Smile Politely

When Faith Speaks in the age of coronavirus: Pastor Michael Crosby and Kelly Skinner

This week, we check back in with Michael Crosby, pastor of First Mennonite Church of Champaign-Urbana and Kelly Skinner, Director, Soul Care Urban Retreat Center. Each shared how they are managing personal lives, spiritual support, and community engagement in the age of the coronavirus.

A headshot of a man with dark hair, glasses, and a beard. He is standing in front of a bookshelf filled with books. Photo by Addison McClure.Smile Politely: How are you doing?

Pastor Michael Crosby: If there’s one thing that has changed for me personally, it’s trying to juggle two adult work schedules and two young children’s play and learning schedules in one small house! Furthermore, waiting is not something that comes naturally to most of us. Life right now feels like a strange kind of vigil. Set up shop at home and…wait. This work of waiting is always exhausting; and it is always holy. Because: Waiting time is thin time, when the space between earth and heaven, between human and divine shrinks to nearly nothing. The barriers fall away. The truth of the limits of our power, our mortality, is laid bare.

Thin time is profound because we can feel how interconnected everything is. A map of the world shows the spread of a virus around the globe, millions of lines woven here and densely packed there. We are living through a thin time. Thin time is unsettling, disquieting, unnerving.

Kelly Skinner: It has been a sobering time and like many, it has been a time for me to reevaluate, adjust, and find new ways of living each day. I have so many scattered thoughts and the last two weeks have been a time for me to try to come to grips with things, verbally process what is going on and what I’m feeling, and to lean into the practices that I share with my community. I have had to remind myself of things I have learned already and extend as much grace to myself as I typically have for others.

Let me start by saying I had to shut down Soul Care when the state asked all non-essential businesses to temporarily close. This was especially hard on me for two reasons. First, Soul Care was intentionally built to be an in-person experience and a personal community and I had decidedly turned away from providing virtual experiences.

Second, we have been on an upswing since the grand opening in January, and April was looking to be the most full and successful month yet. So I took the closure of Soul Care pretty hard and went through an extended period of grief and mourning on top of all the other changes that were happening personally and in the world.

At the same time, our household welcomed in two college students who had their experiences cut short and my 20 year old stepson who is trying to figure out his life. Like many, having family situations change, and experiencing rapid upheaval and change in a very short timespan.

SP: Kelly, as an entrepreneur providing spiritual support services, how has social distancing and sheltering in place changed your engagement with clients and partners?

Skinner: After a few weeks, I think I’m ready to start thinking about the changes that I will need to make for the Soul Care community. A few things are starting to come together. I’m working on putting together a program with a vibe similar to The View with two other women C-U business-owners tentatively called Inspiracy Theory. We want to have conversations around our personal experiences during this time and weave in suggestions for how we are coping and share advice and resources. Each of us has a different life situation, so we hope that we can help people see others like them and find some acceptance and comfort in listening to our conversations.

I’m also working with our partners to see what we can move to online offerings. I am hoping to host personal interviews with each of the partners so they can share a little of their expertise and perspective and then open up opportunities for online workshops or virtual one-on-one meetings. And I have been in touch with workshop leaders to see about offering their program online.

Additionally, I’m trying to get my website live so that I can more easily offer memberships, gift certificates, and other ways to contribute to the future of Soul Care.

SP: What is this pandemic teaching you about faith and your faith community?

Crosby: We have trusted our welfare to the false gods of the market, for too long believing that a certain amount of collateral damage is worth our prosperity. We have received our comfort through the devastations of war and the pillage of the poor and the planet.
[Lord, have mercy.]
We have mistaken security for peace,
and confused incarceration with justice.
We have had too much faith in ourselves, and not enough faith in our neighbor.
Not enough faith in the God who, at the last word, chooses to be seen lifted up not on a throne but a cross; God who, in the final analysis, wants to be known as your neighbor…

Skinner: There are a few things that are getting me through this time that I want to pass on to others.

Connecting with my breath, and in a bigger sense the spirit of the Divine who inhabits my breath, has been critical for me. Many times of the day, I trigger myself to take a deep, present, fully-aware breath in and out. Sometimes that helps me fully “feel my feelings” and embrace whatever I’m feeling at the time. Sometimes it helps me get out of my head and into my body. Sometimes it just helps me center into the present moment. I’ve been using Breath Prayer with this too as a way to bring God into that experience.

Another practice is to intentionally connect with other people. I have reached out to others in the Soul Care community through writing notes, having calls, shooting a quick email, or having a Zoom meeting. When I ask how they are doing and how I can support them, it helps me too. And it helps stoke the passion I have for ordinary things and the simple act of showing up for someone.

Finally, I keep returning to my gratitude practice. I weave gratitude into my life these days more than ever. I’m grateful for sleeping in my bed and waking up to start each new day. I’m grateful to have food and shelter. I’m grateful for the feel of the sun on my face and the grass under my toes. I’m grateful for the distractions the internet provides. I’m grateful I can cry freely and be scared and angry and anxious and unsure and still carry on.

SP:  What advice would you give to those in our community struggling with questions of faith in this moment?

Crosby: Most of us are called to be present for our neighbors by keeping our distance. We are all sheltered in place during a thin time, uncertain about what comes next. There is grief about what is lost and dying. There is fear about how long it will take. Our work is to wait, to sit vigil. To show up for each other precisely in our absence.

What if this time of waiting is our incubation period?
What if our homes are not prisons of quarantine but prisms of light that show a new commitment to being present with and for our neighbors?

To paraphrase the Sikh activist Valerie Kaur:
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?
What if the story is not dead but still waiting to be born? What if ours is the story of one long labor? What if our shelter-in-place angst is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future? Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”
Now it is time to breathe. Soon it will be time to push.

AMEN. May it be so.

Skinner: I saw a quiz online that asked “What is God’s role in the coronavirus outbreak?” Then it gave options that included: unaware, aware but unwilling or unable to stop it, and deliberately caused it.

To me, none of these are relevant answers. In my perspective, the goal of the Divine is to move together with creation through process and change towards wholeness. During this time (and all times really), there are invitations and opportunities for us as individuals and humanity to make the choice to move towards wholeness and love.

That is constantly what is happening, no matter what situations we are presented with. Now is not the time to get hung up on the structure part of our faith or parts that cause us fear, guilt, or shame, or judging others, but to lean in to the love and wonder that moves through our faith and open our eyes to where we are invited to wholeness.

It will look different for each of us, but that invitation is being offered anew every single moment of this situation. Where will you find the love? Where will you find the wholeness?

Top photo by Nicole Anderson-Cobb. Photo of Pastor Michael Crosby by Addison McClure. 

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