Two days ago, President Trump declared churches and other houses of worship as “essential” and called on governors nationwide to let them reopen this weekend. “In America, we need more prayer, not less,” he stated. United Methodist Bishops immediately voiced concerns following Trump’s announcement. The official response of the NY Annual Conference is that “the directive was given with no guidance for safety precautions, sanitation guidelines or sensitivity,” especially important for vulnerable populations. Of course, I don’t think Trump made such an announcement out of true concern for the church. I would just say that it is regrettable how the coronavirus pandemic has given more leeway to such political drama, not to say comedy.
Since the outbreak of novel coronavirus, the president’s irresponsible assertions have sown unsettling confusion and people have suffered from it. Over the past couple months, I was saddened to see the president so hung up on strengthening his political position when the time demands to focus on saving lives. He publicly backed malaria drug, and we saw prescriptions surge despite dangers and lack of evidence for its efficacy. We heard the story of a man who lost his life after taking the unproved therapy touted by the president. The underlying issue I see is the anxiety that drives people to buy into his misleading statements. He derided the notion that masks should be worn as a safety precaution for others, and we see people who take after his example and eschew wearing a face mask. They see masks as a marker delimiting their personal freedom and protest shouting Patrick Henry’s stirring words: “Give me liberty or give me death.” Demanding to end the lockdown, protesters even brandished assault rifles at the state capital building of Michigan. What amazes me, as always, is how hundreds of gun-carrying White protesters can get away calling themselves as the “American Patriot Rally.” The scene would have been different and suppressed with much greater enforcement if the protesters were people of color.
Last week I came across the news about some Baptist pastor in Alabama who put up a sign reading ‘Black Folks Stay out of White Churches.’ He apparently did so to fight gentrification, but the deeper problem is how the coronavirus pandemic has become a tool to further shape the racial divide in this country and vice versa. And what further feeds and encourages the divide is the attitude and remarks coming from Trump himself. As the leader of this nation, the president bears the responsibility to protect lives, but already near 100,000 people have passed away from the virus in this country. It’s a grievous reality, and yet Trump maintains his unwavering support base with the help of conservative, evangelical White Christianity. It is said that about 70% of Trump supporters who advocate him as God-anointed also profess evangelical faith. How could the term ‘conservative’ and ‘evangelical’ be distorted as such? As strange as it may sound, this is our current situation.
We are taking the necessary steps for reopening. We will go hand in hand with all other United Methodist Churches within the New York Annual Conference, carefully following the detailed guidance from Bishop Bickerton’s office. The bishop himself is consulting closely with the governor’s office. Our church will be opening when advance preparation is complete and certification is granted, all in consultation with the bishop’s office. Reopening will be possible by taking all precautionary measures, from building-wide disinfections to personal masks, equipped with anti-bacterial sanitizers and temperature checks. Who would have imagined that we will have go through temperature screening before entering the house of worship? The reopening process will require our patience and continued vigilance. But these preparations will help us overcome this time of trouble with greater endurance, and endurance will forge in us character and hope for whatever God will do next. I pray that we will come out of this season with stronger faith, tested and wholly renewed.
I am grateful for many friends who have been supporting us with their prayers. A few days ago, a friend in Korea sent me a check enclosed with a letter: “You are in our thoughts and prayers. It’s a small amount considering the love we received from you. Please accept them.” It was a considerable amount and sacrifice on his part. At first I made up my mind to return his gifts but I couldn’t. I remembered the pain he himself had to endure in life, and what it means for him to send this all the way to New York. I could feel his heart and his empathy. It touched my heart.
We sent face masks to retired pastors. One pastor sent offerings, also enclosed with a letter: “Rev. Kim, difficult times. Hang in there. I’m praying for you.” As a survivor of the Korean War, his letter shared how people used to pray and sing hymns without opening their lips during wartime. And he passed the blessing of assurance that God is with us, and that churches will grow while trusting God in turbulent times.
It was raining quite a bit yesterday, but the rain couldn’t prevent many people from lining up to receive the pre-packaged pantry bags. We start at 11AM on Saturdays, and already by 10AM the waiting line was forming outside our church fences. In the midst of these acts of sharing, one of our church members brought all the cash from his home and asked me to use it for our neighbors in need. I told him, “I suggested to our leaders that we should wait before we start food pantry program for safety reasons, but they are all so eager to help out!” He laughed and responded, “They got an upper hand in this!” The beauty of sharing stands out, all the more when times are difficult. I thank all FUMC in Flushing members for adding beauty to the world.