Healing and Wholeness
May 30, 2021 | Sarah Stewart
It might not surprise you to learn that the overlap between military service and the liberal ministry is small. However, there are Unitarian Universalist ministers who have served in the armed forces, and a few who serve as military chaplains. At this time of year, they speak up online to remind the rest of us about the difference between Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. Veteran’s Day honors all who serve, and is the American version of Armistice Day, celebrating the peace at the end of the Great War. Memorial Day honors those who lost their lives in service to their country. I also think of those who lost their lives in service to their communities and to the causes of peace: police officers, firefighters, and peace activists who died serving, protecting and honoring their communities. This year, I also bring to mind those we lost to COVID, especially those who were health care workers or front line workers, who did not have the option to quarantine or work from home. On Memorial Day, we remember service and we pray for peace. This Memorial Day, we remember those we lost to the epidemic and pray for health and equity for all.
In 1978, Susan Sontag wrote a now-famous essay on “Illness as Metaphor.” She herself was undergoing treatment for cancer at the time, and she was disgusted by the use of military metaphors for cancer, or indeed by using any metaphor that did not focus on treatment of cancer as a medical condition. Later, writing further about the metaphors around AIDS in the 1980s, she reflected, “…the very reputation of [cancer] added to the suffering of those who have it.” She hoped to calm cancer patients and remind them that they were not “under attack” from “invading” cancer cells, as military metaphor would have it; nor were they suffering from “overcrowding” of cells or “replacement” by undesirables (to use political metaphors. Sontag wrote that the metaphors themselves were dangerous, because they “make people irrationally fearful of effective measures such as chemotherapy, and foster credence in thoroughly useless remedies such as diets and psychotherapy (102).” Psychotheraphy might be good for mental health but it does not treat cancer. Sontag’s view, based on her own experience of having cancer and of knowing people who died of AIDS, was that how we talk about illness matters. Because we often don’t understand it, we are naturally drawn to metaphor; but we are better served simply by improving our understanding, which comes through science much more than through art.
As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in this country—even as it continues to rage around the world—we have the opportunity to stop and consider what we will remember and pass on of our understanding of this disease. Sontag hoped for a thoroughly rational approach to treating cancer; but after all, she wrote a compelling and even lyrical pair of essays about cancer, tuberculosis and AIDS, and her words do help us understand those pandemics and the pandemic today. I began to wonder: how did our forebears at First Unitarian Church understand the influenza epidemic of 1918? What words and memories had they left behind that might help us now?
Worcester did not have a strong or swift response to the flu pandemic of 1918. The Massachusetts outbreak had begun among Navy sailors stationed in Boston at the end of August, 1918. By mid-September, 10% of the sailors stationed in Boston were ill. The Navy made attempts to keep its healthy sailors healthy, by moving them inland, and stopped ship movements to keep the illness from spreading. However, influenza was here: eventually it spread throughout the commonwealth and the country.
I read all this in an essay by Worcester native Charlie Pierce. He details how slow Worcester was to respond to the pandemic. Worcester’s Health Officer was disinclined to force closures or reporting of flu. There were no tests for viruses or antibodies in the 19-teens, so the only way to know if someone might have the flu was to observe their symptoms. Many communities required the “communication” of these cases—that’s where we get the phrase “communicable disease,” meaning a disease serious enough to be communicated to authorities. But Worcester didn’t do that until Acting Governor Calvin Coolidge required it. At the end of September, 1918, Coolidge first requested and then insisted the Worcester close schools, theaters and public gatherings. Churches were requested but not forced to close.
Here is where our own history comes in. I can’t find any evidence that the First Unitarian Church closed during the 1918 pandemic, or the subsequent waves in 1919. I looked at our church calendars for that era, published monthly. There’s the services, with the music that would be sung by the choir; there’s the notice of Christmas events in December of 1918 and the church fair in the spring of 1919; there’s the list of the children in the Sunday school, and the list of those in the armed services; there’s the call (begun in 1914) for volunteers to join the Red Cross in Worcester to support the war effort. You can tell, looking at those calendars, that the nation was at war. In fact, First Unitarian Church had distinguished itself from the Church of the Unity because First U supported the war effort. So did the lay leaders of the Church of the Unity; but their minister, the Rev. Charles Beals, was a committed socialist and pacifist. When an American flag was erected in the chancel of his church in 1917 against his wishes, he resigned his ministry. The Church of the Unity entered a period of financial difficulty and disorganization that led to its closure and merger with First Unitarian Church in 1919.
First Unitarian Church experienced its own disorganization at the time. The Rev. Edwin Slocombe had been installed in 1912. He began what his wife later called “practically a revolution”: encouraging the church to adopt articles of government, pay its bills on time, organize an elected governing board that met at least once a quarter, and pay attention to the orderly running of the Sunday school. He was successful in setting up the lay leadership structure we more or less have now. He also worked himself into a nervous breakdown by the end of 1918. He was sick with chronic bronchitis and exhaustion and out of the pulpit for much of that year. He resigned in January 1919. So at the time of the influenza pandemic, First Unitarian Church did not have strong leadership: no minister able to preach or be present to the day-to-day running of the church, and a newly created Moderator still struggling for legitimacy against the “way we have always done things.” The Church of the Unity and the South Unitarian Memorial Church, planted by First U a generation earlier, were both struggling and closed in 1919. There was not a lot of strong Unitarian leadership in Worcester during the pandemic.
