Last week I met a friend for lunch. It was a perfectly pre-pandemic “normal” activity for the two of us. We agreed to meet at a mutually favorite spot, with great Mediterranean fare (Oooh, I love falafel!) and no table service, so you can sit for a good long time and not deprive a server of their tips! It felt so good to anticipate our friendship, nourished over favorite foods, face-to-face! Imagine my surprise when I pulled up in front of the restaurant, and I began to feel uneasy. Do I need a mask? Is there signage? Should we try and snag one of these outdoor tables? What would be most comfortable for my friend? How will this work ordering food? There are kind of a lot of people going in!
As I waited for her to arrive, I remembered Priya Parker’s work on re-entry and the first bit of wisdom she shared: acknowledge the moment. We are experiencing a lot of “first-in-a-long-time” gatherings. For some of us, we are also deliberately having “first-time” gatherings as we fulfill promises we made to ourselves to connect in new ways when the pandemic wanes. Acknowledge the moment. So I sat with my uneasiness, and then gave myself permission to choose to enter this moment a little uncomfortable. When my friend arrived, I had already snagged an outdoor table (she was grateful), determined I’d wear a mask to go in and get my food, and took a couple of deep breaths. All of us coming for yummy Mediterranean food were experiencing the dis-ease of re-entry. And we said so as we smiled at one another, held doors, commented on food and laughed…masked, or not…staying to eat or picking up to go food…alone or with others. We were sharing “a moment” together, a re-entry moment.
Acknowledge the moment. That’s Priya’s first advice. The second, “center the physical space.” What does she mean? She says it this way, “Be it the first moment back in the office, entering a theater, or heading back to school, give people time to just walk through all parts of the building again. On Zoom after Zoom, we haven’t had doorways or carpets, conference tables or shared kitchens. Don’t underestimate the sheer power of allowing people to come and walk through a space together again for the first time.” [i] I realized as I read this how much I missed that opportunity when I first returned to my parish for Mass. I had not walked through the doors in 10 months. Not once. And when I did, I was not given any chance to re-acquaint myself with the physical space. And then, when I went in, it was not at all the same. Pews closed off. Signs not to touch the font. 6-foot markers on the floor. And we had to sit where there was physically distanced space…not in the space we prefer. I left feeling as if my “first time back” was somehow not “right.” And for what it’s worth, it still isn’t. I’d love to be able to just walk around in the space, feel it, think about what it means to me, the memories there…and to cross doorways, bow before the altar, genuflect in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel…all things I’ve not done for a very long time. I need to re-enter the space.
Acknowledge the moment. Center the space. Next, Priya offers that re-entry is aided if the hosts of the gathering “capture the fresh eyes.” Said another way, what if the host(s) of the gathering make space, time, and some ritual for folks to center themselves in the space and capture what’s new and different for them? So, for example, what if upon entering the church for the first time in months, (or even now), returners were given these instructions: Go to your favorite place. Sit down, remember all those who sit near you. Pray for them. Then get up, go to the holy water font/stoup, bless yourself and remember how you’ve missed the ritual, the feel of the water, the signal that you have entered a different place. Walk toward the altar/sanctuary, stop and bow deeply. What’s it feel like to re-claim the postures and gestures of the Mass after all this time? What’s different about being right here, near the altar? This capturing of the fresh eyes of re-entry can be as short or as long as you desire. But the effect is to anchor the people, in the place, and to highlight what’s been missed, what’s beautiful, what feels weird after not having done it. This activity is best completed with some conversation about individual experience so that this journey “back” is a shared journey of uncomfortable joy.
Priya’s final two suggestions are to carve out time for reflection, and to go slowly, allowing for unexpected emotion and awkwardness. I’ve been reflecting on my re-entry into the church for Mass since March, when I first re-entered the building. It still doesn’t feel “normal” for all kinds of reasons: external and internal. And this past Sunday, I found myself irritated (an unexpected emotion for me associated with celebrating the Eucharist), that I still cannot sit where I prefer, I am still expected to wear a mask, that we are not unified in our agreement about masks so I was irritatingly wearing mine while my husband (and several others were not), and…and…and…Re-entry is not all hearts and flowers. It’s not all wonderful. It’s awkward, and uncomfortable, and surprisingly emotional. To which Priya Parker would say, “Of course. Of course it is! And we are the most loving toward one another when hosts of re-entry gatherings are mindful of this.”
So how can pastoral ministers use these insights to accompany those who are re-entering? To be sensitive to those who may be coming for the first time, or the first time in 5 or more years, and to tenderly welcome one another into this stage of the pandemic journey. Re-entry on a global scale has not been done in our lifetimes. There’s really no “way” to do it right. Everything we do will be an attempt, an experiment. All that said, I believe we still love one another well when we take the time to attend to these dynamics. After all…that’s the real point of re-gathering right? To be able to love one another well and then bring that love to a world reeling from so much grief.
Next week, I’ll meander around with Priya’s suggestions about gathering virtually. Why? Because so many of us have discovered how useful this kind of gathering is; because it is foreseeable that we might have to return to some semblance of lockdown again in the future; and because hybrid meetings, and some completely virtual meetings will be the norm moving forward. It will serve our communities well if, after forced Zooms, we take the time to improve our intentional virtual meetings so that the gatherings blend the tech with the human touch. Until then, start to pay attention to these dynamics of re-entry. Help those you serve to cross the threshold into this new world, knowing that others are feeling just as awkward, emotional and curious as you are.