Smile Politely

What comes next: The COVID in-between

The pandemic forced many of us to be more reliant on technology, while it also became clear that technology does not solve all of our problems. As we emerge into this in-between time where more people are vaccinated, but we aren’t yet cleared to gather in large groups, I wanted to spend time reflecting on where we’ve been and where we’re headed. While it seemed like “going online” was essential for organizations, businesses, and individuals, what were the unexpected results of how we interacted with our communities here in C-U? How will our behavior change in the future as a result of all that has happened this past year?

Reverend Florence Caplow is the lead minister for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Urbana-Champaign (UUCUC). Their building closed March 15, 2020. Caplow talks about the power of community, and how the pandemic has shined a light on ways we can show up for one another. One example is that the UUCUC started a parent support group. As Caplow points out, it was difficult being a parent before the pandemic, but the past year highlighted parents’ struggles. The support group plans to continue. Caplow states: “We are are all more aware now of how interconnected we are and how much we need each other.”

At Christmas, the church started a Utility Fund which has raised close to $20,000 to pay local people’s bills so that they have working utilities, including internet so that children can connect with school. One way the fund has been used is by helping people who are homeless pay outstanding utility bills in order to qualify for housing.

UUCUC also created a heart memorial in front of their building for people who have died in Champaign County. Families can reach out to the church to have the names of their loved ones written on the hearts. There is another heart memorial in the back of the church for friends and family of church members who died from COVID but aren’t local. To learn more, you can watch a documentary about the memorial. The hope is that the hearts will continue and move to other locations within the community so more people can see them.

Jennifer Misuzu Gunji-Ballsrud is the Director of Japan House at the University of Illinois. She reflects on a surprising change brought about by the pandemic: “It actually brought the team closer together. We meet regularly three times a week via Zoom and even though it is online, these regular meetings have tied us closer together and we have developed a deeper trust and respect for one another for being even scrappier than before to do what we can to extend Japan House’s mission.”

Even as many felt isolated, there were situations that forced folks to look directly at people and see them in a new way even if they had previously physically seen them in their daily lives. This includes many of our essential workers, and also those who we engage with over a screen. I recently moved from Boston to the C-U area and I am still shocked that I have stayed in contact with many people in Boston. These were friendships I wanted to continue but feared that distance and schedules would drive us apart. Maybe that would have been true if not for the pandemic.

While there are activities that we really want to or must do in person, we may be more discerning about what those activities are while at the same time valuing time away from our screens. Elena Reifsteck, a sophomore at Centennial High School, talks about her recent experience at a Target: “The store was packed with people, and I found myself being claustrophobic and very uncomfortable because so many people were around me. Similarly, I notice when I’m watching TV or movies, I always am thinking in my head about why they aren’t wearing masks or standing farther apart.” This physical experience of fear likely won’t leave us soon. How will this change our interactions with our communities? How will this change what activities stay mostly online and those pursuits that we determine really need to be in-person?

Japan House expanded their online programming and connected with international supporters and friends. Gunji-Ballsrud states, “We are considering keeping all of our programming that we established! It has been so successful and well-received. We may pare it down to once a month, but the fact that we are able to engage our international audiences in participating in our offerings inspirited us to continue online programming in the future.”

Caplow echoes a similar sentiment. UUCUC became more accessible to people. Previously, to be involved meant walking through the church doors and sitting in a sanctuary. These are often not realistic expectations for people who have young children or those who are disabled. Caplow says that the church is committed to continue livestreaming and broadcasting their services on WRFU as well as making committee and governance meetings virtual so that people do not have to be in the building to be involved. In the past year, UUCUC gained two church members who live outside of Illinois.

The transition to seeing people again after a year of being in our homes and mostly just interacting with people over screens will likely take some getting used to.

Reifsteck recently started attending school in person again. She thinks it will be a hard transition, even if going to school is a welcome experience. “I feel like the experience is going to be much different now that I am out of my room, a comfortable space, and back onto a large, and unfamiliar school. Although I never liked working from home, I felt there was constantly distractions keeping me from doing my best work,” Reifsteck says.

We are in a tricky time. We aren’t done yet. Caplow states, “How do we stay safe, we aren’t out of it yet, and honor and celebrate that we have possibilities that we didn’t have before, and remember what we’ve learned?” Even as people have learned a lot about themselves and their communities, we may have to continually remind ourselves of those lessons. We may need to create regular habits and reminders so that we don’t forget.

Caplow states: “We can do things that we could never have imagined that we could do. Who imagined that we could spend a year trapped in our houses in order to keep others safe because that’s the main reason people did it. So why can’t we solve the climate crisis and the homelessness crisis?”

Top photo by Jaclyn Jones.

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