During our own COVID pandemic, we have seen the value of trusted leadership in helping organizations, states and nations make it through with as little illness and death as possible. Simple things like truthfulness and transparency make a big difference. Yet we have also repeated some of the mistakes of the 1918 flu pandemic, including mistakes rooted in racism and economic inequality.
A historian, Patricia Fanning, has written an entire book about the response of the town of Norwood, Massachusetts to the 1918 pandemic. Norwood, like many Massachusetts towns and cities—like Worcester—had large immigrant communities, especially from Ireland and Lithuania. These communities tended to live in more crowded and less sanitary conditions, and so they were more likely to become sick and die of the flu. The virus was transmitted more easily through crowded neighborhoods, and these residents were less likely to be able to stay home or keep away from others. These conditions were entirely due to poverty—but the established, richer residents blamed culture, lack of “Americanization,” and the poor hygiene of undesirable peoples. In these cases all these groups had light skin, but this is not much different from the way racism works today. You have probably all heard that people of color in America have been especially at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. That is because Latino/a, Black and indigenous people are more likely than White Americans to live in crowded conditions and to work in public-facing, essential jobs. There is no biological difference between people of different cultures or backgrounds when it comes to COVID. But some people were more at risk: those who could not work from home, who could not quarantine if they were exposed, and whose homes did not have space to isolate from family members. Susan Sontag wrote that the upper classes are always willing to blame illness on the poor. But in fact, we should blame the spread of illness on poverty itself, and seek to alleviate the condition wherever we can.
It is striking to me how little we remember the 1918 influenza pandemic at all. It killed more people worldwide than the Great War, yet the images and horrors of World War I are much more present in our collective imagination. Apparently the reason the northeast has so many buildings with overheated steam radiators was so that interior spaces could be heated and the windows left open to promote air circulation. It was a technological advance after the flu pandemic, to promote healthy spaces. My sons’ elementary school here in Worcester was built in 1896, and so has withstood both pandemics, and I can say with confidence that no one remembered that the overwhelmingly powerful radiators were a public health measure, or thought to use them in that way today. Our society did not respond to this pandemic by remembering the flu or polio epidemics and saying, oh yes, we remember how to beat this, we got through it before so we’ll get through it again now. Instead, collectively, and more so in places without trusted leadership, communities dug in their heels, refused common-sense remedies, and verged on panic. In places like Brazil and India, this is still happening, with tragic consequences.
When we come through trauma—and all of us, especially those who have lost loved ones, or been separated at times of bereavement, or worked in essential jobs, have experienced trauma over the last 14 months—when we come through trauma, there are steps we can follow to heal and move on. Describing what happened to us is one of those steps. It has the added advantage that it will help preserve our memories, with or without metaphor, for future generations. We do not have to forget this pandemic the way we forgot the 1918 flu pandemic. Our women’s group, the UU Sisterhood, is spearheading an effort to collect your written memories, artworks, poetry and reminiscences of the pandemic, and we will publish and display them in the fall. I encourage you to do this. It’s for everyone, whether you think of yourself as a writer or an artist or not—a record and representation of our experience of COVID-19 as a church.
My own memories of this year plus include the eerie emptiness of the streets last March and April during the lock-down. I remember vividly the worry and sorrow over closing church, missing you, wanting to know that everyone was safe and knowing that some were not. I remember the emptiness that opened up in our family’s life when the schools closed. I also remember the comfort of the natural world, seen on daily walks, that continued to march toward spring despite everything. I also remember the incredible pace of scientific discovery over the past year, on everything from who was most at risk from COVID, to effective treatments for serious illness, to the remarkably effective vaccines that are now available. To avoid metaphor, I’d like to remember and record that our scientific processes, systems and people can do amazing work with proper investment and support.
I’d also like to avoid some of the pitfalls of the past. The 1920s were not a kind time for liberal churches in America, and in the decades following liberalism worldwide came under attack. Hundreds of Universalist churches across America closed their doors in the 1920s. I used to drive past their former buildings throughout rural New Hampshire, one in every town, now turned into churches of other faiths or town buildings. The Church of the Unity and the South Memorial Unitarian Church were already struggling when the pandemic hit. Unitarianism nationwide was split apart over reactions to the Great War in Europe. Neither the Church of the Unity nor South Memorial survived into the 1920s. First Unitarian Church did—perhaps in part because the members and money from those other congregations flowed back into our operations—but I wince when I think that, lacking strong ministerial or lay leadership, we did nothing to limit our gatherings during the pandemic. The past has a lesson: moments of crisis represent opportunities to thrive and existential risks for religious organizations.
Our church has come through this pandemic with more to be proud of than we had in 1919. We were able to move our operations online, a possibility our forebears could not have dreamed of. Now that we can live-stream our worship services, we will continue to do so, reaching audiences far beyond those who can come inside our sanctuary. You all have been amazing, staying in touch with each other, deepening the connections in small groups, gathering outdoors, and staying committed to justice and caring even when it’s not easy. Next year we’ll focus on reconnecting to one another and to the covenant of our church, and simply be together again after more than a year of disruption. We may have some rough edges to work out, but with love and spirit as our guides, and worship and service as our aim, I know our church can continue to live its mission in the world. In 100 years, may our memories of this time be memories of how this pandemic inspired us, and our community, to move the world toward justice, fairness and healing. Amen.