In May, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a warning about an epidemic, not of a new strain of COVID or some other infectious disease, but of loneliness. You may not have read the bulletin from the Department of Health and Human Services, but you might have noticed an uptick this summer in articles in popular media on the topic. NPR, The Atlantic, USA Today, The Smithsonian, CNNtoday, and countless other outlets carried the headline that loneliness is “as deadly as smoking” and that this problem, which pre-existed COVID isolation protocols, continues to plague us.
You can also google “decline of church attendance” and find those same news outlets carrying dire headlines about the end of the mainline church as we know it. This is not a coincidence. Though the reasons for these two phenomena are complex and distinct, there is a strong overlapping Venn diagram where a lot of people sit⏤disconnected and disaffiliated.
Now I realize that if you are reading this, a blog from a parish priest for goodness sake, you may not be all that disconnected or disaffiliated, but maybe you do understand the drift: the ease with which you and I miss the neighborhood association meeting because it feels tedious, or the comfort of pajamas and a second cup of tea on the one morning of the week when attendance isn’t taken (because they *do* take attendance at soccer on Saturdays). Those of us who sit in offices at 102 N. 2nd think about all these things a lot. And there’s a strong temptation to program our way forward. I happen to think that we offer really lovely and compelling conversations and classes, but I also get that I’m impossibly biased.
What I also understand is that being in community, while desirable to combat loneliness, is often inconvenient and uncomfortable. Being near people means that I will smell them, whether that’s too much perfume or maybe urine. People will ask things of us: to volunteer, to be on a committee, to listen. And people tell long stories. We’ll have to deal with parking. But here’s the thing: we’ll also meet someone who is a lot older than us or a lot younger who offers a totally different perspective. We’ll hear a story that doesn’t make any sense; we’ll hear a story that makes everything make sense. Someone will sit near us without saying a word while we cry. While everyone around us is singing, a new idea will spark seemingly from nowhere. I might even figure something out that’s been troubling me for a long time.
That’s the anecdotal antidote to loneliness⏤showing up and being near people who are also showing up. What makes it church, and not just a neighborhood association meeting, is that we’re trying to open our small hearts not just to make room for each other but also to make room for Love. We’re pushing the boundaries of our average intelligence to grasp the wisdom and holiness of God. We gather to hear the stories of our neighbors and also to hear some ancient stories about being Good Neighbors. We keep coming to church because we have a sneaking suspicion that there’s more to all of this than errands and bills, and we’re willing to put up with the awkwardness of saying that we’re not sure, but maybe it’s like an inconvenient community of saints, smelly and marvelous, saying their prayers together.