalms, for example, lament occupies roughly the same amount of page space as other expressions like thanksgiving and praise, but it is disproportionately neglected in the worship life of the church. It is time to put these texts and traditions to work. In the ancient Near East, the time of mourning was a very public (and loud) affair. In some settings, professional mourners were hired to wail and chant for the deceased. Although such practices may strike modern sensibilities as bizarre, they tap into something real: the need for grief to be heard and shared.
Public lament is one of the best tools we have for saying together, “This is awful.” Naming, claiming, and giving voice to pain is a gift we give to each other that legitimizes the experience of suffering and imparts the healing balm of solidarity. On the cross, at the height of his own suffering, Jesus recited the first verse of a psalm of lament (Matt. 27:46). Soong-Chan Rah, in his book “Prophetic Lament,” argues that the American story is incomplete without lament. Lament is the tool for calling attention to injustice and the experience of marginalized peoples. Rah writes, “The story of suffering is often swept under the rug in order not to create discomfort or bad feelings. Lament is denied because the dead body in front of us is being denied.”[i] We are already seeing signs of efforts to hide the levels of suffering and death in this COVID-19 pandemic, or the all-too-familiar pattern of smearing and blaming black victims of violence. This is another form of denial. In fact, as Julio Vincent Gambuto powerfully argues, the coming months and years may bring an “all-out blitz to make you believe you never saw” the utter failure of leadership and systems that we are now witnessing.
Love and justice demand that we do something that is very difficult but very necessary: bring the suffering and death front and center. If we don’t hear it, amplify it, and learn from it, then so many have walked through the fire in vain. The dead cannot just be a number, which is why I was encouraged to see the National Council of Churches organize an ecumenical memorial service for lives lost to COVID-19, as well as public chants of “say their names” referring to people of color fallen victim to violence.
There is a gaping hole in our public experience that is screaming for the church to fill it. May we show up.
The Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Del.